What is a leitmotif? What makes it different from a regular motif? How is it used in cinema? These are the questions we’re going to answer as we look at the history of leitmotifs. We’re also going to show you how masterclass composers like John Williams apply leitmotifs to their films. By the end, you’ll be ready to apply a ‘leading motif’ to your own production!
What does leitmotif mean?
Before we define leitmotif, I want you to think about a few situations:
What do you hear? If you know these films, you might recall the music that accompanies these events. A musical motif allow filmmakers to communicate a signature characteristic of a story in an engaging and immersive way.
Now that we’ve touched on some leitmotif examples, let’s break down the leitmotif definition.
What is a leitmotif?
A leitmotif is a series of overtures, usually musical, that are used recurrently to enforce tone or to recall a theme. Translated from the German, leitmotivs were popularized by German composer Richard Wagner and used chiefly in the opera from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. These musical motifs are now most recognizable in soundtracks for film and television, and are widely synonymous with the works of John Williams.
How to pronounce leitmotif: (light-mo-teef)
- Der Ring des Nibelungen (From Wagner)
- James Bond (Main Theme)
- Schindler’s List (Violin Solo)
- Harry Potter (Hedwig’s Theme)
Leitmotif Music Definition
Leitmotifs from Wagner to Hollywood
Wagner was the German composer who adapted the musical motif approach to the opera, but now it’s more well-known in Hollywood.
The intentional use of music as a means of communicating character, tone, or theme is a leitmotif. It may be helpful to regard those three characteristics as the main tenets of what a leitmotif can be used for. But remember, a musical motif is nothing if it’s only used only once or twice. If that was the case, then we’d never be able to associate it with character, tone, or theme. Therein lies the rub.
For example, let’s take the The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly theme. Don’t remember it off the top of your head? Don’t worry — just listen to the first few seconds of the clip below:
Why is this a leitmotif? First and foremost, its recurring — rather its use in the film is recurring. Second, it’s recognizable. Remember, leitmotifs have to be recognized within the first few seconds you hear them. Third, it communicates tone; whistles swell, the waw-waw-waw breaks out, and next thing you know, old-fashioned Western justice is served.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly musical motif is universally recognizable. It’s a masterful musical motif that’s still recognized today. Some of the best musical scores ever recorded don't employ leitmotifs in the traditional sense, but many of them do.
Leitmotifs in the work of John Williams
Nobody makes a musical motif like John Williams. His Star Wars leitmotifs are probably some of the most iconic of all-time. Nearly every main character has their own recurring theme. Take Darth Vader’s Imperial March for example:
Darth Vader’s Imperial March couldn’t be mistaken for anything else, and that’s why it’s a great leitmotif.
Just think about how recognizable Williams’ other compositions are as well — from Indiana Jones to E.T. to Harry Potter (those are just some of the most famous). Let’s take a look at a video essay that shows how Williams makes leitmotifs like nobody else.
It’s amazing how Williams makes composing leitmotifs seem remarkably simple. In talking about E.T.’s theme, Williams said “we may have had the first few notes of this emotional theme suggested early on, then three or four more notes, then finally the whole theme. So finally when you hear it all, there’s something vaguely familiar about it. You’ve been prepared for four reels to actually hear this melody.”
Of course, the composer is only part of the equation of making a memorable leitmotif. If the director and editors aren’t on the same page as the composer, then the intent may get lost in translation.
Thankfully, Williams has had the benefit of working with some excellent collaborators, such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. His leitmotifs are found in nearly every one of the best Steven Spielberg movies.
Superhero musical themes
Superhero themes are some of the easiest leitmotifs to identify. As an exercise, think of any superhero or villain. What music is associated with them? How does the music make you feel?
Let’s break down the Man of Steel trailer to see how a leitmotif can instantly communicate tone.
Aside from being one of the best trailers of all time, this Man of Steel trailer also shows us how to use a leitmotif. From the first note, we recognize that the music is heroic. Like Williams said, it starts with the first note, but it builds and builds until it becomes an iconic melody.
That’s exactly what legendary composer Hans Zimmer does with this theme. As it’s applied throughout the film, it becomes synonymous with the epic heroism of Superman. This next video shows a variety of superhero leitmotif examples from the best Marvel movies:
As you can see, leitmotifs are an incredibly useful tool for establishing, then recalling tone/theme in a story.
Leitmotif in Film Music
The best leitmotif examples ever
In the 100+ years of cinema, there have been more than a handful of great leitmotifs. In fact, there have been more than we could ever count. This next video looks at some of the best examples and shows us the musical notes behind them:
What is a leitmotif? At its core, a leitmotif is a tool that allows artists to build continuity in their story. They can be used to create suspenseful music, romantic music, or help guide the audience's emotions in whichever direction you want. The main goal of a recurring theme is to create unforgettable music that elevates the film towards become a cinematic icon.
It’s clear that leitmotifs aren’t going out of style anytime soon. The most famous composers in cinema history, such as Ennio Morricone, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Bernard Herrmann, and more, have all used leitmotifs for expert effect.
Leitmotif in Movies
How to bring leitmotifs into your work
We've focused on some of the greatest musical composers but what about those of us who don't have John Williams on speed dial? Sure, having a master like Bernard Herrmann score your movie would be great but there are alternatives.
The first obvious alternative is hire an up-and-coming composer who is just as desperate for work as you. You never know, you might find the next Alan Silvestri on Craigslist! Beyond original scores, what else can you do to approach bringing an iconic musical motif into the picture?
Take a look at the best soundtracks ever assembled. In Tarantino's best movies, or in Scorsese's best movies, they will often use existing music just as memorably as a Hans Zimmer original score. The way Tarantino uses music is no less powerful or noteworthy, he's just using music outside its original context.
The problem with this approach for low-budget filmmakers is that it costs sometimes insane amounts to license that music. That's why your best bet is probably to use copyright free music or royalty free music. Again, you're going to have to sift through thousands of tracks to find the right piece but it's there and it's waiting to become your next leitmotif.
The music of John Williams
We briefly talked about the genius of John Williams in regards to his use of a recurring theme, but there’s so much more to his compositions that make him one of the greatest composers of all time. In this next article, we break down everything you need to know about Williams, from his compositional traits to his penchant for the orchestra. By the end, you’ll know Williams’ scores better than ever!