I’ve taken to looking up these weekly words from Linda on The Free Dictionary to see if there’s another angle I can take on them. This is especially so when all I can think of is something I don’t want to write about, as with this week’s word, “motive.” All I could come up with was what they always talk about on the old Law & Order show as the standard to prove someone guilty of murder: the prosecution needs to prove motive, means and opportunity.
Anyway, in reading the definition, I discovered that “motive” can be used the same way as “motif.” Such as a flower motif on wallpaper. I’m thinking about wallpaper right now because I saw a blog post on the Retro Renovations blog that talked about the novelty wallpapers that were created in the Seventies that featured illustrations of people bathing and whatever.
I had some illustrated wallpaper in my new bedroom when we moved to the suburbs and absolutely hated it. One of my uncles suggested marking it up, and naturally, being a foul-mouthed fifteen-year-old (I’m now a foul-mouthed 61-year-old, in case you were wondering), I had the characters (old military figures) talking like I was sure they talked in real life, with a lot of four-letter words and other vulgarities. My mother was ready to kill me, but eventually I got the wallpaper changed out. And I didn’t squeal on the uncle who suggested I do it. My motive for doing it wasn’t to express my displeasure with the wallpaper, mind you, it was just a way to “learn to live with it,” as my mother told me to do.
Another place we talk about motifs is in music. Jerry Coker, a professor (at least the last I heard) of music at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, wrote a very good book on improvisation in jazz, called, not surprisingly, Improvising Jazz, where he talks about making a collection of “motifs” for later use in improvisation. It took me a while, but eventually it hit me: “Duh! He means licks!”
See, a common misconception when you learn to improvise is that improvisation is all about making stuff up as you go along. In fact, you take little musical phrases, or motifs or licks (or riffs, when you’re playing jazz), that you heard other people play and string them together in a way that’s more or less original. The really good players can use the same motif over and over and make it sound different every time.
Ideally, you train your ear well enough that you can pick the licks up off the record (what we had in the days before the .mp3), but some music publishers have created some pretty good lick books that you can use to enhance the licks you are able to pick up by ear and from watching and listening to really good players (e.g. Barney Kessel, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy etc.) play.
A perfect example of a lick is the one Chuck Berry used all the time, from “Johnny B. Goode.”
Just about every guitar player in the known universe knows that lick. Muddy Waters had a great lick on slide guitar, that you can hear in the middle of this song, “Honey Bee.”
As he got older, sometimes Muddy would play that solo several times in the middle of that song. It was fun to watch him.
I’d like to leave you with this song by Martin Mull. A lot of people don’t realize he was (and likely still is) a great musician and songwriter. Here he is with another great musician, the late Glen Campbell.
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Happy birthday, Pat!