Music is a universal language spoken by all. Both young and elderly people speak it. The rich and poor alike speak it. Any place you could possibly travel will have music emanating from its very core. While what makes music itself so great is a topic for another time, today I’d like to write about what makes some pieces more memorable than others.
When a piece of music is written, the composer wants his listeners to be able to remember it. This is accomplished by using something called a motive. A motive is a sequence of notes that will be reused many times throughout the piece. Almost any sequence of notes you can think of could be used as a motive.
To give you something to relate this information to, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony holds a clear example of a motive. It is likely one of the most iconic motives there are. “BUM BUM BUM BUMMMM.” The motive that will be used throughout the piece is immediately introduced. He then takes this motive and alters it; creating variation is a very important step. If you were to simply repeat it over and over again, it would quickly become boring. Changing things like the rhythm and pitch can help avoid monotony while retaining coherence. Beethoven did this brilliantly, using the same motive repeatedly to create familiarity, while at the same time changing it up enough to keep it exciting and new throughout the piece. Basically, keep the motive relatively short and as memorable as possible without using exact repetitions too many times.
While music on its own is extremely powerful, it can also be paired with other media to increase its emotional content significantly. One of the most commonly used methods of provoking emotion is by using something called a leitmotif. A leitmotif, meaning “leading theme” in German, is a motive which was written with the purpose of representing a specific person, idea, or situation. This motive will be repeated throughout the entirety of the piece.
Take the Indiana Jones theme, for example. This theme was written by John Williams to represent the protagonist, Indiana Jones. When you hear it, you immediately associate it with adventure and bravery, and this is because we’ve learned what it represents by watching the movies. Of course, that isn’t all there is to it; there is a lot of music theory on how to create certain moods with certain techniques, but for now I am focusing on the leitmotif. A leitmotif should be written with a specific person, idea, or situation in mind. When you do this, you are adding a layer of comprehensibility and relation. A piece utilizing a leitmotif will often times be more powerful than they would have been otherwise.
Humans are inherently social creatures and are great at empathizing with others. When you add in that layer of human relation to the music, it allows people to connect more thoroughly to it. This is why themes written for movies are often so powerful. A few examples of this are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jaws, and as I mentioned earlier, Indiana Jones.
One of the many things that make some pieces more memorable than others is the ability to relate to it. Relation and empathy are some of the most prominent human traits, and they carry over into music. If your piece is written with a bit of repetition and out of an experience many can relate with, it is likely to be very memorable. Keep this in mind, though; music is music, and most “rules” are merely guidelines. Make of it what you like, and experiment with boundaries often. Most importantly of all, keep writing.