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Recent Advances in Knowledge Engineering and Systems Science

The concealed motif: analysis and identification

Department of Technology
Music Academy Studio Musica
Via Terraglio, 81
TREVISO (TV) 31100 Italy
Abstract: The notion of motif as well as the concept of theme, are well known to musicians yet there is no
theory to describe how motifs may be identified. There are many algorithms for the segmentation of a musical
piece that produce a list of melodic fragments/motifs identified on the basis of formalized rules in observance
of principles of musical analysis or of the information content that every single one of them carries and, even if
identified by means of different research, the resulting segments typically have their composing notes disposed
in a sequential manner (one after another), without any other note being interposed between them.
A model of melodic analysis able to explore progressively the symbolic level of the musical text will be presented in this article, identifying, by starting from a list of previously found segments, the same motifs, which
are yet concealed among the notes of melodic figurations. This approach was initiated at a melodic level, taking
in consideration, together with the melody, the concept of rhythm as well.

Key-Words: musical surface, segmentation, voice separation, similarity matrix, motif

One of the main purposes of the automatic segmentation of the score is the identification of these motifs.
The algorithms realized for such purpose are mainly
based on two well-defined concepts: the psychoreceptive aspect and the repetitivity (recurrence).
In the first case, the sonorous perception is seen as a
filter of musical themes: referring therefore to the
Generative Theory of Tonal Music proposed by
Lerdahl and Jakendoff [5] based on the concept of
functional hierarchy. The central hypothesis is that
the listener, whose goal is to comprehend and
memorize a tonal musical phrase, is trying to pin
down the important elements of the structure by reducing what he is listening to a highly hierarchized
economical scheme. Therefore the idea is that the
listener is performing a mental operation of simplification that allows him not only to comprehend the
complexity of the surface, but, when it is necessary,
also to reconstruct such complexity starting from a
simplified scheme and to produce other musical surfaces, other phrases of the same type, through a reactivation of the memorized structure. The study of
these mechanisms lead to the construction of a formal grammar capable to describe the main rules observed by the human mind in order to recognize
structures within a musical piece.
The second aspect, an immediate consequence of
the first, is the repetitivity: in order for the listener
to recognize and memorize a certain sequence of
notes, it is necessary to present the sequence several

1 The musical theme

In musical analysis, one of the relevant elements is
the theme which represents the fundamental motif,
often a recurrent one, of a certain composition, especially if it is a far-reaching composition [1]: it is a
melodic fragment endowed with individuality and
recognizability, often to such an extent as to characterize the entire musical piece (fig. 1) [2].

Fig. 1: Bach's Two voice invention in C major,

BWV 772 (the first three beats of the first staff).

Motifs are never explicitly indicated by the composer of the score and this lack of indication gives to
the very motif a mysterious character [3] as if it
were a secret that listening and analysis have the assignment to reveal (fig. 2) [4].

Fig. 2: Intermezzo op. 119 No. 3 by J. Brahms: the

melody perceived is to be found in the middle of the
polyphony, almost hidden.

ISBN: 978-1-61804-162-3


Recent Advances in Knowledge Engineering and Systems Science

first staff, without any indication of rhythm; the

same notes with the rhythm assigned by the composer are represented on the second staff.

times [6].
The sequence must be clear, in its different manifestations, that is it must always be equally presented
even if it is subject to non retrogradous translation
or inversion (see figure 3 ) [7], insofar as retrogradous transformations make the theme hardly recognizable, most of all at the beginning, i.e. when the
listener is not yet able to remember it well: if we
were then to take into account the length of the
theme, at times not even its continuous repetition in
the original state, as it is the case with fugues, allows its recognition if retrograded.

Fig. 5: String Quartet Op. 18 n.1, 1st Movement, by

L. van Beethoven (the first four beats of the first
Violin). The fundamental rhythmic cell that generates thematic and timbral structures inside the
whole first movement.

The many algorithms realized within this purpose

must be capable of defining which repetitions in the
score may be associated to the notion of motif and
in case of different repetitions what criterion to
adopt in order to select only the part that is, in our
opinion, interesting.

Fig. 3: Bach's Two-Voice Invention in C Major,

2 The concealed motif

BWV 772. The sequence of notes (beat 1) is represented on the first staff, its transposition is represented on the second staff (beat 2) and its inversion
on the third staff (beat 3).

The identification of a motif by the various algorithms, by virtue of the considerations in the preceding paragraph, occurs only if the notes making it up
are sequential, that is one after the other (fig. 6).

The segmentation of the score is therefore dealt with

by analyzing two distinct yet united elements: the
melody and the rhythm. Melody and rhythm are two
fundamental components for the musical structuration, two almost inseparable components [8]: melody develops on the rhythm and without it, melody
does not exist [9].
Rhythm bestows individuality and recognizability
upon the melody (see figure 4), but at the same time
it characterizes the entire musical piece by means of
rhythmic cells or, to be more precise, groups of
signs (or signs and rests) that create, within the musical discourse, recurring rhythmic schemata, that
can also be different at a melodic level (fig. 5) [10].
Melody and rhythm are, therefore, tightly knit with
each other: the former represents meaning developed from a sequence of sounds, while the latter is
the shape and the proportions of that specific sequence [11].

Fig. 6: Example of a melodic passage.

Musical grammar, nevertheless, provides the composer with a series of tools allowing him to vary,
within the same musical piece, an already presented
melodic line, by inserting notes which are extraneous to harmony [12].
The sounds of a melodic line, in fact, may belong to
the harmonic construction or may be extraneous to
it. The former sounds, which fall in the chordal
components, are called real, while the latter sounds,
which belong to the horizontal dimension, take the
name of melodic figurations (passing tones, turns or
escape tones). They are complementary additional
elements of the basic melodic material that lean directly or indirectly on real notes and also resolve on
The use of melodic figurations, therefore, allows
achieving greater freedom of the melody, bestowing
upon it a better profile, yet at the same time making
it hardly recognizable and, consequently, difficult to
identify (fig. 7) [13].

Fig. 4: Excerpt from the score of ''Bolero" by Ravel.

The initial notes of the theme are represented on the

ISBN: 978-1-61804-162-3


Recent Advances in Knowledge Engineering and Systems Science


(the start). Since it is a score that must be analyzed, the duration of the sound will not be expressed in seconds but calculated (automatically
by the algorithm) as a function of the musical
sign (be it either a sound or a rest) having the
smallest duration existing in the musical piece.
The duration of every sign will therefore be a
number (an integer) directly proportional to the
smallest duration (fig. 8 and 9) [9].

Fig. 7: Comparison of two melodic passages. In the

first staff, all the notes are real, while in the second
staff, which is a variation of the first, the notes
marked by the sign + do not belong to the harmonic
structure and therefore are melodic figurations.


Segmentation, as an analysis tool, does not only

have to look for the single motifs, but also identify
their position within the score while the nonindication of the concealed motifs would compromise the value of the very analysis.
The model proposed in this article aims at presenting a research methodology based on the comparison of the pieces of information that every single
fragment identified carries within: the pitch of every
sound and its duration.


Fig. 8: Melodic segment and its related graphic representation. In this example, the sign having the
smallest duration is represented by the eighth note to
which the value 1 is (automatically) associated: it
follows that the quarter note will have the value 2.

3 The similarity matrix

A5, 2

In order to be able to search for the presence of motifs hidden inside the score, which were previously
identified through segmentation, one must continue
by building a similarity matrix for every single element [14].
Given a motif M with n sounds, the similarity matrix
is defined as follows:



Fig. 9: Similarity matrix for the segment of figure 8.

The first column displays the values corresponding
to the number of semitones from the i-th note to the
preceding note; the second column shows the values
corresponding to the duration from the i-th note and
the preceding one to the start.

Ax , y

where x (number of rows) equals the number of

sounds of the motif M and y (the number of columns) equals 2 because the elements taken into consideration are two: the pitch of every sound and its

After having defined the similarity matrix for one

single element, the algorithm continues with the exploration of the score from the beginning to the end
note by note, considering every single note as the
origin (coordinates 0, 0) of a new matrix B (havin
the same dimensions as the matrix A) having in the
second column exactly the same values of the matrix A (fig. 10).

These two pieces of data, considered together, represent the coordinates of a point on the Cartesian
plane, where the first sound will have the coordinates 0,0 [15].
The coordinates of the following sounds will be respectively:
x the value corresponding to the number of semitones between the i-th note and the preceding
one: this value will be respectively positive or
negative depending on whether the note is higher
or lower than the preceding note;
y the values corresponding to the duration from
the i-th note and the preceding one to the origin

ISBN: 978-1-61804-162-3




B5, 2

Fig. 10: Matrix B.



= ...




Recent Advances in Knowledge Engineering and Systems Science

Trumpet Concert in E flat major, belonging to a list

of segments that were previously identified by
means of melodic analysis. In B there is a subsequent melodic passage in which it is possible to
identify the same notes of the melodic segment A,
alternating with melodic figurations. C displays the
comparison between two melodic segments.

The algorithm will fill in the data of the 1st column

of the matrix, reading in the score the value corresponding to the number of semitones between the ith note and the following one and after that the duration specified in the 2nd column of the i-th row.
At the end of this procedure there will be a comparison between the first column of the two matrices (A and B) and if all the values are equal, an index will be drawn to indicate the point in which the
segment is present within the score.


4 The results obtained

The model of analysis set forth in this article was
verified by realizing an algorithm the structure of
which takes, most of all, in consideration each and
every single aspect described above: the algorithm
does not provide for any limitation with respect to
the dimensions of the similarity matrix, but, on the
contrary, it will be automatically dimensioned on
the basis of the characteristics of every single previously identified element.
Finally, one other important aspect considered in
order to define the logical bases of operation of the
algorithm is the nature of the data: Aside from the
difference of pitch among the different sounds that
is defined considering the semitone as the absolute
measurement unit, in the case of sound duration no
predefined minimum value is provided; it will instead be calculated automatically on the basis of the
smallest duration existing in every single musical
piece analyzed (see the previous paragraph).
Two examples of analysis are shown below (fig. 11
and 12).






Fig. 12: A shows a melodic passage out of Knecht

Ruprecht belonging to the Album for the Youth by
R. Schumann. A1 shows the motif (together with its
graphic representation) existing in the first staff
(right hand). In B there is a preceding melodic passage in which it is possible to identify the same
notes of the melodic segment A, alternating with
melodic figurations. Unlike the previous example,
the notes of the melodic figurations belong to the
same harmonic structure of the real notes. C displays the comparison between the two melodic




5 Conclusions
This article has examined the notion of "motif" and
the criteria for its identification within a certain
score. Then, one of the potential melodic analysis

Fig. 11: A shows a melodic passage with its related

graphic representation, an excerpt from J. Haydn's

ISBN: 978-1-61804-162-3


Recent Advances in Knowledge Engineering and Systems Science

problems was exposed: the recognition of a motif

hidden among the notes of the musical piece.
This problem was dealt with by using an important
mathematical tool, namely the matrix, which allowed us to represent a motif in its two constitutive
elements: melody and rhythm.

[10] P. Fraisse, Les structures rythmiques, Erasme,

Paris, 1958.
[11] Moles, Abraham, Teorie de linformation et
Perception esthetique, Paris, Flammarion Editeur, 1958.
[12] B. Coltro, Lezioni di armonia complementare,
Zanibon, 1979.
[13] S. Ahlback, Melody beyond notes: A study of
melodic cognition, Ph.D. thesis, Goteborgs
Universitet, Sweden, 2004
[14] S.N. Nikolskij, Corso di Analisi Matematica,
Edizioni MIR.
[15] J. P. Hornak, The Basics of MRI, 1996.

The fundamental assumption, considered for this

type of analysis, is the existence of a list of motifs,
previously elaborated by an algorithm and for this
reason, this research presents itself not as an
autonomous program, but as an integration to the
current systems of melodic segmentation of a score.
Extending this methodology to the harmonic analysis of a musical piece might help us identify motifs
that develop through the passage from a voice to
another voice.

[1] M. Della Ventura, Analysis of algorithms implementation for melodical operators in symbolical textual segmentation and connected
evaluation of musical entropy, in In Proceedings of the International Conference on
Mathematics (IAASAT 11) (pp. 66-73). Drobeta Turnu Severin, Romania.
[2] M. Della Ventura, Limpronta digitale del
compositore, GDE, Italy, 2010.
[3] Moles, Abraham, Teorie de linformation et
Perception esthetique, Paris, Flammarion Editeur, 1958.
[4] I. Bent, W. Drabkin, Music Analysis, EDT,
Turin, 1990.
[5] F.Lerdhal, R. Jackendoff, A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, The MIT Press, 1983.
[6] O. Lartillot-Nakamura, Fondements dun systme danalyse musicale computationnelle
suivant une modlisation cognitiviste de
lcoute, Doctoral Thesis, University of Paris,
[7] U. Hahn, M. Ramscar, Similarity and Categorization, Oxford University Press, Oxford
[8] C. Orff, Schulwerk, elementare Musik, Hans
Schneider, Tutzing, 1976.
[9] M. Della Ventura, Rhythm analysis of
thesonorous continuum and conjoint
evaluation of the musical entropy, in In Proceedings of the International Conference on
Acoustic & Music: Theory & Applications
(AMTA 12) (pp. 15-21). Iasi, Romania.

ISBN: 978-1-61804-162-3