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Spring 2006 | v.02 n.01 |

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Joseph Defazio

Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis -IUPUI

Leitmotif (pronounced lite-moe-teef) or, leading motif is defined in music as a clearly defined theme or idea that represents a person, object or idea (Boynick, 1996). The first appearance of this term came from F. W. Jahns in 1871 within the listing of works by Carl Maria von Weber. Leitmotif is a musical theme or phrase that is presented in original and altered form at various points in a musical work for the purpose of illustrating a character or event. In the Romantic period composers such as Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Franz Liszt used the leitmotif in many of their compositions. 20 th Century film composers adopted this technique as well. Today, in 21 st century New Media, the leitmotif has found a new home in the musical compositions of multimedia and game development.

Historical Perspective

Wagner referred to his leitmotifs as musical moments and basic themes. They were complex and composed in such as way to produce subtle sensations and associations in the listener. He elevated the leitmotif music form using a methodology that is still in use today. According to Gustavo Costantini (2001), Wagner’s methodology was “to find a structure for organizing musical material…which would be linked to characters and situations by means of music…and avoid duplication (image/sound/musical onomatopoeia, having sound and music do the same thing.” 1

Probably the most famous dramatic work of Wagner is the Der Ring des Nibelungen (or simply, The Ring). This work consists of four works (Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung) which constitute the whole of this cycle. The theme of this work is the center of eternal, human conflict between love and lust for power. Wagner used two leitmotifs that were quite different in structure, character, and significance. However he intentionally developed them with a close relationship in order to establish identity and meaning. The first, Alberich’s Ring (Figure 1), is both a symbol of and an instrument for the unreserved exercise of power, a power that is made possible by the renunciation of love. The second, Walhall (Figure 2), symbolizes the gods’ need of reigning in safety, unchallenged (Evensen, 2002).


Figure 1. Alberich’s Ring Sound Sample
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Figure 2: Walhall Sound Sample
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Wagner intentionally composed these leitmotif examples to exhibit a similar identity and musical structure. The intervals are the same, they move in the same direction, and the rhythm is mostly identical.

Another composer from the Romantic period, Richard Strauss, advanced the form of the leitmotif through his tone poems and operas. Robert P. Morgan (1991) described his use of the leitmotif stating: The technical innovations introduced by Strauss in the symphonic works of the 1890s proved of considerable importance in the development of twentieth-century music. He carried the leitmotif over into a purely instrumental context. Using an array of very brief, though readily identifiable, melodic figures presented in rapid alternation and shifting combinations, Strauss fashioned complex polyphonic textures only barely contained within a highly inflected and intensely chromatic harmonic framework. 2

20 th Century Perspective

Probably the most famous leitmotif theme in film today is the shark theme from Jaws, composed by John Williams. Williams used a two-note sequence (See Figure 3) using a repeated minor-second interval with gradual intensity and speed. Andrew Drannon (2000) described this as, “A droning march for the shark, offset by dissonant seventh chords” (See Figure 4).

Figure 3. Jaws – Shark Theme Sound Sample
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Figure 4. Jaws – Droning March Sound Sample
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In another example, Alan Silvestri demonstrated the use of leitmotif in his score for the movie Predator. In this sci-fi action thriller, Silvestri used the title theme of the score which consisted of a basic, militaristic procession of piano and percussion. This leitmotif reappeared throughout the score. In another example, he used a tympani-pounding “running” theme for the commandos as they are chased throughout the jungle. This was probably the most innovative use of the leitmotif in that Silvestri used digitally sampled sounds (congas, jungle-style bird sounds, etc.) which appeared repeatedly in the form of rhythmic triplet sequences, giving the listener an aural sense of suspense in a jungle environment (Clemmensen 2005).

New Media Today

The design and development of multimedia productions in the field of new media should view music as a critical component for success. Whether for informative, educational, or entertainment (games), music sparks a cognitive connection at the subconscious level. Lenn Millbower (2003) cited six auditory parameters when music is used in multimedia production or e-learning environment. He stated music:

  1. compensates for lifeless dialog
  2. provides editing continuity
  3. identifies time and place
  4. reflects character emotions
  5. enhances action
  6. heightens dramatic impact

Millbower stated, “In both film and video games, an audio-visual medium faced a crossroads. In both cases, success resulted when the auditory and the visual signals were integrated.” 3 Composers in the game genre and other areas of New Media demonstrate the effective use of the leitmotif in their work. One classic example can be found in the musical score titled, Final Fantasy VI by Nobuo Uematsu. Each character has its own theme which can appear in traditional or reversed form. Another example is the musical score from Ace Combat 04 Shatter Skies by Tetsukazu Nakanishsi. His example of the leitmotif is presented in the opening track titled, “Shattered Skies.” The composer introduces and melds different melodic lines which reappear throughout game-play.


It is important to note that the leitmotif is not restricted to the creation of music. The leitmotif can be found in several new media strategies. For example, concept and design for companies and products from the perspective of the user, video production, art, technology, public communication, to name a few. It is a method that uses the merging of idea, process, and product into a communicative element. As stated by Costantini (2005), “Most…leitmotifs are a kind of mark intended to give a clue to the viewers. It is possible to think of these leitmotifs as replacing a visual sign or signal.” 4 In addition to video and film, new media has entered the arena as a field using heterogeneous forms that combine a number of artistic practices. When used appropriately, the leitmotif can demonstrate a clear representation of a person, event or object providing additional auditory messages to the viewer.



1 Costantini, G. Leitmotif Revisited (2001) Retrieved on November 12, 2005, from, http://www.filmsound.org/theory. Theoretical Film Sound Texts. p. 1.

2 Morgan, R. F. Twentieth-century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1991) p. 31.

3 Millbower, L. 2003. The Auditory Advantage. Retrieved on November 13, 2005, http://www.learningcircuits.org/2003/jan2003/millbower.html ASTD’s Source for E-Learning, p. 4.

4 Costantini, G. Leitmotif Revisited (2001) Retrieved on November 12, 2005, from, http://www.filmsound.org/theory. Theoretical Film Sound Texts. p. 4.

Boynick, M. 1996. Classical Music Pages. Extracted from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. http://w3.rz-berlin.mpg.de/ cmp/ g_leitmotif.html, Retrieved on November 17, 2005 London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Clemmensen, C. 2005. Filmtracks: Predator (Alan Silvestri).http://www.filmtracks.com /titles/predator.html (17 November 2005).

Costantini, G. Leitmotif Revisited. (26 November 2001). http://www.filmsound.org/theory/ Retrieved on November 12, 2005, Theoretical Film Sound Texts.

Drannon, A. 2000. Jaws: Music from the Savage Ocean. http://scoresheet.tripod.com/ ScoringStage/Jaws/JawsExpanded.htmlRetrieved on November 17, 2005

Evensen, K. 2002. Leitmotifs in Der Ring Des Nibelungen – An Introduction. Retrieved on November 15, 2005. http://www.trell.org/wagner/motifs.html

Maazel, Lorin. The “Ring” Without Words: Orchestral Highlights from the Ring Cycle. Telarc. 1988. Audio Recording.

Millbower, L. 2003. The Auditory Advantage. http://www.learningcircuits.org/2003/jan2003/millbower.html Retrieved on November 13, 2005, ASTD’s Source for E-Learning.

Robert F.Morgan. Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1991)

Thomas, Jim and John Thomas. Predator, Hollywood, Calif: Twentieth Century Fox, 1987. Videorecording.

Williams, John. The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration. Sony Classical. 1990. Audio Recording.



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