Musical Creation: Loops, Riffs, Motives and Figures

Music is created out of many different elements. two bar musical score as example of motifThese thoughts introduce some of the basic language and skills that can start one down the road to greater involvement with musical composition and creativity. Computer software now plays an enormous role in making the beginnings of musical composition both fun and easy.

Musically speaking, a loop is a short musical idea. Loops are the Lego bricks, the building blocks of many digital music editors. They are called loops because they can quickly be set to repeat themselves over and over again with or without variation. Loops provide a fantastic way of enabling one level of musical composition, enabling software to quickly pull together a set of loops into larger musical structures. The loops can be combined into musical sentences (phrases) that like text sentences are merged into ever larger groupings. Loops, repeating musical patterns, are generally played or performed by the background musical instruments and singers. Generally, each musical instrument or singer can be thought of as a layer or track of a song, though more than one performer may be used to perform a particular track for purposes of volume or texture. In small groups such as popular music bands, the number of performers equals the number of tracks in a musical performance.

1 bar classic notationThere are many ways to write down or record the pattern of a musical thought or expression such as a loop. piano roll notationClassic music notation uses a 5 line staff for both the treble and bass cleff as in the image on the right. Another form of notation is known as piano roll notation of which the image on the left is an example. Computer software commonly uses both of these kinds of notation. It generally provides features for switching back and forth between these views and for printing out the notation.

The term "loop" is a popular term with those composing with computer software but musicans and music aficionados have a richer vocabulary for other types of musical patterns that play over the top (in the foreground) of songs. Guitar and banjo players use the term "lick" to stand for special, more distinctive but short patterns of notes that are used in highlights, solos and melodies. Jazz musicans coined the term "riff", a longer distinctive pattern of notes that often include chord changes. A "hook" is "a musical idea, a passage or phrase, that is believed to be appealing and make the song stand out", and "catch the ear of the listener" (Covach 2005, p.71). It is the passage in the song that is mostly like to cause us to know the name of the song. There are many other musical terms which are easy to find in music dictionaries.

More formal musical terms for more significant musical ideas are motif or motives and figures (Wikipedia. 2009). A motif is a pattern of rhythm and pitch. The motif is a distinctive pattern in the foreground of a song or musical work. Patterns or motifs in the background are known as figures. The term motive or motif, riff, lick and loop each represents a variation on the idea of a short musical idea that is built into larger musical patterns. These larger groupings could include verse (words), refrain or chorus, song, physical movements of dancers, poetry and so forth. A collection of loops is somewhat like a musical crayon box. Like pulling out a crayon for the color blue, the color (e.g., the sound) can be placed over and over again in a composition in various repeating arrangements.

Examples of Motifs

Some motifs are hooks that have achieved an extraordinary level of global recognition. Play the YouTube selections below to soak up some of them. Note that these musical phrases are a combination of special rhythms and pitches. To accent the rhythm of the motif, try clapping the rhythm of the motifs as you hear them.

Smoke on the Water

Interview about the "rock riff" in Smoke on the Water, The song, Smoke on the Water. Listen for the riff in the song opening created by Ritchie Blackmore and the British band, Deep Purple.

Beethoven's Fifth Sympony

See the YouTube frame below for Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Part 1 (Movements 1 and 2). Listen to a few minutes though more is available. The motif will be immediately recognizeable.

Famous Guitar Riffs

See the YouTube frame below for 100 Famous Rock Guitar Riffs - one take (almost 8 minutes but listen to a few). They are numbered on the screen.

Children and Beginning Composers

For younger children, making up motifs that vary in pitch is harder than creating motifs with rhythmic instruments, such as clapping hands or drumming nearby objects. See the YouTube frame below for some great examples of rhythm instrument motifs. Just banging out rhythms with a stick on on various objects in a classroom can provide quite a wide variety of sounds and sound patterns.

Children can learn a great deal about riffs, rhythmic skills and musical thinking, at a very early age. As a further reminder of this, watch some of Jacob Armen's performance when he was 7 year old's on the Johnny Carson show with a big band as back up. He certainly did not just begin to learn that when he was 7. There are also many YouTube clips of Jacob now that he is an adult and continuing to build his performance repertoire.

Play loops from the GarageBand library set to hear many different motifs that vary in rhythm and pitch or just rhythm. Do the same in Myna to hear more.

Using Motives

See this GarageBand songwriting videoclip for an example of a song being composed though selections of loops in the loop library or collection. To better understand loops or looping, hands-on use is necessary. Use the loops in an audio editor that comes with some musical loops such as GarageBand or Myna Audio Editor to create some multitrack pieces using the existing loops in the music library. More loops can be found online and some are made freely available to download and use in your own projects.


Making Motives

Now let's make some riffs or loops using an on-screen keyboard. Think of the motives heard earlier from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or Smoke on the Water. Now, do your own thing. Pick a keyboard on which to play some experimental patterns. They might be rhythmic patterns made with one note (pitch) or patterns that include changes of pitch.


Once the piano is active, create your own motif. In the beginning it sometimes in helps to tap on the table and invent a rhythmic pattern. Next, pick a key on the piano and play the same rhythm. Then, keep the same rhythm, but choose other notes (different pitches) until you like what you have.

These personal creations from virtual keyboards can be saved into a folder for insertion into Audacity tracks or imported to the GarageBand or Myna or other audio editors. However, in order to save these sound compositions, some kind of recording software must be active at the same time. This recording feature is built-in to GarageBand (a Macintosh only application) which makes it easy to use. It is not in the other free editors (Audacity and Myna) which makes them much more complicated to use for such purposes.

If it necessary to record sound with Audacity or Myna while using virtual keyboards, this requires three steps. To do so:

  1. put the software program (Audacity or Myna) into recording mode in one window.
  2. Turn up the volume on the computer's speakers and put the microphone near those speakers.
  3. Then in a second window on the computer screen start up the virtual keyboard application and play. When done playing move back to the application window doing the recording and stop the recording. Now the recording can be edited to cut off un-needed sounds and additional sound tracks added.

Turning Motifs in Melodies

A melody can be though of as motifs arranged in question and answer format. The motif is used to create a kind of tension pulling away from the opening note or chord, then responds with variations on the motif to find a musical resolution that serves as answer.

Music Notation

Just as we have a way of writing symbols for spoken words, music has a standard set of symbols that describe the rhythm and pitch of musical notes.

A motive or motif can be very simple but a number of special patterns of motifs are commonly recognized.


Learning to make music is not rocket science. However, from basic beginnings music composition can build with its layers and counter-melodies and more to be become quite complex. Those that we teach need to be given ample practice and opportunity to see where their initial musical activities and abilities might take them. But whether musical interests continue or not, every 21st century literate citizen needs to be able to record, edit and share sound on a Web page. Music is just one kind of sound to share.


Music Concept

YouTube. How to Appreciate Music : What is Motif in Music?

Coles, R. (Tuesday 22 July 2008). Got it licked: What makes a great riff? The Guardian. Retrieved September 17, 2009 from

Covach, John. "Form in Rock Music: A Primer", in Stein, Deborah (2005). Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Isham, Mark (2007, August 25). Composing Sounds for Film - Mark Isham. YouTube. 6:15 length. Shows his editing studio, his digital gear, his love of composing for film.

Music Composition

Frederick, Robin (2009). Notes On Songwriting,

Midgley, Herbert (2009). Song Form in GarageBand.

Shaw, Mary (2009). Make Your Own Songwriting Templates In GarageBand.


Search and Research - Still Unsolved Problems (SUP)

Missing Keyboard Options: There still remain software tools that are not invented or found for which searching help is still needed.


Parent chapter - Version 1.21 Updated July 14, 2010 Page author: Houghton