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How Leitmotifs Function in Music: 4 Examples of Leitmotif

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 2 min read

Have you ever listened to a piece of music—a classical music composition, a film score, or a song—and noted a recurring theme in the melody or harmony? That recurring succession of notes you hear is known as a leitmotif, and it is one of the most powerful techniques in a composer's arsenal.



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What Is a Leitmotif in Music?​

In music, a leitmotif is a recurring musical phrase associated with a theme, subject, character, or setting. The phrase appears throughout a musical composition in different contexts, slightly modified yet still recognizable. "Leitmotif" is an Anglicized spelling of the German leitmotiv, as the technique is considered to have developed within the German classical music tradition.

What Types of Music Use Leitmotifs?

From Baroque musical compositions (like the fugues of J.S. Bach), to the sonata-form symphonies of Mozart, to famed classical dances (like rondo, which contains multiple reprise sections), to contemporary instrumental music (think of the ostinato-heavy music of New York composer Philip Glass), repetitive leitmotifs have unified musical works throughout many centuries. The leitmotif technique is also used in symphonic poems (think Franz Liszt or Bedřich Smetana), concertos by classical music icons like Robert Schumann and Richard Strauss.

Perhaps most famously, nineteenth-century German musician Richard Wagner used leitmotifs in Wagnerian music dramas (or Wagnerian operas). his iconic use of leitmotifs. His works—from his dramatic Ring cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen) to lighter compositions like Lohengrin—were among the first to closely connect specific melodic phrases, harmonic progressions, and rhythmic motifs with individual characters in a story. Wagner’s legacy continues to this day, with leitmotifs and repeated melodic themes commonly associated with characters in television and film music, Broadway musicals, and video game music.

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4 Examples of Leitmotif in Film Music​

A leitmotif in film music is a succession of notes, harmonic progressions, or rhythmic patterns associated with a particular character, setting, or theme. Some of the most famous film score leitmotifs include:

  1. The main theme and "Imperial March" from John Williams's Star Wars score. The grandiose but menacing horns are repeated throughout the song, signifying to the viewer that Darth Vader and his evil forces are nearby.
  2. “Laura Palmer's Theme” from Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks score. The eerie rising and falling piano give the show its signature slow, creeping vibe.
  3. The stabbing violins of Bernard Hermann's Psycho score, most notably during the shower scene, lends the murder scene a heightened sense of horror.
  4. The swirling, disorienting string motif of Bernard Hermann's Vertigo score gives the movie its mysterious character.

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