Motivic Development, By Jonathan Dimond [Excerpted from "Bass Riyaz"]

Discussion in 'Lessons & Articles' started by TalkBass, Dec 8, 2005.

  1. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from "Bass Riyaz", a practice workbook for the bass guitar by bassist Jonathan Dimond. For more information on the book, visit

    This chapter serves as a reference for bassists who improvise or compose. I believe that this should apply to all bassists, and indeed should also be of interest to all musicians. Improvisation and composition are integral parts of total musicianship.

    It is my deep belief that satisfaction in improvisation and composition comes to the musician not only from the content of the story which is told, but also the clarity with which the ideas are communicated. That is, the process is as important as the content itself. It is my aim to use a language of expression which is both sophisticated and clear. I believe musicians should strive for optimal clarity in their expression regardless of the depth, type or complexity of the emotions felt. Furthermore, as each person is different, we should all strive to foster our unique personal styles which bear our characteristic "stamp".

    The Elements of Form

    Motivic development has primary importance in creating satisfying improvisations and compositions. In order to support this postulation, we need talk about form. Any creative work (be it music, architecture, or poetry) has a form or structure. This form is the product of three fundamental elements:
    1. Repetition
    2. Contrast
    3. Development

    The balance and interplay of these three elements create a form which we may find pleasing, boring, exciting, tiring, etc. It might even be totally unintelligible! It can be said that the first element, that of repetition, is relatively easy to induce into a form. It just requires saying the same thing over and over again. A uniformly coloured brick wall is an example of a building structure that repeats the same brick layout over and over. Similarly, the second element of contrast seems to occur easily, as it takes little thought to string together a host of unrelated words or concepts. The element of development, however, occupies most creative artists' focus and energy. It is with this element that a sense of journey or the passing of time can be really created and communicated to an audience. In development, an idea grows and takes on new aspects while referring to its starting point. Development contains within it both the elements of repetition (the familiar) and contrast (the new).

    Form is typically notated using capital letters to stand for each section. A section can be a grouping of pulses, motive, phrase, regular group of bars, chorus, or anything at all! Part of the challenge here is deciding what resolution is the most meaningful to examine the piece. It is possible that you need to look more micro- or macroscopically in order to find true meaning in the form or structure.

    Here are some examples of the formal elements represented by letters:
    Repetition: A A A
    Contrast: A B C D E
    Development: A A' A"

    Of course, most forms combine all three elements. Take a typical song form, for example: A A' B A"

    As an illustration of how a change in resolution of analysis can bring meaning to a form, take the following example, which is my analysis of the form of a tabla composition:

    A B A C D A B A E F A B A C D A

    Can you decrease the resolution to a form with only 8 letters? From this form can you further decrease the resolution to something with only 3 letters?!

    In classical music theory there are terms for different classic forms, such as binary (AB), ternary (ABA), rondo (ABACA), arch (ABCBA), etc. These forms are good to know as they appear in other styles too.

    What is a Motive?

    At the heart of motivic development is the motive - the "seed" idea which is first established and then referred back to. In musical terms, this idea is typically a gestural phrase with a particular rhythm and pitch contour or shape. It is important that the musician learns how to create motives which are just the right length and complexity: too long, and the idea is too mature to be developed further; too short, and the motive will not have enough character to inspire further thought. I suggest a good, typical motive is approximately 3 to 5 notes long.

    Apart from its length, you may ask what constitutes a good, memorable motive? Good question! To get a "feel" for what constitutes a good motive, I recommend that bassists listen to the more lyrical improvisers and songwriters, of which there are many. Start by listening to the piano solos of Bill Evans, the lyrics of Sting, the Chorales of J.S. Bach, the symphonies of the great Classical composers, the improvisations of Indian Classical musicians, the bass lines of Oscar Pettiford, and the guitar solos of Jim Hall. More sophisticated motives can often be heard in the lyrics of Björk and Joni Mitchell, and the solos of Eric Dolphy. There are many examples of great motives!

    Techniques for Developing Motives

    Once you have come up with a motive, it is your job to "tell a story" with it. We do this by subjecting the motive to various techniques of development, and using the other formal elements of repetition and contrast. The following techniques can serve as a starting-point for any musician trying to refine their melodic improvisation or composition. Musical examples are given at the end of this chapter. (For further reading consult Crook's excellent text How to Improvise, listed in the Bibliography.)

    1. Rhythmic displacement.

    The original motive is placed on a different beat or subdivision. The pitch material may remain intact, or different pitches may be substituted (though it is best to retain the same general contour). Displacement may be simple, such as the repositioning of a motive in 4/4 metre 2 beats later, or complex, such as the repositioning of the same motive one 16th-note subdivision earlier. See Exercises 8-1, 8-2 and 8-3.

    2. Rhythmic scaling.

    The original motive may be "scaled" up or down in size through the traditional techniques of augmentation (getting larger) or diminution (getting smaller). The value of the increase or decrease in size may be by some number of relevant subdivisions, or by an overall percentage. For example, the original motive has been augmented by one 8th-note subdivision in Exercise 8-4, and alternatively diminuted by 50% in Exercise 8-5. These alternative processes will always yield different results unless the motive uses only one uniform duration throughout.

    The other method of augmentation and diminution adds or subtracts duration to the motive in an imprecise manner - that is, not uniformly. In Exercise 8-6 the original motive is augmented by one 8th-note subdivision, but the first note is not effected.

    3. Melodic transformation.

    This is the generic technique for when a motive's pitches change but its rhythm remains intact. For easy recognition of the developmental process, it is best to retain the same general pitch contour. Some popular melodic transformation techniques include:

    a) Sequences: diatonic patterns whereby intervallic structure is retained but adjusted slightly where necessary to suit the prevailing harmony. See Exercise 8-7.

    b) Transposition: patterns whereby intervallic structure is copied exactly to a new key. If not related to the prevailing chords, this creates an "outside" development of the original motive. Exercise 8-8's first transposition is "inside" but the second transposition creates some tension through the introduction of non-harmonic notes, which are ultimately resolved in bar 4 with the leading to a harmonic note.

    c) Extension: the original motive is joined to new material, connecting at the start or end. Exercise 8-9 features extension from the start (though this needn't displace the original motive, as the new material can be a pickup). Exercise 8-10 extends from the end.

    d) Segmentation: a fragment or recognizable portion of the motive is repeated, possibly with slight pitch changes, though retaining the original melodic contour. See Exercise 8-11.


    Practice Plan: Motivic Development

    * One of the most common temptations for a bass player (or anyone for that matter) when trying to create a good solo is to play too many notes, especially at the commencement of the solo. I suggest that the best way to find a motive is to resist this initial temptation, and to practice pre-hearing what you are about to play. You might even like to sing the phrase in your head or out aloud. This is best practiced in a relatively moderately-paced and harmonically-simple tune.
    * Motivic development strongly relies upon your aural abilities and the interface between your ears and your instrument. This means that improvements made via ear-training and technical practice (of the type which encourages truly hearing what the hands are doing) will reflect in improvements in your improvisation and composition. So don't forget to practice the motivic development techniques with this in mind.
    * Practice conceptualizing motives and subjecting them to the motivic development techniques, both compositionally (using notation) and improvisationally (on the fly). If you are having difficulty coming up with a motive, try slowing down the tempo and/or simplifying the harmony. Also try listening to master musicians (such as mentioned previously) and gaining inspiration from them. Try "ripping off" what you hear! They say "amateurs plagiarize - professionals steal!"
    * Exercises 8-1 to 8-11 illustrate each of the techniques discussed in turn, based on the same original motive. They are all based upon a simple ii-V-I pattern in C major. Compose and improvise your own motives in this harmonic and rhythmic setting, and then apply each technique to other pieces or portions of pieces. Prerecorded accompaniment is useful, and there are volumes of "play-alongs" that you can use for improving motivic development.
    * I have found it useful to practice motivic development in harmonically simple contexts at first. Exercise 8-12 is a simple progression which is twice as long as the previous simple ii-V progressions and contains harmonic rhythm of one and two chords per bar. Improvise with straight and swung eighth-notes, using jazz/rock or Latin and swing feels.
    * Exercise 8-13 suggests rhythmic motives intended to be used with the chord progression in Exercise 8-12. Any eighth-note that appears on the "and" of beat 4 before a chord change can be considered an anticipation of that chord change and the appropriate chord-scale note can be used. This is a typical occurrence in jazz and Latin contexts.
    * It is useful to develop dexterity with motives in all keys, and Exercise 8-14 suggests one pathway through all twelve. Again, practice this in a variety of stylistic feels. You should also explore different metres at this point - starting with 3/4, 6/8 and 5/4.



    For more information on Jonathan Dimond, or to order his book "Bass Riyaz", visit his web page:

    To check out some of Dimond's compositions:

    And finally, Dimond's CD 'Loops' is available at:

  2. Mike Dimin

    Mike Dimin Inactive

    Dec 11, 1999
    I think you want to say "motif" as the seed idea not "motive"
  3. Ernieballer


    Jun 13, 2006
    Lubbock, Tx
    Good Post! Love the elements of form.
  4. Soulless


    Jun 18, 2006
    Hi I think the post is great ive read it BUT i have searched the entire site and cant find anwhere that teaches you how to read the bass tabs or lines or whatever you want to call them. i have never lifted a bass guitar up in my life. im starting from scratch where can i go?

    Sry if i should have posted this sumwhere else...
  5. LoopyJonathan


    Aug 10, 2005
    Actually "motif" and "motive" have been used interchangeably in my experience, though some people use the former term to mean rhythmic and melodic ideas, and the latter melodic cells. The spelling actually depends on whether one is going for a French or German derivation (respectively).
  6. Basswench


    Jun 17, 2006
    As soon as I get the money together I'm getting the book! Definitely sounds like material I can use. Thanks!

  7. bass-x


    Jan 7, 2007
    really i feel study man!
  8. ilyash


    May 30, 2008
    Please take a look at program Musical Palette - Melody Composing Tool. The program is based on the Composition theory. Program provides palette of the chords and palette for methods of motive development (sequence, inversion, variation ...). Also there is manual that describes Basics of Composition. The manual suggests own determination of the motive term: Motive is group around one up-beat (first beat of the bar). There are three types of motive Choree, Iamb, amphibrach ....