leit·mo·tif | \ˈlīt-mō-ˌtēf \
variants: or less commonly leitmotiv

Definition of leitmotif 

1 : an associated melodic phrase or figure that accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person, or situation especially in a Wagnerian music drama

2 : a dominant recurring theme

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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.

Did You Know?

The English word leitmotif (or leitmotiv, as it is also spelled) comes from the German Leitmotiv, meaning "leading motive" and formed from leiten ("to lead") and Motiv (motive). In its original sense, the word applies to opera music and 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 is now also used more broadly to refer to any recurring theme in the arts or in everyday life.

Examples of leitmotif in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web

The transcendental mystique of Mr. Obama’s persona runs through his aides’ memoirs like a leitmotif. Barton Swaim, WSJ, "Politics: End of the Rainbow," 5 July 2018 Then again, that is the leitmotif of the entire story. Peter Lewis, The Christian Science Monitor, "'Northland' is an entertaining trip along America's 4,000-mile northern border," 3 July 2018 Amid the embers of the Vietnam War and John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 run for the presidency played out with a leitmotif of gun violence from its first moments to his murder in Los Angeles. Steve Brodner, Los Angeles Magazine, "Why Bobby Kennedy’s Run for President Is Still an Inspiration," 4 June 2018 For Sedaris a snapping turtle with a partly missing foot and a tumor on its head becomes an unlikely leitmotif. Alan Cumming, New York Times, "David Sedaris Has a New Essay Collection. It Changed Alan Cumming’s Whole Worldview.," 25 May 2018 This pursuit of justice was Schwan's leitmotif as her career morphed from professor of political science to president of the German-Polish Viadrina University that sprang up when the cold war thawed to Berlin’s envoy for Polish-German relations. Elizabeth Pond, The Christian Science Monitor, "How an activist who helped transform postwar Germany views its newest challenges," 18 Apr. 2018 Linking the harvest and farming with armed defense became a pictorial leitmotif especially prevalent during World War II. Kim Sajet, Smithsonian, "How Portraiture Gave Rise to the Glamour of Guns," 23 Mar. 2018 Miketta said that has been a leitmotif of the winter, a function of geography and how the storms have been positioned. Anthony R. Wood, Philly.com, "Biggest snow of the season … so why wasn't it more disruptive?," 21 Mar. 2018 The works — two paintings and three sculptures — continue her fascination with cultural and aesthetic sampling, using the pieced-together patterns and textures of boucherouite as a leitmotif. Mimi Vu, New York Times, "The Artist Testing the Limits of Ceramics," 6 Mar. 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'leitmotif.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of leitmotif

circa 1880, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for leitmotif

German Leitmotiv, from leiten to lead + Motiv motive

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Last Updated

11 Oct 2018

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Time Traveler for leitmotif

The first known use of leitmotif was circa 1880

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