The Motivic Structure: Music Is Life

Years ago a friend of mine, an obsessive, Brahms-idolizing composition student, lent me a copy of his latest discovery. It was The Thematic Process in Music, a classic 1951 book by Austrian musicologist Rudoph Reti. The work’s thesis is simple: it’s all connected. “All the themes of one movement,” Reti writes, “In fact all its groups and parts—are … but variations of one identical thought.” I eventually changed my major, and for years I stopped thinking about music theory. But Reti stayed with me, and the idea that his analysis might be useful, not only for understanding musical works, but for uncovering coherence all around us, has often occupied my mind.

Reti wasn't concerned with melodies, the things one typically thinks of as “themes.” One doesn’t need musical training to hear how John Williams weaves the handful of memorable Jurassic Park tunes throughout the film’s soundtrack. Reti is also not referring to “variations on themes” that highlight a composer’s writing chops, as in the 12 variations Mozart wrote for the melody we call “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” In Thematic Process Reti is talking about something much more profound.   

One of the examples he uses is Beethoven’s ninth symphony. For Reti, the entire four-movement, hour-plus musical smorgasbord, can be reduced to a handful of short motivic elements. The first and most prominent is comprised of only three notes: D, A, and F. That’s it. Nearly every melody, every accompanying passage; even the hummable “Ode to Joy” finale—all of that was built around this simple architecture.

Was Reti right? And could his thesis have implications beyond music? Even as an impressionable teenager, I was skeptical of Reti’s argument. After all, there are only twelve notes in Western music. Couldn’t people take most any passage of music and find the pattern they’re after?

Musicologists have been skeptical, too. In a 1952 review of the book, Alvin Bauman of Columbia University writes, “Pretension and over ambition, twin gods, have committed another crime in the name of musical theory. The victims have been Dr. Rudolph Reti and his book, The Thematic Process in Music.” That is the opening line, and it only gets worse from there. He accuses Reti of “illogicality, false evidence, and other-worldliness.”

Oftentimes, those who see patterns that others can’t see are derided as mad. A conspiracy theorist may think that pharmaceutical companies are purposefully pushing vaccines merely for profit, and that vaccines cause autism and other disorders. A superstitious person may think the real reason they got a bonus at work was because “whenever there is a full moon good things always happen to me. I’ve seen it.” A racist may be convinced that all people who belong to a particular racial or ethnic group are the same—racists tend to discard differences among members of the target ethnic group, and only focus on the times when an incident supports whatever “pattern” they were after.

In more serious cases, the tendency to exaggerate patterns is associated with pathology. For someone suffering from schizophrenia, having an apophany (as opposed to an epiphany) refers to seeing patterns where there are none. The film A Beautiful Mind dramatizes this, when the character of John Nash collects printed materials and scatters them about, “uncovering” what he thinks of as patterns of conspiracy.

The line between epiphany and something less rational isn’t always clear, though. Pattern recognition, after all, is essential to our survival. If you have seen a certain type of spider kill someone, you will stay away from these things, and you will teach your children to do the same.

Whether or not we are willing to go the lengths Reti goes, it is not difficult to buy into his basic premise: that both consciously and instinctively, people can generate creations of a profound intellectual design. And when we begin to see ourselves as part of a system—an organization, a state—it is common to find patterns that we, as individuals, help reinforce.

Over the last fifty years, social science has moved increasingly in the direction of behavioralism (not to be confused with behaviorism). That is, an effort to objectively uncover broad patterns of behavior, especially among large groups. Borrowing from economics, disciplines like sociology and political science have come to place less emphasis on analyzing unique “cultures.” Instead, they have made efforts to discover universally applicable patterns of cause and effect. Where an earlier scholar may have asked, “What about Brazilian culture leads to corruption?” A more contemporary one may ask instead, “What institutional mechanisms are associated with the levels of corruption we see in the Brazilian legislature? (And, by the way, given the similar voting mechanisms found in the United States, can Brazil shed any light on U.S. Congressional corruption?)” The difference is important. With the second question(s), the social scientist assumes that the study will be useful in understanding corruption in other countries; that there is nothing “culturally unique” about Brazilian corruption. This change of mindset has turned social science away from cultural critiques—usually in the form of wealthy countries chastising poorer ones for a perceived cultural ineptitude or religious shortcoming (see: Protestant work ethic), into something inherently more valuable: an honest effort to reach an objective truth. This approach is only possible if we look for universal patterns.

A simplified example of "motif I," as Rudolph Reti analyzed it, appearing in each of the four movements of Beethoven's ninth symphony.

On an individual level, Reti-like pattern recognition can uncover a treasure trove of useful information. The timeless phrase, “the way you do anything is the way you do everything,” comes to mind. That is, our own actions may be shaped by what Reti refers to as “motivic structure,” or more appropriately, what psychologists call personality traits. If you can draw a connection between the way you work, the way you handle relationships, the way you handle stress, and maybe even the way you approach food and sleep, you may reach a deeper level of self-awareness. Beyond trait theory, though, what else can we find when we look for patterns in everything we do? Perhaps through a deep, Reti-like pattern exploration we can uncover an important foundational structure to our own life experience, one that is not visible through personality tests, religious teachings, self-help mantras, or other cookie-cutter formulas of human behavior.

I will leave Rudolph Reti’s legacy for musicologists to debate. Reti was part of an awakening in the science of music, which coincided with the rise of highly intellectualized compositions by the likes of fellow Austrians Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Perhaps Reti represents a logical extreme of this entire movement—analysis overkill. But in art, as in life, the balance between thinking and overthinking; epiphany and apophany, is rarely ever clear.

Nathan Gonzalez is founding publisher and executive editor of Nortia Press, an Orange County-based publisher of literary fiction and global affairs books. He teaches Middle Eastern politics at California State University, Long Beach, and once in a while dabbles in music. You can hear his compositions on Soundcloud.

Follow Nathan on twitter: @nathangonzalez