The 1957 Encyclopédie Larousse defines a cell in music as a "small rhythmic and melodic design that can be isolated, or can make up one part of a thematic context". The cell may be distinguished from the figure or motif: the 1958 Encyclopédie Fasquelle defines a cell as "the smallest indivisible unit", unlike the motif, which may be divisible into more than one cell. "A cell can be developed, independent of its context, as a melodic fragment, it can be used as a developmental motif. It can be the source for the whole structure of the work; in that case it is called a generative cell."
A rhythmic cell is a cell without melodic connotations. It may be entirely percussive or applied to different melodic segments.
The term "cell" (German: Keim) derives from organic music theorists of the nineteenth century. Arnold Schering adopted the term, along with "melodic kernels" (Melodiekerne) in his analysis of 14th-century madrigal, one of the first uses of Gestalt psychology in music theory.
- quoted in Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate (1990). ISBN 0-691-02714-5.
- Nattiez 1990, p.156.
- Garrett, Charles Hiroshi (2008). Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century, p.54. ISBN 9780520254862. Shown in common time and then in cut time with tied sixteenth & eighth note rather than rest.
- Sublette, Ned (2007). Cuba and Its Music, p.134. ISBN 978-1-55652-632-9. Shown with tied sixteenth & eighth note rather than rest.
- Ian D. Bent, revised by Anthony Pople (2001). "Analysis, §II. History, §4. 1910-1945". Grove Music Online (8th ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-1-56159-263-0.