The Leitmotif – what it is and why I should embrace it

The Leitmotif.  It’s a funny word. Merriam-Webster defines it as:

“An associated melodic phrase or figure that accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person, or situation especially in a Wagnerian music drama” and “A dominant recurring theme”.

The term was originally applied to operas written by Richard Wagner (think ‘The Ring Cycle’); it can describe a person, object, emotion, place. It’s essentially a theme.

Incredibly popular in film music, the leitmotif helps to create association in the viewer; play a particular melodic motif when a certain character appears, and you create association.  Play that motif again, and one immediately conjures up the image of that character (whether they are on screen or not).

The same can be created within music. People credit Wagner with using leitmotifs – or as he liked to call them ‘Hauptthemen’ (principal themes) – in his epic 16-hour opera ‘The Ring Cycle’ because he scatters them across the music everywhere.  There are motifs for each of the main characters, which are not just simply repeated. Wagner changes them, combines them with others throughout the story creating a polyphonic carpet of sound.

Wagner wasn’t the first composer to use leitmotifs; his predecessor Weber wrote his opera ‘Der Freischutz’, and successor Strauss made use of the technique in his one-act opera ‘Elecktra’.

The use of leitmotifs within films has been used since the 1930s and 1940s. Music scholar Justin London says that a leitmotif within films has three features; it is short, distinctive and consistent.

Short leitmotifs can and do develop into longer thematic ideas but many successful leitmotifs usually establish themselves with the opening one or two bars. Think about how the shark was introduced in the film ‘Jaws’; two notes F-F#. It doesn’t take many notes to make an auditory association with something visual.

Distinctiveness. A leitmotif has to be memorable, and therefore it is deliberately distinctive for its audience to recall it (and its associated imagery). Melodies set to specific rhythms, harmonic progressions that convey a specific emotional quality. Darth Vader’s theme in Star Wars is dark, evil, threatening, created by using a minor key chord I that then moves to a minor chord VI (which, in a minor key, would ordinarily be major). The fact that this VI chord is played in the minor form reinforces the ‘evil’ quality of Vader and his Empire.

Consistency. A leitmotif needs to sound the same each time it is recalled so that it can remain recognisable, and it conjures up the same associations to the listener. The melody and rhythm will stay the same but the orchestration, harmony and accompaniment style may change.

Within a film context, they are useful to indicate who or what may be present in a scene but not necessarily visible in the frame, such as the shark in ‘Jaws’. A leitmotif can also be played to suggest an association with someone or somewhere that is not physically evident in a scene but instead is being thought about or remembered and in turn, has impact on the present action. A severed horse’s head appearing in the film producers bed in ‘The Godfather’ is accompanied by the leitmotifs associated with the Godfather, which immediately suggests who is responsible for the grotesque gift.

I can consider this aspect for my composition; Alice is present throughout the piece because it is her adventures that I am charting out.  But could I suggest the presence of other characters along the way, if it is appropriate.  Thinking about the story curve, Alice generally encounters individual characters once and then moves on to meet further ones.

If leitmotif concerns itself with suggesting and establishing within the listener a character, place, object, emotion, then I believe that I have already written these within my composition.  I have various themes that relate to different characters (see my blog post about these).  The only ‘place’ that I haven’t written anything specifically about is Wonderland itself; I have been very character-centric with my composition and wanted these to lead as the story progressed. Whether I will choose to create something for Wonderland itself is unknown at this stage.  My composition is running to time and the points of the story I identified have all been incorporated.  I probably won’t include a further section for Wonderland itself. Not within this piece.  But who knows – it’s certainly something I could include for future development.

Film Score Junkie. (2012). What is a Leitmotif and How Does it Work in Films?. Available: Last accessed 09/10/15.

The Horn. (2009). Wagner’s Use of Leitmotifs. Available: Last accessed 09/10/15.

Unknown. (Unknown). Leitmotif. Available: Last accessed 09/10/15.



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