Leitmotif Definition

A leitmotif is a short recurring musical phrase or theme that represents a person, thing or idea throughout a piece of music. A leitmotif typically takes the form of a short melodic idea, but can also be a rhythm or a harmonic progression.

The Use of Leitmotifs

Leitmotifs reappear at various points during a piece whenever the associated person, thing or idea is presented. The original idea is often developed through changes in harmony, rhythm or instrumentation. It is technique used readily in film scoring. For example, in the film “Jaws” the presence of the shark is indicated by the well known 2 note melody:

Shark Leitmotif from Jaws

The name “leitmotif” is taken from the German “leitmotiv”, which is translated as “Leading motive”, although “Representative theme” would also be a good translation/definition as it “represents” a character or idea. You will also hear the use of the word “idée fixe” as well.

Leitmotif and Wagner

The leitmotif has been used by many composers, including Weber and Gluck, whilst Berlioz’s “idée fixe” in his Symphonie Fantastique was based on a similar concept. However, it was in the analysis of the operatic music of Richard Wagner that the term leitmotif came to the fore.

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner (pronounced Varg-ner) wrote 13 operas, including a cycle of 4 operas called Der Ring des Nibelungen. During these he used a large number of leitmotifs to depict characters, places, things, etc.. Not surprisingly, as a result he is the composer most famous for using leitmotif.
As The Oxford Dictionary of Music puts it, Wagner’s “subtle combinations of leitmotiv create symphonic textures.” (The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Kennedy, M. 1984).

Any understanding of the concept of leitmotif must make some reference to Wagner’s operas and particularly his Ring Cycles.
Let’s have a look at his use of leitmotif in some of his operas:

Leitmotif in Der fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman)

First performed in 1843, Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” contains a number of recurring motifs that demonstrate Wagner’s mastery. Here are 3 examples:

The “Dutchman motif” introduces the character in his overture with this positive, uplifting melodic theme:
Richard Wagner Dutchman leitmotif

The Flying Dutchman motif

This contrasts dramatically with the “Ghost motif” that Wagner introduces shortly afterwards. His use of the tritone interval creates a real sense of fear and foreboding:
Wagner Ghost Leitmotif

Wagner Ghost Leitmotif

The Flying Dutchman is an opera about redemption through love and the “Redemption motif” is a positive and uplifting lyrical melody that captures the intended mood perfectly:
Redemption Leitmotif

Redemption Leitmotif

You can hear how each theme clearly conjures up the imagery associated with its character or idea.

Tristan and Isolde (1865)

The most famous leitmotif from this opera from Wagner is so memorable that it has given rise to its own chord name! The so-called “Tristan chord”:

Wagner Tristan Chord sheet music

Tristan Chord

The chord creates a clear sense of uncertainty and an eternal search for resolution.

Leitmotif in Wagner’s Ring Cycles

Wagner’s Ring Cycles are a massive topic – numerous dissertations, theses and books have been written on the topic! I just want to give you a very brief overview and a couple of examples to illustrate the concept of the leitmotif.

The 4 works of the Ring Cycle (often performed separately) are based on heroic legends and are titled:

  • The Rhinegold,
  • The Valkyrie,
  • Siegfried
  • Twilight of the Gods.

There are literally over a hundred examples of leitmotif that we could look at – I am just going to look at two very famous examples from the Rhinegold and The Valkyrie:

Rhinegold – Rhine-motif
The “Rhine motif” is a smoothly flowing melody that beautifully depicts the flow of the river Rhine. The quaver (eighth note) rhythms combined with the gently moving harmonies conjure up a clear sense of the river’s persistent meandering:
Das Rheingold Rhine Motif

Das Rheingold Rhine Motif

The Ride of The Valkyries
The “Ride of the Valkyries” is an extremely famous piece of music (it is one of those pieces that many people will recognise without necessarily knowing where it is taken from!). The dotted rhythms and leaping intervals of the melody line create a clear sense of the arrival of a group of warriors on horseback:
Ride of the Valkyries leitmotif

Ride of the Valkyries Leitmotif

Not surprisingly, this leitmotif has been used on many subsequent occasions in various films!

Leitmotif in Film Music

The technique of leitmotif has been hugely influential and important in film music as the ability to be able to represent characters and moods through the film score is crucial.
There are numerous examples we could look at, but here are a few famous ones:

Jaws Leitmotif

The “shark theme” from Jaws by John Williams is one of the most famous leitmotifs written in film music. The recurring 2 note pattern oscillating between E and F denotes the presence of the shark, whilst the increasing tempo and dynamics indicate the shark stalking/chasing its prey. The addition of a loud D note stab illustrates the bite of the shark.

Have a look/listen to this performance by the Boston Pops Orchestra – you can hear the audience’s reaction to just the 1st note – they know what the theme is and who it is portraying!!

Star Wars Leitmotifs

Another very famous example of a film score leitmotif is Darth Vader’s theme (Imperial March) from Star Wars, again composed by John Williams. The instantly recognisable theme indicates the presence of Darth Vader and is used throughout the Star Wars films in dramatic ways.
Here is the Imperial March conducted by John Williams and performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra:

The genius of this leitmotif is that it can also be incorporated in gentle scoring.
For example, in Star Wars Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (1996) the final few bars of Anakin’s Theme include snippets of Darth Vader’s Theme – a reminder that Anakin (a good character) will actually become the evil Darth Vader in time.

You can hear this 2:36 mins into the following clip:

Other examples worth exploring and listening to are Howard Shore’s music in Lord of the Rings and Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator, which includes a wonderful theme that recurs throughout the film. You can hear it 58 seconds into this clip:

Composing Using Leitmotifs

Writing leitmotifs is a great way to develop your composition skills as it forces you to think about the mood and emotion your music is portraying. Here is a suggested composition task for you to have a go at:

  1. Think of a character from a book, film, etc.. – what is this person like? Happy, sad, angry, scary, etc…
  2. Write down the musical elements that come to mind when you think of their character – make it simple. e.g. if they are sad then a minor key may come to mind, if they are fast/energetic then a fast tempo may work well.
  3. use the elements you have written down in step 2 to try to write a short melody representing the character.
  4. Test out your melody by playing it to friends/family – can they guess the character you are trying to portray?

I hope you enjoy this task and good luck!