What are Leitmotifs in Music?

Eric Richter ’23

When one movie references another and is done well, that specific moment in the movie is more memorable which enhances what the scene was already trying to accomplish. This is very similar to, if not the equivalent of leitmotifs in music. A composer will most likely add a leitmotif to their song when they want to connect the same feelings the listener felt in a different piece. 

So what are leitmotifs exactly? Well, think of it like a small string of notes that once made up another song. Take the first seven notes in the Super Mario Bros. theme. Everyone remembers and has some sort of connection to that theme. A leitmotif of this theme would be those seven notes in another song that also has the same bounce and energy. The song still has to be original but it can use those seven notes from the Mario theme to add onto it. 

Think of it like salt, on its own, in small amounts, it’s edible and may even taste good to some people. However, if you try to eat a big packet of salt you’re going to immediately spit it out as it’s dry and bland. Put the salt on something else though and it adds a whole new taste and flavor, not originally present in the meal. Leitmotifs are exactly like that, on their own, they are fine. Too much of one leitmotif is unoriginal, bland, and hardly even works. It’s only when the leitmotif is added with the right song that it will work.

When done correctly, leitmotifs can really enhance the feelings of a song because they take the listener back to that other theme they once enjoyed and adds on the prior enjoyment they had to the song using the leitmotif. Whether the leitmotif is used as part of the main, or maybe even a background instrument, this “addon” to music should really be appreciated and used more. It is not nearly used enough in movies or even general music and more people should know how, if masteredly done, they can really make one music piece mean so much more.


Leitmotif (1:18)(Used as background melody):