Using Popular Song Motifs to Write New Songs

equalizer song motif music notesOne of our readers asked the following question:

Is it helpful to try to write lyrics for an existing popular song motif?

I really appreciate the chance to answer readers questions. One think I believe is helpful is many questions are never asked. Since that never are asked there is no opportunity to answer them. That is why I like reader questions. Many times the question asked could be the one that will help you with your songwriting efforts.

Nothing is New It’s Just Different

In the world of creativity, there is very little that has not been done before. As a songwriter, like it or not, you have influences that formed the way you write. Nothing is done is a vacuum. The world around us influences our behavior.

What is a Motif?

Musical Motif

A motif has several definitions. However, in terms of music a melody motif is a short succession of notes. This could be a brief melodic of rhythm idea. Composers use motifs to develop complete musical phrases. They use variation and permutations to develop a melody.  These motifs are usually anywhere from 2 to 6 notes at most.

Lyric Motif

In terms of lyrics, a lyric motif would be a simple or even common phrase. One example would be “I love you, baby”. This phase has been used in countless songs. However, for each of those songs the melody should  be different, the words surrounding the phase should also be different.  Using common vernacular is how many song motifs are established.

Remix Strategy for Song Lyrics

When you take a song motif from a popular song, make some changes, add your own ideas you are using a technique called “Remix”  Remix is a viable way to write lyrics. It is important to know, all art and creative things are a remix of previous artists. In essence remix is taking ideas that already exist, proven to work then adding your own unique twist to it. In the case of lyric writing It is simply finding an existing lyric and adding or removing from it.  You will start with a proven lyric then add your idea that is a remix.

Warning Do Not Merely Copy!

It is important that you understand the nature of copyright and ownership of songs and the elements of sound, lyric and music. You cannot under any circumstance directly copy a lyric and call it yours. That is illegal and morally wrong. That is why it is vital that you remix and modify anything you use as a song motif.

Example Smoke on the Water

One of the most recognizable riffs in the history of rock music is the opening riff to the song Smoke on the water. In an interview Richie Blackmore explains how he eventually come up with the riff.  It is a great example of the Remix Strategy.  According to Blackmore, he arrived at the iconic riff by playing Beethoven’s Fifth backwards. He actually took an existing song motif and made something new from it. Of course it is not an exact mirror image of the original motif, he did some additional tweaking to come up with something new.

Yes It Is Helpful

Let us get back to the original question.  Yes, it can be helpful to take a lyric motif as a launching pad for writing words to your song.  This is true as long as you don’t directly copy from the original artist. You need to take the idea and figure out a way to make it uniquely yours. This is something artist have done for centuries.

If you have a question regarding the craft of songwriting please submit them at

Songwriting Questions

Also, if you have other thoughts or ideas relating to this topic please make comments below. Your contribution is greatly appreciated

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    How many of these craft worthy details can you point to in the song? The title is up front, the first line of the chorus? It is repeated for memorability? The lyrics express a new way of presenting the familiar? They are clichŽ free? The lyrics paint vivid images with word pictures? The song/melody is short enough and simple enough to catch the listener’s ear and be recognizable the first time it’s heard? The song has a touch of suspense or mystery about it that pulls the listener in?