leit·​mo·​tif ˈlīt-mō-ˌtēf How to pronounce leitmotif (audio)
variants or less commonly leitmotiv
: an associated melodic phrase or figure that accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person, or situation especially in a Wagnerian music drama
: a dominant recurring theme

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The English word leitmotif (or leitmotiv, as it is also spelled) comes from the German Leitmotiv, meaning "leading motive," and is formed from the verb leiten ("to lead") and the noun Motiv ("motive"). In its original sense, the word applies to opera music; it was first used by writers interpreting the works of composer Richard Wagner, who was famous for associating a melody with a character or important dramatic element. Leitmotif is still commonly used with reference to music and musical drama but it is now also used more broadly to refer to any recurring theme in the arts or in everyday life.

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What exactly is a motif? And how is it different from a leitmotif?

In works of art, a motif is an important and noticeable element or feature that typically appears throughout the work. It can relate to the theme, or it can be the dominant or central idea itself. Concepts like betrayal and forgiveness can be motifs, for example, but so can particular images and sounds, such as trees or bells. Motif is also commonly applied in design, where it typically refers to a single or repeated pattern or color. A piece of fabric might have a floral motif; a room may have a black and white motif.

Motif can also appear in scientific contexts, especially in biochemistry, where it refers to a distinctive molecular sequence or structural element that is usually recurrent.

Leitmotif (also and formerly more commonly spelled leitmotiv) has its origins in opera, and is especially associated with Wagnerian opera. The word is from the German words leit and Motif, which translate respectively as "leading" and "motive." In opera, a leitmotif is a recurring melody that accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person, or situation. The term is now applied in other kinds of music, sometimes with a meaning very close to the original: "The Imperial March" that is heard in the Star Wars film franchise whenever Darth Vader appears on screen, for example, is a modern example of leitmotif.

Leitmotif also has extended use that treads the same territory as motif. It's not a common word, but when it is applied it often refers to a dominant recurring theme, as when an image consistently used in an artist's works is described as a leitmotif. Note that some people object when leitmotif is modified by a word like main or dominant, on the grounds that since German leit means "leading" the phrase is redundant. English speakers using leitmotif in English, however, may choose to ignore the objection since leit does not mean "leading" in English.

Examples of leitmotif in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Find out in 800 pages Oct. 21, 2021 Advertisement Certain themes and leitmotifs are constant presences in his playfully experimental fiction. Malcolm Forbes, Los Angeles Times, 1 Nov. 2023 He’s invented a sweet hymn that becomes Sister Helen’s leitmotif. Zachary Woolfe, New York Times, 27 Sep. 2023 Shore’s orchestral scores, like Wagner’s, use leitmotifs to identify characters and elements of the plot. Dan Hathaway, cleveland, 29 July 2023 Other times, the first four notes are used in a leitmotif, especially when the ghosts are doing creepy things. Jazz Tangcay, Variety, 28 July 2023 His signature games are a master class in how to shift registers, how to strategize, how to create forms and patterns and leitmotifs. Will Harrison, New York Times, 11 July 2023 Like the birds that form the book’s leitmotif, Strong’s writing soars effortlessly from characters’ histories into their present situations, alighting here on the two brothers, there on the three women, then back to the age-old chaos of running children through the gantlet of dinner, baths and bed. Bethanne Patrick, Los Angeles Times, 8 Nov. 2022 The watery leitmotif here visually washes over the picture. Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, 19 Apr. 2023 Indian art is also a leitmotif, the most splendid being oversize watercolors of fruit and flowers given to her by the present Duke of Beaufort. ELLE Decor, 22 Dec. 2022 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'leitmotif.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


German Leitmotiv, from leiten to lead + Motiv motive

First Known Use

circa 1880, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of leitmotif was circa 1880


Dictionary Entries Near leitmotif

Cite this Entry

“Leitmotif.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/leitmotif. Accessed 2 Dec. 2023.

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