Niche it!
BobbyGs Info

Finish Line


Music Sound


Back | Home | Up | Next

A leitmotif (also spelled leitmotiv) is a recurring musical theme, associated within a particular piece of music 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 or video game music.

The word itself has a mixed etymology as the German word Motiv is borrowed from the French motif, meaning motive or theme. Prefixing it with Leit- (coming from German leiten, to lead), produces Leitmotiv (German plural Leitmotive), meaning "leading motif".


Usage in classical music

Carl Maria von Weber was probably the first composer to make extensive use of leitmotifs. Indeed, the first use of the word "leitmotif" in print was by the critic F. W. Jähns whilst describing Weber's work, although this was not until 1871.

Beethoven made inventive use of a harmonic leitmotif in his late string quartets. The motif—which consists of a melody decending in pitch by a semitone, a minor third and another semitone—can be most easily heard in the final movement of his String Quartet in C-sharp minor, but also inverted in the Große Fuge and the opening of the String Quartet in A minor. Curiously, Beethoven's first usage of this motif appears as the opening statement in one his pre-Quartet experiments, the String Trio in C minor. Beethoven also employed motto themes. For example, in his Fifth Symphony, a particular melody is said to be representative of "fate", after a critic famously described the recurring musical phrase as "The sound of fate knocking on the door".

The 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, and his operas make liberal use of them. His cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, uses dozens of leitmotifs, representing characters, things, or situations; while some of these leitmotifs occur in only one of the operas, many occur throughout the entire cycle. Wagner used the word "Grundthema" (basic idea) when speaking about his leitmotifs, although the first use of the term with reference to Wagner's music was in 1887 by H. von Wolzogen, the editor of the Bayreuther Blätter, in discussing Götterdämmerung.

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. 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.

Movie scores

Leitmotifs are very common in movie scores; a well known example is the Star Wars Imperial March associated with Darth Vader and his previous self, Anakin Skywalker, in the Star Wars series of films composed by John Williams. Themes for the characters Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Emperor Palpatine, and Yoda also recur throughout the movies. John Williams also composed music for the Indiana Jones films that uses a very memorable Leitmotif.

The work of Howard Shore in his 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 Lord of the Rings and Wagner's monumental Ring operas.

In the James Bond films, the James Bond Theme music is heard during action sequences. Among Westerns, perhaps the most famous film to make use of leitmotifs is Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. The television soap opera Dynasty also used musical themes for each character, as did the action cartoon Batman: The Animated Series. Angelo Badalamenti wrote possibly the most famous television example, Laura Palmer's Theme on Twin Peaks.

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.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails uses a leitmotif on the album The Downward Spiral. The motif is a downward chromatic scale followed by Eb x2, D, F, F (down one octave from previous F). The motif is used at the end of Closer, the high point of the album, and foreshadows the death of the protagonist by the album's end, "Hurt." The motif makes a brief appearance in Every Day is Exactly the Same off of With Teeth.

The Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu used leitmotifs in many of his Final Fantasy RPG series soundtracks, where many characters in the games had their own recognisable musical "theme".

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 suggest, leitmotifs are used extensively throughout the album.

Home | Up | Formal sections | Musical forms | Bastard pop | Cumulative song | Cyclic form | Leitmotif | Movement | Song structure (popular_music)

Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.