Figure (music)

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Accompaniment figures in Schubert's Octet, Op. 166.[1] About this soundPlay 
A phrase originally presented as a motif may become a figure which accompanies another melody, as in the second movement of Claude Debussy's String Quartet (1893).[2] About this soundPlay  White would classify the accompaniment as motivic material since it was, "derived from an important motive stated earlier."[1]

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".[3][page needed] To the self-taught Roger Scruton,[4] 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[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".[6]

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

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c White 1976, pp. 31–34.
  2. ^ Scruton 1997, pp. 61–63.
  3. ^ Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 1964. Cited in Scruton 1997.
  4. ^ Scruton & Dooley 2016, pp. 25–26.
  5. ^ Scruton 1997, p. 61.
  6. ^ Scruton 1997, p. 63.


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.