What Is A Leitmotif

What Is A Leitmotif
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A common term that appears in music theory is “leitmotif”. A leitmotif is an extension of the motif, which is a short musical phrase that is characteristic of the composition and from which longer melodies are put together. A leitmotif, which is the English version of the German word “leitmotiv” (“leading motif” or “guiding motif”), is a motif that is associated with a subject matter. Depending on the context of the composition, the subject matter could be a particular person, place or idea.

The purpose of using leitmotifs is to not only create a basis from which a longer composition can be made, but also to allow the composer to tell a story with the help of music. Oftentimes, leitmotifs allow the composer to bring the story to another level, such as to create suspense or to bring out emotions within the listener. In doing so, the leitmotifs effectively bind the listener to the series of sounds, thereby raising the level of engagement.

In the Jaws movies, fans would be familiar with the main "shark" theme, a simple repeated pattern of two notes, E and F. This leitmotif, composed by John Williams, is used in all three sequels of the Jaws series. With reference to the repeated use of the well-known theme, Williams compares it to "the great tradition" for repeating musical themes in Hollywood movies. The use of the leitmotif is highly effective. As the leitmotif is played before the shark appears, movie watchers feel the danger and expects the shark to appear very soon!

Another successful use of a leitmotif is in the famous Star Wars series. The musical theme, Imperial March, also known as the Darth Vader Theme, was composed in 1980 by John Williams. Based loosely on funeral march from Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, Williams created a series of sounds that has been highly associated with the movie series. The Imperial March is played when Darth Vader or the Imperial Star fleet appears, or when the younger Anakin turns to the dark side. Have fun listening to some 14 versions of Imperial March in the YouTube video above!

Most of us would have watched at least one of the Harry Potter movies. In this film series, there is also a familiar melody. Composed by John Williams too, Hedwig's Theme appears throughout the Harry Porter soundtracks. It has become the dominant leitmotif in the movie series. Check out a score analysis on Hegwig’s Theme!