Welcome to the first of the School of Composition’s Analysis series. Today we’re looking at the incredible motivic development of Beethoven’s 1st movement of the 6th Symphony.

In the video below I show you how Beethoven uses his beautiful theme to build the whole of this first movement:

Beethoven 6th Symphony theme
Beethoven 6th Symphony theme

I have color-coded the music so as the piece moves along you can see how it originates from the theme. Here’s one of the simpler examples. The parts of the music highlighted in orange are derived from the part highlighted in orange in the theme. The same goes for every other color so it should be fairly straightforward.

Also notice that I’ve labelled the chords with Roman Numerals so you’ll know what the chord progressions are.

Before we get going with the piece itself, I’d like to point out some things that you should look at. First, notice how the 4-bar theme is broken down into many smaller parts (i.e. motifs):

Breaking down of motifs - Beethoven's 6th Symphony
Breaking down of motifs – Beethoven’s 6th Symphony

In this example, Beethoven repeats just 2 fragments from the theme:

Breaking down motifs (2) - Beethoven's 6th Symphony
Breaking down motifs (2) – Beethoven’s 6th Symphony

In turn, motifs are:

  1. Repeated;
  2. Moved around to start on different notes (i.e. transposed);
  3. Varied – for example the skip of the third from the original eventually becomes a smooth step;
  4. And inverted – meaning that they’re put upside down:
Motivic development in Beethoven's 6th Symphony
Motivic development in Beethoven’s 6th Symphony
  1. This little motif appears in inversion and then in augmentation. So the same rhythmic unit of before (1 eighth note + 2 sixteenth notes) is doubled in value into 1 quarter note + 2 eighth notes.
Rhythmic motif and augmentation in Beethoven's 6th Symphony
Rhythmic motif and augmentation in Beethoven’s 6th Symphony
  1. The rhythm too can vary – for example this unit of 2 sixteenths unit plus an eighth note becomes an eighth note triplet.
Rhythmic variation into triplet - Beethoven's 6th Symphony
Rhythmic variation into triplet – Beethoven’s 6th Symphony
  1. Finally, notice how the simple 3-note motif (in green) is:
  • Augmented (eighth notes becomes quarter notes),
  • Inverted (up then down becomes down then up);
  • Transposed (starts on a different note);
  • And extended by attaching it to its own repetition:
Motivic development - Beethoven's 6th Symphonies
Motivic development – Beethoven’s 6th Symphony

Or by simply attaching it to the repeated note idea:

Motivic development - Beethoven's 6th Symphonies
Motivic development – Beethoven’s 6th Symphony

As you can see there are many details to look out for so don’t worry if you can’t catch them all immediately. You might need to pause the video or just watch it a couple of times. Either way, please enjoy (and if you like it, please help me out and share it with your fellow composers and musicians).

Here’s the video (go to 02:39 to skip the intro):

Also, a personal thank you to Klaus Ferretti for his honest feedback on this analysis.

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