motive or motif (mōtēfˈ) [key], in music, a short phrase or passage of two or more notes and repeated or elaborated throughout the composition. The term is usually used synonymously with figure. A special kind of motive is the leitmotiv, wherein a character or a dramatic idea is represented throughout an opera by one or more motives. The leitmotiv technique is almost as old as opera itself, but its most extensive application is found in Wagner's works.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.