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Opera motifs

    Objectives and assessment

  • Grade Level - 8-12 (or younger with age-appropriate opera and adequate preparation)
  • Student Prerequisites - Students should be capable of remembering and aurally recognizing specific melodies, regardless of small alterations in melody , rhythm , texture , or timbre . This activity will work best with students who have a mature attention span and some familiarity with classical music .
  • Teacher Expertise - The teacher should be familiar and comfortable with the terms and concepts regarding motif , and should be familiar with the opera to be presented, but training in music education is not necessary.
  • Time Requirements - Allow at least 30 minutes each for pre-performance and post-performance discussions. Performance time will depend on specific opera and venue.
  • Objectives - The student will practice actively listening for and recognizing specific motifs in opera music, and will understand the musical and dramatic uses of opera motifs.
  • Evaluation - Grade students on active participation in the class discussion, and on essays if assigned.

    Materials and preparation

  • You may want to prepare the class for this activity by doing the Motif and/or Melodic Themes and Movies activities first. A lecture on the terms and concepts regarding motif is the minimum necessary class preparation for this activity.
  • Arrange for the class to see a live opera performance performed locally, or to watch in class a taped opera performance. Whether live or taped, subtitles are important if the performance is in a foreign language.
  • See Melody for a discussion of the concepts and terms that you may want to introduce to the students before seeing the opera.
  • If this is a production by a local company, the easiest way to do this may be to contact the opera company and ask if they have anyone who does or is willing to do outreach or education programs. Ask for a presentation to your class that includes two things: an introduction to the plot and the characters, and an introduction to some of the melodies that the students can listen for, that are associated with certain characters, things, ideas, or events, especially if those melodies can be heard in many places throughout the opera.
  • If the opera company cannot send someone, you may still be able to find a local musician or music teacher (or college student!) who can make this presentation to your class. If not, you may be able to make it yourself using program notes from a recording of the opera. A text on opera such as The Definitive Kobbe's Opera Book can also be helpful in this regard, particularly if you play piano and can play the themes and motifs in it for your class.


  • Introduce the students to some of the motifs or musical themes of the opera, before they attend the performance. Recognizing the motifs (and knowing what they represent) can make the performance much more involving.
  • The procedure for familiarizing the students with the motifs will depend on the resources you have found. Try to ensure that the students recognize at least the main motifs, whenever they hear them, and know what each represents, before they attend the performance. Tell them what the discussion points will be after the performance.
  • Attend the performance, or watch the recording.
  • Follow the performance with a short discussion. Which motifs did the students notice the most? When did they hear them? (Who was on stage; who was singing; what was happening in the plot?) What was the connection with the character or plot?
  • You may also follow the discussion with an assignment to write an essay about the performance. Besides a discussion of the use of motifs, subjects for the essay could include a synopsis and/or analysis of the plot, a discussion of the characters or of the musical style, or a research paper on the composer or the time period.

Composing and improvising using motifs

    Objectives and assessment

  • Grade Level - 6-12
  • Student Prerequisites - Students must have have some experience playing instruments, and must be able to write common notation fairly accurately.
  • Teacher Expertise - The teacher should be trained in basic performance, composition, and/or improvisation techniques.
  • Time Requirements - Depending on the circumstances, you may make this an individual homework assignment, and then have the students play their compositions for each other during class time; or, this can be an in-class group activity. Amount of time necessary depends on student facility in composition and improvisation, and on number of student or group performances.
  • Objectives - The student will compose, manipulate and use motifs in composition an/or improvisation.
  • Evaluation - For assessment, look at melodic and rhythmic quality of motif, ability to manipulate the motif in more than one way, and successful use of the motif in the composition or improvisation.

    Materials and preparation

  • Every student will need access to a musical instrument that they can play comfortably. (Or, if this is a group project, one instrument and player per group is sufficient. If the entire class is composing as a group, the teacher may be the player.) Blank staff paper and pencils with erasers will also be needed.
  • If this is an in-class activity, each group will need an individual space (or time), so they can hear their own ideas being played. If this is not possible, do the activity as a full-class group, with students taking turns or cooperating in humming or singing ideas to be played and written down by others.
  • If there is not sufficient "quiet space" in the classroom, and the students have access to instruments at home or outside of class time, make this an individual homework assignment.


  • Each student or group will first write a short melodic motif.
  • Each student or group should then experiment with the motif, finding several different expressions of it (in a different key , for example, or using different intervals or rhythms , or playing the motif "backwards" or "upside-down") that are pleasant and still recognizable as that motif.
  • Each student or group will compose a short instrumental piece, using at least three of the different expressions of the motif to make a melody that is unified but interesting. (They may use each variation of the motif as many times as they want.)
  • If the students are learning how to improvise, they may also be given an opportunity to improvise using motifs. Unless the students are already confident improvisers, they will still benefit from the exercise of writing out and practicing a motif and its possible variations before being asked to improvise using that motif (and its variations). If the students are learning to improvise over changes, have them identify which variations of the motif might work with particular chords before they try to improvise. If they are beginning improvisers, ask them to improvise their motif-based melody without a harmonic background, or give them the changes and allow them to compose and memorize at least one motif-based melody that works with the changes before trying to improvise (with the same motif) over the changes.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Music appreciation. OpenStax CNX. Mar 24, 2014 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11640/1.1
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