Figure (music)

A musical figure or figuration is the shortest phrase in music; a short succession of notes, often recurring. It may have melodic pitch, harmonic progression, and rhythmic meter. The 1964 Grove's Dictionary defines the figure as "the exact counterpart of the German 'motiv' and the French 'motif'": it produces a "single complete and distinct impression".[2] To the self-taught Roger Scruton,[3] however, a figure is distinguished from a motif in that a figure is background while a motif is foreground:

A figure resembles a moulding in architecture: it is 'open at both ends', so as to be endlessly repeatable. In hearing a phrase as a figure, rather than a motif, we are at the same time placing it in the background, even if it is ... strong and melodious[4]

Allen Forte describes the term figuration as being applied to two distinct things:

If the term is used alone it usually refers to instrumental figurations such as [Alberti bass and a measured trill]... The term figuration is also used to describe the general process of melodic embellishment. Thus, we often read of "figurated" melody or of chorale "figuration." ... Figuration has nothing to do with figured bass, except insofar as numerals often designate embellishing notes.[5]

A phrase originally presented or heard as a motif may become a figure that accompanies another melody, such as in the second movement of Claude Debussy's String Quartet. It is perhaps best to view a figure as a motif when it has special importance in a piece. According to White, motives are, "significant in the structure of the work," while figures or figurations are not and, "may often occur in accompaniment passages or in transitional or connective material designed to link two sections together," with the former being more common.[1]

Minimalist music may be constructed entirely from figures. Scruton describes music by Philip Glass such as Akhnaten as "nothing but figures...endless daisy-chains".[7]

A basic figure is known as a riff in American popular music.

See also



  1. White 1976, pp. 31–34.
  2. Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 1964. Cited in Scruton 1997.
  3. Scruton & Dooley 2016, pp. 25–26.
  4. The Aesthetics of Music. 1997. p. 61. Cited in Nattiez 1990.
  5. Forte 1979, p. 392-3.
  6. Scruton 1997, pp. 61–63.
  7. Scruton 1997, p. 63.


Forte, Allen (1979). Tonal Harmony in Concept and Practice (3rd ed.). Holt, Rinehart and Winston. ISBN 0-03-020756-8.
Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Abbate, Carolyn. ISBN 0-691-02714-5.
Scruton, Roger (1997). The Aesthetics of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press (published 1999). ISBN 978-0-19-816727-3.
Scruton, Roger; Dooley, Mark (2016). Conversations with Roger Scruton. London: Bloomsbury Continuum. ISBN 978-1-4729-1711-9.
White, John D. (1976). The Analysis of Music. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 978-0-13-033233-2.

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