What Is Leitmotif, and How Do You Use It? (Video)

+ This lesson is courtesy of Soundfly’s new course, Intro to Scoring for Film & TV. Learn to compose and produce cues for TV, films, and other media.

Themes are one of your main tools for helping develop your narrative. Themes can be all sorts of things from two notes played in a distinct way to a couple related phrases that always appear together.

One such type of theme used in theatre, television, cinema, and other visual media is the leitmotif — a recurring melody, chord sequence, rhythm, or a combination of these, which is then associated with a particular character, place, or idea.

In other words, leitmotifs act as musical or auditory shadows of the behaviors or traits that define a character or other element of a story’s plot line. When they appear, so does the leitmotif; when they change or grow, so does the leitmotif, and when they’re harkened in other creative ways, often too does the leitmotif tend to make its presence known.

In the above video, composer and course instructor Ian Temple discusses widely known thematic motifs from Jaws, The Wizard of Oz, Black Panther, The Dark Knight, and even the video game, Super Mario Bros. But you can literally find these everywhere.

Let’s look at a few more classic thematic leitmotifs in cinema below to better understand this powerful compositional tool. And once again, for an even deeper look into the tools and techniques available to film and television score composers and sound designers, you have to check out Soundfly’s in-depth course, Intro to Scoring for Film & TV.

King Kong’s Theme from King Kong

As we talk about in previous videos such as this one, it was the Golden Age composers who really brought leitmotif into prominence as a scoring tool in films, drawing on 19th Century romanticists like Wagner.

So let’s start with one of the most famous of all time: the theme for King Kong. It’s a three-note figure that repeats throughout the score. Only three notes! That shows you how short a theme can truly be, to resonate with viewers.

Let’s have a listen. 

Now see if you can identify that theme anywhere in one of the songs from the score. Given it’s only three notes, it can hide well in larger pieces of music. It also might be slightly different in terms of the exact rhythm, but will still be identifiable.

How many times do you hear it in here? 

Princess Leia’s Theme from Star Wars

Star Wars is replete with leitmotifs, from the Imperial March theme to the Force theme, and they dance around the films in a variety of different forms and variations. You’ll have an entire orchestral suite and then in the middle of it, you’ll hear a subtle nod to a specific character or idea’s theme.

One of my personal favorites is Leia’s theme, which sounds something like the example below. We’ve recreated it using the French horn which is how it appears in its fullest incarnation (and on the soundtrack). 

Now, see if you can hear that same theme played on a different instrument and at a different tempo when Luke (disguised as a stormtrooper) barges into Leia’s cell for the first time on their rescue mission. 

Hint: It happens right at 1:56 or so in the video above. It’s a slightly different tempo and rhythm and played on a flute or piccolo, but it’s very recognizable all the same — and happens at the exact moment Leia appears on screen. 

Briony’s Theme in Atonement

The film Atonement is gut-wrenching, with a score by Dario Marianelli. The very first music we hear in the film is the theme for the main character Briony, an imaginative but mischievous young girl who ends up creating a lot of trouble.

Here is her theme played on the piano. 

At the very end of the movie, we have a very different Briony from the headstrong young girl. See if you can hear echoes of her theme in this track from the end of the movie. It’s a very different treatment of the theme, but the initial melody notes are clearly stated upfront. 

Identify another leitmotif from a score you love. 

Try to identify a specific leitmotif or theme from a score or work of media that you love.

  • Does the theme seem to relate to a specific character or place, or is it not that obvious?
  • Does the theme repeat multiple times throughout the work, or just occur once?
  • If multiple times, does it always show up the same way or is it different? 

If you’re already a Soundfly subscriber, go ahead and share what you come up with in the #scoring-for-film-and-tv channel on Slack!

Have you checked out Soundfly’s courses yet?

Continue your learning with hundreds of lessons led by innovative, boundary-pushing, independent artists like Kimbra, Ryan Lott (Son Lux), JlinKiefer, Com Truise, and RJD2. And don’t forget to try out our newest course, Intro to Scoring for Film & TV.

Ryan Lott: Designing Sample-Based Instruments

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