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What Is A Leitmotif In Music? A Complete Guide

Written by Samuel Chase

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In music, a leitmotif is a relatively unknown concept, though it is super common. If you’ve ever watched famous films like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or the Avengers films, you’ve heard leitmotifs, though you might not know it.

This article will go over exactly what a leitmotif is, why we use it, and how it functions in music and in film.

Definition of Leitmotif

A leitmotif in music is a short, recurring musical phrase that is thematically associated with a specific character, place, or concept.

A motif in music, which is where leitmotif gets its name from (in German, leitmotif means “leading motif”), is simply the smallest unit of a single piece of music that has a thematic or structural identity.

Although a leitmotif is usually a melody, it can also be a specific chord progression or even a rhythm.

A leitmotif is different from a regular motif because a leitmotif is always associated with something that is not in the music.

This is why leitmotifs are mainly found in film music, and they are associated with a specific character or location in the film.

History of Leitmotifs in Music

The concept of the leitmotif is most commonly associated with Richard Wagner, who used them frequently in his operas.

For example, here is one from his opera Siegfried that is associated with the title character: 

Siegfried First Leitmotif from Siegfried by Wagner

There are many other leitmotifs in this opera, such as this one that Siegfried plays on his horn, which is then repeated throughout the opera in association with Siegfried as a character. 

‘Siegfried’s Horn Call’ from Siegfried by Wagner

The Siegfried opera is one of Wagner’s cycle of four epic Music Dramas called Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848-1874), and it is this four-piece cycle that is most commonly credited as the music that brought leitmotifs from being used sporadically before to being a key part of music that accompanies visual media, like film. 

Examples Of Leitmotifs in Film

Nowadays, people don’t think of Wagner when they think of musical leitmotifs. They think of film music, and for good reason.

Most people don’t go to see an opera live or listen to classical music regularly. However, almost everybody in their life has seen a movie, and more often than not, those movies have music with them, and that music uses leitmotifs.

For example, whenever Luke (or others) uses the force in the Star Wars movies, a specific piece of music plays, called the “Force” theme.

And whenever Darth Vader shows up on screen or is mentioned, in the same movies, the “Imperial March” melody plays: 

“Imperial March” From Star Wars by John Williams

John Williams, the composer who wrote the music for all of the Star Wars films, has many, many famous leitmotifs that he has written throughout his career.

Try to think of the music for the Indiana Jones movies, or E.T., or Jaws, Superman, or Jurassic Park. Each of these films will have many leitmotifs that represent characters or situations in the film through the soundtrack.

Here is Hedwig’s Theme from the Harry Potter movies, which is almost as famous as the main character himself, although it was written originally as a leitmotif for the owl Hedwig.

Hedwig’s Theme From Harry Potter by John Williams

Leitmotifs help people remember the feeling or the emotion of a film when they’re played.

Across the nine films of the Star Wars franchise or the eight films of the Harry Potter franchise, those specific music cues give a feeling of continuity so that when someone is watching one of the later films in each franchise, they know that this new movie will be similar to one they watched before because the music is associated with the previous movies.

Another famous example of leitmotifs working across multiple films is the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In all three films, whenever the Shire (the main village where the hobbits – the main characters – live) is mentioned or seen on screen, the same leitmotif is played every time.

This gives viewers a sense of continuity (that the films are all related to each other), and it also evokes those feelings that the viewer felt when watching the previous movies. 

‘The Shire’ from Lord Of The Rings by Howard Shore

The composer for the Lord of the Ring series, Howard Shore, wrote over 20 leitmotifs for the films, including music for the “One Ring,” “Sauron,” “Isengard,” “Rivendell,” character themes for Gandalf, Frodo, Smeagol, Aragorn, and the “Fellowship” theme, as heard here: 

‘The Fellowship’ from Lord Of The Rings by Howard Shore

Summing Up Leitmotifs

First found in the operatic music of Richard Wagner, leitmotifs have become an integral part of almost all film music.

They are used to introduce characters, to show their character development or their inner emotions, to transport the audience to a different world, whether it be real or imaginary, and to make the audience feel something at certain times throughout the film. 

The most important points about leitmotifs are that they are repeated, noticeable, and only associated with one character, place, or concept.

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Samuel Chase has been playing music since he was 5 years old, and teaching music since he was 13. He has a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey, and he has composed music that has been played in three different countries. He is currently working as a film composer and writing a book on film music.