Figures, phrases and motifs

As a beginner its really easy to find yourself thinking about and playing music one note at a time, but such a view is 'missing the forest for the trees'.

A melody is not a random series of notes. Rather, melodies are formed from collections of notes called 'figures', which themselves are combined to form 'phrases'. Phrases come together to form 'parts' like verses and choruses.

I'll show you a few examples of figures and phrases from the jig 'out on the ocean'.


A melodic figure is a small number of notes that form a distinct melodic idea. Here are a collection of figures from 'out on the ocean':

Melodic figures can serve a number of different functions, including:

  • Create ascending or descending movement.
  • Create 'resolution' or anchoring to a single note in the scale.

Figures frequently follow similar overall patterns, even though the exact notes used in a single figure may change. This structural repetition creates a sense of grounding and uniformity within a given piece of music.


a 'motif' is a single figure pattern on which a melody is based, and is repeated and varied through the whole melody. You may have also come across the term 'leitmotif', which are motifs or figures used to represent a character, concept or emotion in film or game music.


If a figure is a melody 'word', a phrase is like a sentence. Phrases are groups of figures that represent a complete melodic 'idea'. Here are the phrases in the first part of 'out on the ocean' for example:

Just as figures can repeat, you'll often find that whole phrases are repeated, and phrase 1 and 3 in this tune are almost identical.

Phrases in vocal songs often align directly with the phrasing of the language in the lyrics, ending where you would put a full stop or comma in writing. Phrases in any given piece of music frequently have the same duration in beats.

Being aware of the phrases and figures in the music you are playing is critical to playing musically. Phrases tell you how to group notes, as well as where you can take breaths without breaking the flow of the music.

Parts (verses and choruses)

Phrases are themselves brought together to form parts. Essentially, a part is a unique melody, and It is difficult to discuss this in any detail without discussing different genres and types of music as they all do this differently.

Mainstream songs are often constructed from 'verses' and 'choruses'. A verse is a part where the lyrics change over a common melody, and a chorus typically repeats the same lyrics. Normally you have verses, with choruses between them.

Folk dance tunes like 'out on the ocean' are formed from parts which are named 'part A', 'part B', 'part C' Etc. Normally each part is played twice, and the whole tune is played two or three times.


Playing 'one note at a time' is a big cause of the 'beginner sound', and being aware of the larger structures will help make your music sound musical sooner.

Next time that you are listening to music, try to identify the different elements that is contains. Try to identify repeating figures in the melody and harmony of the music, and notice how the different parts come together to form the whole. These can be very different between genres, and is one of the things that make different genres of music sound distinct.

Searching for terms like '{song name} analysis', 'the structure of music', and 'melody phrasing' on the internet, and on video services like YouTube, will give you a lot of results if you'd like to learn more.

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