Heartbeats and other useful musical motifs

I was teaching a class of MTeach students last week, who were working on group compositions inspired the old Selkie legends of Scotland and Ireland. I’d asked them to explore ways of depicting and utilising stillness and silence in their music.

As I listened to the work of one of the groups, I found myself wanting to suggest they add a ‘heartbeat’ rhythm on a low-pitched drum. We discussed this later, and I realised that for me, the heartbeat rhythm is an incredibly useful ‘wildcard’ in compositions. It can suggest:

  • stillness and quiet
  • increasing adrenaline
  • fear
  • thoughtfulness
  • drama and tension

and lots of other atmospheres.

Which led my to compose this post, where I will start listing some of the useful composing strategies I often suggest to groups, as effective and versatile musical content. Cliches? – maybe. Fillers? – sometimes they probably play this role. But they also have the capacity to hold an audience’s attention, to create atmosphere and a sense of tension or anticipation. Learning to play a heartbeat rhythm can teach a young player a lot about creating drama and tension through very simple repetition.

What other musical motifs can you think of, that can play a similarly versatile role, and that are within reach of even very young, beginning musicians? I have also thought about:

  • Drones
  • the interval of a perfect 5th (or a 4th, when played downwards. Think of Mahler 1…)
  • Tremolos

I’ll add more as I think of them. Please contribute any that you know are an important part of your own toolkit – we can compile a comprehensive list.

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