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A musical figure or figuration is the shortest idea in music, a short succession of notes, often recurring. It may have melodic pitch, harmonic progression and rhythmic (duration). 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". To Scruton, 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."
A phrase originally presented or heard as a motif may become a figure which 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.
Minimalist music may be constructed entirely from figures. Roger Scruton describes music by Philip Glass such as Akhnaten as "nothing but figures...endless daisy-chains". A basic figure is known as a riff in American popular music.
- White, John D. (1976). The Analysis of Music, p.31-34. ISBN 0-13-033233-X [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Scruton, Roger (1997). The Aesthetics of Music, p.61. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-816638-9 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. Cited 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 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- (1964). Grove's Dictionary. cited in Scruton, Roger (1997).
- Scruton (1997), 63.