In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Motet

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Catalogues
  • Studies Spanning Multiple Periods
  • Sources and Editions for Multiple Periods
  • England, Mid-16th–18th Centuries

Music Motet
Jennifer Thomas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0008


The motet, a free-standing work usually for a vocal ensemble, emerged in the late 12th or early 13th century and evolved over time according to cultural and stylistic norms. Motets played a leading role as vehicles for compositional innovation and virtuosic display throughout the 14th–16th centuries. In the 17th and 18th centuries, national styles fractured established compositional norms and multiplied the terms used to designate equivalent musical genres. Since the 19th century, composers have often looked to early models, emulating specific qualities, particularly those of the 14th–16th centuries, such as isorhythm, rhythmic idioms, cantus firmus, voicings, textures, cadential formulas, texts or text types, harmonies, and melodic styles from earlier periods. Twentieth- and 21st-century choral music along a wide spectrum of styles fits the criteria of a motet, from retrospective homage to current experimentation, whether or not the “motet” label is applied. Because the style, function, and terminology associated with the motet vary from the time of its origin in the 13th century, no description can encompass all motets. Some hallmarks apply in most periods, though works in every time and place may diverge from the common traits, often as a result of their intended function. The motet often combines a text of high quality with music intended to be sung by skilled singers and heard by sophisticated listeners, as asserted by Johannes de Grocheio for its earliest period: “This sort of song should not be performed before ordinary people, because they do not notice its fine points nor enjoy listening to it, but before learned people and those on the lookout for subtleties in the arts” (Johannes Grocheio, Concerning Music, edited by A. Seay, Colorodo Springs, 1973, p. 26). Texts may be in Latin or in any vernacular language; or they may be either religious or secular, drawn from scripture, liturgy, poetry, or freely composed. In each period of its history, the motet tends to fulfill Tinctoris’s description of the genre as “moderate” (Motetus est cantus mediocris); it falls somewhere between the largest (e.g., Mass, oratorio) and the smallest (e.g., chanson, Lied) works for vocal ensemble, not only in size and formality of the likely venue but also in length, seriousness, and formality of the text and compositional style, and degree of adherence to compositional expectations. Musically and textually, the motet interacts with the culture around it, representing in each period the current tastes and concerns of compositional technique and cultural topical interest, and this quality precludes a single definition or description. The audience, function, and performance context of the motet varies over time and is sometimes unknown, or known only in a general sense. Much of the literature addresses the continuously changing nature of the motet.

Reference Works

The motet has rarely been treated in comprehensive studies by a single author, and never in English. Major articles in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (MGG), and Grove Music Online along with its original print counterpart, New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, are the most current comprehensive overviews. MGG and Grove include significant articles on the motet as well as articles containing biographical information and lists of compositions for most of the major composers of motets and for the vast majority of those who are less well known. Some individual works are mentioned within articles on composers. Many musical sources containing motets are mentioned and briefly described in Boorman, et al. 2007–2014). In addition, Grove Music Online can be searched for individual motet texts in works lists, though this search is far from comprehensive, as not all composer articles include complete works lists. Owens 2003 provides a succinct, reliable overview. Each of the sources listed provides further bibliography on the motet.

  • Boorman, Stanley, Ernest M. Sanders, Peter M. Lefferts, et al. “Sources, MS.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. 2007–2014.

    Extensive article, subdivided by period and type of repertory contained in the sources; identifies known extant musical manuscripts containing motets. Section 5, “Early Motet,” is dedicated to motet manuscripts, but motets are mentioned in every section of this article, including those for monophonic manuscripts. Searching for “motet” within the article yields 473 occurrences of the term. By subscription only.

  • Kügel, Karl, Laurenz Lütteken, and Arno Forchert (revision of Ludwig Finscher). “Motette.” In (MGG), Sachteil 6. Edited by Friedrich Blume, 499–546. Prague: Bärenreiter, 1997.

    Substantial article organized according to chronology, with a general introduction that discusses terminology and historiography. Chronological divisions occur at stylistic junctures in the development of the motet: 1320, 1420, 15th–16th centuries (further subdivided), and Baroque to the early 21st century (further subdivided geographically). Included are musical examples and an extensive bibliography subdivided by topic. Also see MGG articles for “Motette-Chanson” and “Motetti missales,” both by Ludwig Finscher.

  • Owens, Jessie Ann. “Motet.” In The Harvard Dictionary of Music. 4th ed. Edited by Don Michael Randall, 529–532. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2003.

    Describes the motet within three major phases of development: the first (1200–1450) as a musical structure, the second (1450–1600) as a genre, and the third (after 1600) as a musical style derived from Palestrina. Each section provides detailed descriptions, mentioning composers, compositional techniques, and specific works. Also has a bibliography.

  • Sanders, Ernest H., Peter M. Lefferts, Leeman Perkins, Patrick Macey, James R. Anthony, and Malcom Boyd. “Motet.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. 2001.

    Comprehensive overview of the motet in English. Organized by time period: Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, after 1750, and 20th century, plus further subdivisions by geographic region. Includes a detailed explanation of isorhythm and some discussion of specific works and composers. Features musical examples, facsimile examples, and extensive bibliography subdivided by topic. Authoritative on each period of the motet’s existence.

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