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3.2: Musical Identity

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  • “She was dressed in rich materials—satins, and lace, and silks—all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white.” With these words, Charles Dickens introduces the character of Miss Havisham in his novel Great Expectations.

    How is musical identity established? How can we describe the basic attributes of a musical idea?

    A writer might portray a character through details of physical appearance, background and behavior. We will view musical identity as being created by rhythm, melody, harmony, pitch content and instrumental color.


    Because music is a time-art, rhythm is the most basic element of musical identity. Most generally, speed helps to characterize the music: Fast music is different from slow.

    More concretely, a repeating rhythmic pattern may underlie a musical idea.

    In Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, a fixed rhythmic pattern—first played by the snare drum—anchors the entire composition.

    In this excerpt from Steve Reich’s Music for Large Ensemble, the evolving texture grows out of an underlying rhythmic pattern.

     The term motive refers to a short, elemental fragment. If the entire pattern or theme is a necklace, then motives are its beads.

    rhythmic motive may be a key identifying feature. The opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 consists of music’s most famous rhythmic motives: “three dots and a dash.”

    In this excerpt, the rhythmic motive is passed around the orchestra:

    Lalo Schifrin’s theme for Mission Impossible contains a rhythmic motive consisting of “two dots and a dash.” A fixed pattern, or ostinato, underlies the Mission Impossible theme, also contributing to its identity.

    rhythmic motive can take any melodic shape: In the Mission Impossible example, the motive at first heads downwards three times in succession. It then appears three more times: These times, however the motive “curls” upwards. The rhythms are identical but the melodic shape is not strict.

    Thus, extended rhythmic patterns and shorter motives may be embedded in a musical idea, contributing to its identity.


    Melody is music’s most familiar and intuitive term: It’s what we sing or hum. In classical and popular music, it is often the primary focus of our attention.

    Melody has two components: rhythm, combined with the rising and falling of pitch.

    Clearly, rhythm alone does not make a melody: Try singing the rhythm of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” in a monotone. Stripped of pitch inflection, it is no longer a song. But pitch alone is not enough either. Try singing “I’ve Been Working” in even-valued rhythms: It loses its form like a crumpled shirt. Thus, melody is a hybrid concept: It incorporates both rhythm and pitch. When we speak of melodic contour and motive, rhythm is often implicated as well.

    The contour of a melody describes its shape. The contour of the principal theme of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 rises ever higher in three short thrusts and then sinks back down:

    Bruckner maintains the contour but varies the details in this soft statement by the French Horn:

    This climactic statement by the brass includes one extra push upward:

    Let’s recall the theme Nicolo Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for solo violin, this time in a playful orchestration by Witold Lutoslawski.

    One of the identifiable features of Paganin’s theme is that its contour rollicks up and down predictably. In this variation, Lutoslawski scrubs away the melodic and rhythmic details, leaving only the contour. Paganini’s theme is recognizable by its shape.


    Often, melodies can be analyzed as being made up of one or more motives. The opening theme of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata in E, Opus 109 is made of a short-long motive. The motive alternates direction, first going up and then going down.

    The opening theme of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is similar: It is also made of a short-long motive. Whereas Beethoven’s motive flipped up and down in quick alternation, Shostakovich’s motive is repeated before changing direction.


     Thus, the contour of a melody, as well as the primary motives with which it is made, help to identify it.


    Whereas melody is generally described as music’s horizontal dimensionharmony is its vertical dimension: It refers to sounds sounding together. Like rhythm and melody, harmony is often an essential part of musical identity.

    An individual harmony is called a chord. A succession of chords that creates a complete harmonic statement is called a progression.

    The slow movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2 opens with a long harmonic progression played by the piano alone.

    Later, the progression is replayed in its entirety. This time, the cello adds a ruminative melodic line.


    Thus, the harmonic progression is essential to the music’s identity.

    Similarly, Richard Strauss’ song Morgen similarly opens with an extended harmonic progression, played by the piano alone. As the voice concludes her first phrase, the progression is replayed, this time with a soaring vocal line. Once again, the harmonic progression is essential to the music’s identity. As you listen to the excerpt, you will notice that the progression deviates at the end: Rather than closing conclusively, Strauss substitutes a suspensive chord that leads to the next section.

    Whereas one pitch or one rhythmic attack is not enough to create a motive, a harmonic motif can be created by just one chord. Richard Wagner’s monumental opera Tristan und Isolde is unified by a single harmony—the so-called “Tristan chord.” It reappears obsessively throughout the four-hour drama, constantly resolving in different ways.

    Wagner saves one of the most poignant resolutions for the final one.

    In his Chamber Symphony, opus 9, Schoenberg uses a non-traditional chord as a structural signpost, heralding the beginning of new sections.

    The final time this chord appears, Schoenberg turns it upside down:

     Thus, harmony—from entire progressions to individual chords—may be an essential component of musical identity.

    Pitch content

    Pitch content—the notes that make up a theme—may be an important element of musical identity.

    In classical music, the pitch content of themes is drawn either from the Major or minor scales or modes. Because of its acoustic properties, the Major scale is more resonant and “brighter”; the minor scale projects less strongly and is considered more “somber.” The opposition between Major and minor is one of the strongest contrasts of tonal music: Although mood is always subjective, music in Major is more often associated with emotions such as joy, triumph and calm, whereas minor is typically associated with emotions such as sadness, anger and mourning. You’re unlikely to find a wedding march in minor or a lament in Major.

    Here is a sampling of music in Major.

    Here is a sampling of music in minor.

    Twentieth century music features much more diversity in pitch content. Claude Debussy’s Voiles is based on the whole-tone scale: Unlike the Major and minor scales, the whole-tone scale consists only of evenly spaced steps.

    Bela Bartok’s Chromatic Invention from Mikokosmos, Book III is based on a more clustered collection of notes.

    In Krystof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, the pitches are even more densely packed.

    Timbre and texture

    Timbre and texture can also contribute to a theme’s signature. A classical music devotee needs only to hear the sound of sleigh bells at the Symphony to recognize “Mahler 4”.

    Later in the movement, the sound of the sleigh bells alludes to the main theme.

    The opening theme of the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet is played by a striking texture of plucked strings.

    Later in the movement, just the sound of plucked strings is enough to evoke the opening theme. Further hints of the theme’s identity are sprinkled into the texture, until the theme returns with full force.

    Twentieth century composers were particularly adventurous about exploring new sounds and instrumental combinations. For instance, John Cage invented the prepared piano by inserting screws, erasers, thumb-tacks and other objects inside the piano. The prepared piano’s unique timbre is part and parcel of the identity of this work.


    Leonardo da Vinci investigated human anatomy in order to understand how better to draw a human figure. We have explored the anatomy of a musical idea. To Da Vinci, the human form was made of skin, bone, muscle and blood. To us, a musical idea consists of rhythm, melody, harmony, pitch content and instrumental color.

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