AskDefine | Define leitmotiv

Dictionary Definition

leitmotiv n : a melodic phrase that accompanies the reappearance of a person or situation (as in Wagner's operas) [syn: leitmotif]

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  1. alternative spelling of leitmotif


Extensive Definition

For the album by dredg, see Leitmotif (album).
A leitmotif () (also leitmotiv; lit. "leading motif") is a recurring musical theme, associated with a particular person, place, or idea. The word has also been used by extension to mean any sort of recurring theme, whether in music, literature, or the life of a fictional character or a real person.
Although usually a short melody, it can also be a chord progression or even a simple rhythm. Leitmotifs can help to bind a work together into a coherent whole, and also enable the composer to relate a story without the use of words, or to add an extra level to an already present story.
The word is usually used when talking about dramatic works, especially operas, although leitmotifs are also used in other musical genres, such as instrumental pieces, cinema, and video game music.
The word itself has a mixed etymology, as a further meaning to the German word Motiv was borrowed in the 18th century from the French motif, meaning "motive" or "theme", while the German word Motiv itself can be traced back to the 16th century, meaning only "motive" (cf. Latin motivus). Prefixing it with leit- (coming from the German leiten, "to lead"), produces Leitmotiv (German plural: Leitmotive), meaning "leading motif".

Usage in classical music

The use of characteristic, short, recurring motives in orchestral music can be traced back to the late eighteenth century. In French opera of this period (such as the works of Grétry and Méhul) "reminiscence motifs" can be identified, which may recur at a significant juncture in the plot to establish an association with earlier events. Their use is however not extensive or systematic. The power of the technique was exploited early in the nineteenth century by composers of Romantic opera, such as Carl Maria von Weber . Indeed, the first use of the word "leitmotif" in print was by the critic F. W. Jähns in describing Weber's work, although this was not until 1871. Motives were also important in purely instrumental music of the time: the most famous example is the opening movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, whose central motif was said by Beethoven's friend and biographer Schindler to represent "fate knocking at the door". The related idea of the idée fixe was coined by Hector Berlioz in reference to his Symphonie Fantastique, a purely instrumental work that has a recurring melody representing the love of the central characters.
It is Richard Wagner, however, who is the composer most often associated with leitmotifs. His cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, uses dozens of leitmotifs, often relating to specific characters, things, or situations. While some of these leitmotifs occur in only one of the operas, many occur throughout the entire cycle. Some controversy surrounded the use of the word in Wagner's own circle: Wagner never authorised the use of the word "leitmotiv", using words such as "Grundthema" (basic idea), or simply "Motiv", instead. The word was disputed because of its early association with the overly literal interpretations of Wagner's music by Hans von Wolzogen, who in 1876 published a "Leitfaden" (guide or manual) to the "Ring". In it he isolated and named all of the recurring motives in the cycle (the motive of "Servitude", the "Spear" or "Treaty" motive, etc), often leading to absurdities or contradictions with Wagner's actual practice. The resulting list of leitmotives attracted the ridicule of anti-Wagnerian critics and composers (such as Eduard Hanslick, Claude Debussy, or Igor Stravinsky). They identified it with Wagner's own approach to composing, and mocked the impression of a musical "address book" or list of "cloakroom numbers" it created. In fact Wagner himself never publicly named any of his leitmotives, preferring to emphasise their flexibility of association, role in the musical form, and emotional effect. The practice of naming leitmotives nevertheless continued in popularity throughout the last century, for instance in the work of prominent Wagnerian critics Ernest Newman and Deryck Cooke.
Since Wagner, the use of leitmotifs has been taken up by many other composers. Richard Strauss used the device in many of his operas and several of his symphonic poems. Despite being otherwise opposed to Wagner, Claude Debussy relied on leitmotifs in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande. The Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev made heavy use of leitmotifs in his work Peter and the Wolf, a musical story with narration; in it, each character is represented by a specific instrument in the orchestra, as well as an associated melodic theme. Other notable examples of leitmotifs are Aida's theme in Verdi's Aida and Scarpia's theme in Puccini's Tosca. Edgard Varèse reintroduced the idée fixe in his early orchestral works, notably Amériques and Arcana. Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony also uses leitmotifs, the main one featuring in every movement.

Movies, television, and video games

Leitmotifs are very common in movie scores; a well known example is the Star Wars Imperial March associated with Darth Vader in the Star Wars series of films composed by John Williams. Sometimes, a leitmotif of a main character is the same as the theme music of the movie or TV show.
Other examples of leitmotifs used in movies and television include:
  • One of the very earliest leitmotifs in film was in Fritz Lang's M, where Peter Lorre's character, a serial killer, always enters to the sound of Lang whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King."
  • Perhaps one of the most simple and recognizable leitmotifs, the main "shark" theme from Jaws, is a simple alternating pattern of two notes, E and F, and became a classic piece of suspense music, synonymous with approaching danger.
  • The work of Howard Shore in his The Lord of the Rings scores includes extensive use of leitmotifs which occur throughout the length of the three films. The themes represent different characters, cultures, and places. Some film critics have made connections (if only by name) between Shore's work on The Lord of the Rings and Wagner's monumental Ring operas.
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, an adaptation of the musical of the same name, relies heavily on leitmotifs; at least twenty can be identified, most notably the Dies Irae-inspired accompaniment to "Epiphany."
  • Max Steiner used many leitmotifs in Gone with the Wind, with a theme for almost every character who was seen more than once. He used the main theme of the movie ("Tara's Theme") as a regular leitmotif.
  • Each of the main characters in Mary Poppins (i.e. Mary Poppins, the children, Mr. Banks, Mrs. Banks, and Bert) has a leitmotif, usually the melody of a song sung by the character. In addition, various minor characters also have leitmotif, such as Admiral Boom.
  • In the James Bond films, the "James Bond Theme" music is often explicitly heard during action sequences, or referenced with similar chord changes and structure.
  • Similarly, the main theme of the Indiana Jones series is often played as an expression for Indy during action scenes.
  • Cult favorite Return to Oz has a theme for nearly every character. Composer David Shire used a different instrument for every character and their theme, and went to the lengths of even giving two characters their own themes that eventually merged into one tune when played together.
  • The music within Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (1986 musical) contains leitmotifs for some of its characters. The most popular example is likely the powerful pipe organ chord progression for the Phantom himself. Others include "Angel of Music" to represent Christine and the Phantom's relationship, "Think of Me" and "All I Ask of You" for Raoul and Christine's relationship, and "Notes" for Monsieur Andre and Monsieur Firmin. The final scene of the musical features a blend of "Point of No Return," "Angel of Music," and "All I Ask of You" that accompanies the intense and climactic mood of the scene.
  • Among Westerns, perhaps the most famous film to make use of leitmotifs is Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West.
  • The song "This Old Man" is frequently used as a leitmotif in the Columbo television series, usually whistled by Peter Falk.
  • The 'theme' song of Brazil (a cover of a famous song from the 1930's) recurs in short bursts and background music throughout the film.
  • Curt Massey, the composer for the television series The Beverly Hillbillies, created several leitmotifs for the show's characters, most notably the memorable theme for Mr. Drysdale and the Commerce Bank. Before Massey joined the show, composer Perry Botkin had limited the themes to an "opening" theme, a theme for Elly May, and the ubiquitous series theme. Massey also toyed with the idea of leitmotifs for his other series, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.
  • The television soap opera Dynasty also used musical themes for each character, as did the action cartoon Batman: The Animated Series. Angelo Badalamenti wrote "Laura Palmer's Theme" on Twin Peaks which used leitmotifs for many characters, perhaps as a parody of its bigger budget soap cousins.
  • Another example from a television soap opera is the use of the leitmotif in Days of Our Lives for whenever supervillain Stefano DiMera, or one of his minions, was nearby, or whenever his handiwork was being discovered--a distinct three-note tune on a panflute was played.
  • Michael Giacchino's score for the television serial Lost includes one leitmotif used when groups of characters are shown engaging in long climbs up hills or mountains. The first such scene was shortened considerably for broadcast but included separately in the published DVDs. The music over the dissolving, otherwise silent long shots expresses effort and passage of time. Another leitmotif emphasizing kettle drums was used over shots dissolving into blackouts during the semi-synoptic episode "The Other 48 Days" to say, "You already know this part."
  • In the revival of Doctor Who, a track known as "The Doctor's Theme" on the soundtrack is heard during references to Bad Wolf, which becomes more conspicuous as the 2005 series progresses, or when things get "too Time Lord-y". Variations on the theme are heard in the 2006 series over some references to the Doctor's companion, Rose Tyler. The Daleks and Cybermen also have leitmotifs which are used in episodes in which they appear.
  • In the Friday the 13th (film series), Harry Manfredini implemented a vocal effect to indicate the presence of the killer. While watching a rough cut of the original Friday the 13th, and while contemplating a leitmotif for the picture, the line “Kill her, mommy,” entranced Manfredini. He distilled the line down to "kill mom," and then truncated it even further into "ki" and "ma." He then spoke each syllable a single time into an Echoplex, creating the signature ‘ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma’ motif that went on to be used in each subsequent sequel.
  • Fred Myrow's score in Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm relies rather heavily on the use of leitmotif, as do the following films in the franchise.
  • On all of the Law & Order series, there is a recurring plaintive leitmotif for major catalysts in the storyline such as discovery of a crime or damning evidence.
  • The original Star Trek television series was a constant source of leitmotifs; two of the more famous examples were a characteristic electric bass guitar theme that accompanied any scene in which the character Spock was engaged in deep thought, and a well-recognized battle theme heard in many hand-to-hand fight scenes. Likewise, the appearance of other characters were often accompanied by musical motifs, either reflecting the character's ethnicity (e.g., a Scottish ditty can be heard in several of Scotty's appearances) or suggesting an emotional theme (e.g., martial-like themes for hostile aliens and soft romantic themes for female love interests). Use of character-specific motifs was continued in the later Star Trek films as well; for instance, Worf is often introduced with a Klingon theme. Conversely, the modern Star Trek spin-offs are notable for a complete absence of leitmotifs, a specific decision by former Star Trek producer Rick Berman.
  • In the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, a simple 9-note leitmotif is played in scenes featuring Number Six.
  • Courage the Cowardly Dog has quite a few villains with their own leitmotif. For example, Katz, who could be considered Courage's arch-enemy, is always accompanied by a distinctive melody, a soft but disturbing drum theme. Another was Le Quack, a French duck villain who is accompanied by an accordion melody.
  • Batman: The Animated Series, scored by composer Shirley Walker, featured individual leitmotifs for recurring villains from Batman's rogues' gallery as well as a hero theme based on the film score by Danny Elfman. Additionally, many individual episodes featured an overarching musical theme that was unique to that episode, such as the jazz-inspired score for A Bullet for Bullock that won an Emmy in 1996.
  • In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel TV series, the song "Close Your Eyes" by Christophe Beck appeared throughout Seasons 2 and 3 of Buffy and Season 1 of Angel whenever the title characters, Buffy and Angel, were in a deeply emotional scene. It was used to such an extent that it become known to fans as "The Buffy / Angel love song" .
  • In the Stargate series, a number of characters have leitmotifs, including Orlin, Vala Mal Doran, and even the Prometheus starship.
Video games often make use of leitmotifs as well, especially role-playing games. These games are of epic scale and length, which lends well to the use of recurring themes, and a soundtrack can have several hours of music with hundreds of different pieces, each drawing on the same leitmotifs in different keys or with different (often synthesized) instruments.
An early example is the Fat Man's score to The 7th Guest, in which each of the six main guests has their own theme (stated quite explicitly in the first sequence where they eneter one-by-one).
For example, the Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu uses leitmotifs in many of his video game soundtracks, including the Final Fantasy series, where many characters have their own recognizable musical theme. Many Final Fantasy games have recurring theme for chocobos, the primary means of ground transport throughout the series. In the Final Fantasy Tactics soundtrack, "Ovelia's Theme" is also drawn upon in "Ovelia's Worries", "For the Love of Ovelia", "Random Waltz", and the opening and ending credits.
Another example of leitmotif in video games is Martin O'Donnell's score for the Halo series. The choir of monks that characterizes the music is commonly used throughout the games to personify and connect the alien environment. Different musical themes are also associated directly to recurring events and characters, distinguishing them from each other to tell the story more effectively. For example, parts of "The Last Spartan" from the Halo 2 Original Soundtrack: Volume One are used whenever the main character appears in a cinematic.
Another example is from the Star Fox series of video games. The main theme from Star Fox 64 is often used as a theme for the team itself and the song played during the boss fights with Star Wolf in the same game has been used as the theme for the Star Wolf team.
Another good early example would be from the Mega Man classic series. Protoman 's appearance is always accompanied by a distinctive whistle. When Darkman is posing as him in Mega Man 5 , your first tip that it is not him is that his whistle is off key.

Popular music

Perhaps the first extensive use of leitmotifs in rock music is found in Tommy, the "rock opera" performed by The Who and written, for the most part, by the band's principal songwriter Pete Townshend in 1969. Townshend intentionally used four leitmotifs in The Who's 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia to represent the four personalities of the album's fictional protagonist, Jimmy Cooper, a British youth with a multiple personality disorder. The four leitmotifs are also meant to represent the four members of The Who.
American composer and musician Frank Zappa used a recurring theme throughout the album Uncle Meat by him and his band The Mothers of Invention, the 'Uncle Meat Main Theme' is first played in its entirety but then is played several other times throughout the album, most notably in 'The Uncle Meat Variations'.
Pink Floyd uses leitmotifs throughout several of their albums, including The Wall, Wish You Were Here, The Dark Side of the Moon, and The Final Cut.
The New York progressive metal band Dream Theater is also known for using leitmotifs in their later albums, in particular Scenes From A Memory, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, Octavarium and Systematic Chaos.
The American progressive metal band Symphony X used leitmotifs extensively in their concept album, V: The New Mythology Suite.
The progressive rock band dredg named their first album Leitmotif, and, as the title suggests, leitmotifs are used extensively throughout the album.
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails uses a leitmotif on the album The Downward Spiral. The motif is used during the chorus of "Heresy," at the end of "Closer", and recurs on the album's title track.
American Hip-hop band Subtle use a recurring leitmotif throughout the For Hero: For Fool and ExitingARM albums, appearing on the clarinet, keyboard and guitar often at the end of, or in between, tracks.
The main riff in the Queens of the Stone Age song Feel Good Hit of the Summer serves as a leitmotif for the album Rated R and makes an additional appearance on Rated R's follow up album Songs for the Deaf.
Mike Oldfield often uses leitmotifs on his albums, in some cases even returning to the same themes used in one piece on another work not on the same album. One notable example of this is a theme from Amarok which is heard throughout that album, turning up again as the basis for the track Let There Be Light on The Songs of Distant Earth.


Leitmotif is also used in the Sirens chapter of Ulysses by James Joyce (chapter 11). Critics argue that there are recurring themes of music that begin at the beginning of the chapter and continue throughout the rest of the chapter, and also the book.
The "leitmotif" is also present in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The themes of the Virgin Mary, the Greek myth of Stephen's namesake, Daedalus, are some of the more noticeable leitmotifs throughout the work. The leitmotif in this novel provides unity as the character of Stephen matures.
Other writers who have used the technique include Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Mann. Contemporary author Chuck Palahniuk also commonly utilizes leitmotifs in his work.
Leitmotif in literature also refers to the repeated representation of certain themes or emotions throughout a book, play, or other literary works. In literature, a Leitmotif is used as a recurring event, object or even a character that the story always makes reference to. In works with counterpoint, leitmotifs can become a figure of analysis in which the different stories constantly/eventually lead to.


Samuel Beckett, James Joyce's ex-secretary, uses Leitmotifs throughout his body of works, within his use of language in his plays and works of fiction. Beckett uses repetition a great deal and explores complex sentence structures, where he chooses to cut short a statement before its presumed conclusion, or the opposite can be the case with a stream of words running into each other with, in some cases no coherence, in others complete lucidity. Beckett uses "voices" as musical instruments travelling through the (specific) combined, language structure, repetitions and a gamut of emotions displayed in the text that cause changes in pitch and tone, unless the playwright has chosen a monotonous speech pattern as he does for particular characters in his plays.


Leitmotifs are used within advertising more commonly than ever before - most noticeably and notably by McDonald's participatory whistled motif that commands the secondary part (sung formerly and first by Justin Timberlake to launch the new 'I'm Lovin' It' campaign) of itself from the consumer. The subsequent part of the motif was intentionally omitted after an initial amount of exposure to invite consumer participation/reciprocation to finish it off.
Other Leitmotifs are used in conjunction with such brands as Intel, Herbal Essences and Danone.


leitmotiv in Catalan: Leitmotiv
leitmotiv in German: Leitmotiv
leitmotiv in Modern Greek (1453-): Καθοδηγητικό μοτίβο
leitmotiv in Spanish: Leitmotiv
leitmotiv in Persian: لایتموتیف
leitmotiv in French: Leitmotiv
leitmotiv in Galician: Leitmotiv
leitmotiv in Italian: Leitmotiv
leitmotiv in Hebrew: לייטמוטיב
leitmotiv in Dutch: Leidmotief
leitmotiv in Japanese: ライトモティーフ
leitmotiv in Norwegian: Ledemotiv
leitmotiv in Polish: Leitmotiv
leitmotiv in Russian: Лейтмотив
leitmotiv in Simple English: Leitmotif
leitmotiv in Finnish: Johtoaihe
leitmotiv in Swedish: Ledmotiv
leitmotiv in Ukrainian: Лейтмотив
leitmotiv in Chinese: 主导动机
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