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15 Of The Most Iconic Leitmotifs In Film

Written by Dan Farrant

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Pioneered by composer Richard Wagner, the leitmotif has been used in operatic works since way back in the 19th century. But, with the dawn of film in the 20th century, composers like John Williams have found huge success in using leitmotifs in movies, too.

Throughout the years, leitmotifs have been used in some of the greatest films in history. They are sonic signatures that make these movies unforgettable and have become synonymous with the character. So what are we waiting for? Read on and take a look at 15 of the greatest and most iconic leitmotifs in film.

Quick Definition of Leitmotif

A short, recurring musical phrase that is thematically associated with a specific character, place, or concept. Read more in our guide to leitmotifs here.

1. “The Imperial March” (Darth Vader’s Theme) By John Williams

Up first, we have one of the most iconic leitmotifs out there. Darth Vader’s Theme from Star Wars. Why? Click play on the video above and tell me it’s not instantly recognizable, evoking a sense of power, menace, and drama that perfectly encapsulates the character of Darth Vader.

Also called the “Imperial March,” the leitmotif was composed by John Williams. Its minor key, use of brass, and ominous march feel warn listeners of a sinister character. It has become synonymous with the character, masterfully conveying his imposing presence and the dark side of the Force.

Williams was able to masterfully manipulate leitmotifs to show the narrative’s progression. For instance, throughout the trilogy, he develops the theme by slowing the tempo and rhythm to show Darth Vader’s transformation.

2. The Flying Theme From E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial By John Williams

Another fantastic example of a leitmotif used in film is the Flying Theme from the 1982 science fiction film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Also composed by John Williams, the Flying Theme is often confused with “Over the Moon,” another equally recognizable theme from E.T.

The Flying Theme captures the wonder, adventure, and emotional depth of the film. When it plays, it just fills the listeners’ hearts, enabling them to imagine being lifted into the air.

Like the previous entry on this list, the Flying Theme is easily recognizable. The soaring melody reflects the awe-inspiring moments of flight. Not only is this theme associated with E.T. and his magical abilities, but it’s also a symbol of his bond with the young boy, Elliot.

3. The Fellowship Theme From The Lord Of The Rings By Howard Shore

The trilogy The Lord of the Rings is overflowing with leitmotifs. But for this list, let’s focus on The Fellowship Theme, which was composed by Howard Shore. The trilogy uses this theme to represent the unity and resilience of the Fellowship of the Ring.

The theme is characterized by its soaring melody. When listeners hear it, they think of vast landscapes, heroic quests, and unwavering camaraderie. The orchestration, with its rich use of strings and brass, creates a sense of grandeur and adventure befitting an epic fantasy adventure film.

The way Shore weaves this theme throughout the trilogy, allowing it to evolve yet remain recognizable, is a testament to his skill as a composer. It’s more than just a theme; it’s an auditory symbol of hope, bravery, and the enduring power of friendship against all odds.

4. “Horn Of Plenty” From The Hunger Games By James Newton Howard

Another very recognizable leitmotif is “Horn of Plenty” from The Hunger Games film series. Through this theme, composer James Newton Howard is able to capture the dystopian world of Panem.

The “Horn of Plenty” is Panem’s national anthem. Its use throughout the film symbolizes the Capitol’s power and control over the districts. The theme’s melody is haunting yet captivating. This seems to reflect the paradoxical nature of the Capitol. It’s superficially glamorous but fundamentally oppressive.

Howard uses the theme throughout the films to highlight certain moments. For instance, during the opening ceremonies and victory tours, the theme is played in its grandiose form. But in scenes reflecting the districts’ hardships and rebellion, the theme is played in a subdued and somber tone.

5. Main Title And First Victim Theme From Jaws By John Williams

The music from the 1975 thriller film Jaws is perhaps the most recognizable leitmotif of all time. It perfectly captures the suspense and terror associated with the film’s central antagonist — the great white shark.

This theme is a simple but powerful two-note minor 2nd motif and has become synonymous with impending danger. Its use in the movie helps create tension and terror and leaves a horrified feeling in the audience. It leaves them wondering when the shark will strike.

This John Williams composition plays a huge part in Jaws. It starts out slow, building in intensity and keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. As the two-note increases in pace, it mirrors the shark’s menacing approach.

6. James Bond Main Theme By Monty Norman

Many iconic characters have their own signature theme in their movies. Perhaps the most well-known is James Bond, a fictional British spy with the codename 007. And the James Bond movies will not be complete without its James Bond Theme, as composed by Monty Norman.

This theme is known for its four-note motif and has become synonymous with the titular character. It uses electric guitar and brass to give it a slick, cool edge that mirrors Bond’s suave demeanor. The rhythm is fast-paced and energetic, reflecting the gun barrel sequence where the theme is used.

Norman uses this theme in many ways throughout the series. It’s in its vibrant form when Bond is in control of his game. But in instances of tension and danger, the theme is more subdued or tense.

7. “The Raiders March” From Indiana Jones By John Williams

From James Bond, let’s move on to another popular fictional character, Indiana Jones, a professor of archaeology. Indiana Jones is a media franchise with a series of films and television series. Its theme, also called “The Raiders March,” was another brainchild of John Williams.

The leitmotif is remarkable in many ways. First, it captures the essence of adventure that the series is known for. Second, the theme evokes the spirit of exploration, danger, and heroism associated with Indiana Jones.

“The Raiders March” is a unifying thread across all Indiana Jones movies. Despite the changing settings and new characters, the theme maintains a constant connection to the identity of Indiana Jones.

8. Hedwig’s Theme From Harry Potter By John Williams

The main theme for the entire Harry Potter series is called Hedwig’s Theme. Composed by John Williams, it’s named after Harry Potter’s pet owl, Hedwig.

The theme runs for five minutes, though Harry Potter fans can immediately recognize the leitmotif in just a few seconds. When listening to the theme, the audience is transported into the magical world of Harry Potter.

Hedwig’s Theme is characterized by its distinctive melody. The lead instrument is the celesta, which lends the theme its ethereal quality. This instrument and the intricate composition make the theme instantly recognizable and strongly associated with the idea of magic.

9. “He’s A Pirate” From Pirates Of The Caribbean By Klaus Badelt And Hans Zimmer

Another movie franchise teeming with leitmotifs is the Pirates of the Caribbean. One of the most notable is “He’s a Pirate,” composed by Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer. It’s played at the beginning of all the films in the series.

“He’s a Pirate” stands out because it conveys Jack Sparrow’s roguish character, high-seas adventure, and daring action. The theme features a driving rhythm that captures images of sailing through tumultuous seas and epic battles.

In addition, the use of bass and rhythmic strings creates a sense of excitement and urgency. Not only does it mirror the fast-paced and dangerous journey of the characters, but It also hypes up the audience for the beginning of the movie.

10. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Theme By Ennio Morricone

Although the movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly came out in 1966, its theme lives on. Composed by Ennio Morricone, the theme is one of the most recognizable leitmotifs and soundtracks in history. In fact, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

The use of the haunting two-note motif perfectly captures 1860s America, where gunslingers search for gold. The theme’s echoing whistle and coyote-like howls paint a picture of the vast, desolate Western landscape.

The theme’s strength lies in its ability to evoke emotional response from the audience. It captures the suspense and the thrill of the chase, the standoff, and the overarching themes of greed, honor, and survival.

11. “Superman March” From Superman By John Williams

Before you get confused, John Williams‘ “Superman March” appears in the 1978 film Superman and not the 2013 Man of Steel. This clarification is important to highlight Williams’ enduring impact across the different adaptations of the Superman saga.

If there’s one thing to say about “Superman March,” it’s that it is exemplary. The use of bold brass sections, heroic motifs, and sweeping orchestral arrangements captures the essence of Superman’s character. It conveys his strength and capacity for soaring to great heights.

This leitmotif is easily recognizable. The melody is uplifting and inspiring, mirroring the idealism and hope that Superman represents.

12. “Somewhere In My Memory” From Home Alone By John Williams

Christmas is still far away (I’m writing this in February!), but “Somewhere in My Memory” from the 1990 film Home Alone gives us the holiday vibes. Composed by John Williams, the soundtrack received nominations from the Academy and Grammy Awards.

“Somewhere in My Memory” is a great leitmotif for several reasons. One, it’s an emotional anchor throughout the movie. It reinforces themes of family, nostalgia, and the magic of Christmas. Two, the composition is rich with a simple and memorable melody. Hence, the audience can easily identify it and associate it with the movie’s main character, Kevin.

The repeated use of the leitmotif reminds us of Kevin’s isolation and his desire to be reunited with his family. It then becomes a narrative device that deepens the audience’s emotional engagement with the story.

13. “Ironside” Siren Sound From Kill Bill By Quincy Jones

Up next, we have a leitmotif that’s different from the rest on our list. Instead of using an original score, Quentin Tarantino used an excerpt from Quincy Jones‘ “Ironside” for his 2003 film Kill Bill: Volume 1.

The siren sound is an exemplary leitmotif because it evokes an immediate emotional response. When it plays in the movie, it means “The Bride,” Uma Thurman’s character, has set her eyes on her next target. The sound signifies her impending action.

The distinctiveness of the sound ensures that the audience immediately recognizes the importance of the upcoming scene. Thus, it heightens their anticipation for what is to come.

14. Psycho Main Theme By Bernard Herrmann

In the horror/suspense genre, nothing is as iconic and easily recognizable as the murder motif from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Composed by Bernard Herrmann, the theme is known for its psychological impact and vital role in the narrative.

The theme is played in the shower scene, with the high-pitched staccato notes mimicking the stabbing motions. The sound and this imagery heighten the sense of terror and shock. It’s then used during other murder/attempted murder scenes throughout the film.

15. Godzilla Main Theme By Akira Ifukube

Finally, we have the Godzilla Main Theme, composed by Akira Ifukube. It’s a monumental leitmotif in cinematic history, capturing the essence of one of film’s most iconic monsters.

This leitmotif elicits awe and terror from the audience, mirroring the complex nature of Godzilla itself. The deep, resonating brass and percussion depict Godzilla’s immense power and the destruction it brings.

Culturally, Ifukube’s composition has become synonymous with Godzilla and the kaiju genre as a whole. It’s not just a motif for Godzilla but also an auditory symbol of the broader themes explored in the films.

Summing Up Our List Of Movie Leitmotifs

The list of songs above proved that leitmotifs are vital elements of movies. Composers have effectively used them as tools to elevate storytelling to new heights. They have become synonymous with the characters, emotions, and themes they represent.

With our list, we’ve only scratched the surface. So, if you know of leitmotifs that should appear on the list, let us know! We’ll add them for you.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.