leitmotif

noun
leit·​mo·​tif | \ ˈlīt-mō-ˌtēf How to pronounce leitmotif (audio) \
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

Keep scrolling for more

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 Celebrations were the leitmotif of this phase of our friendship. Jessica B. Harris, Southern Living, "Remembering Leah Chase, the Queen of Creole Cuisine," 21 May 2020 The question has become a leitmotif of presidential politics, and the answer is almost always no. Washington Post, "Can we talk about the senior citizens running for president and how they try to look younger?," 6 Nov. 2019 The question has become a leitmotif of presidential politics, and the answer is almost always no. Washington Post, "Can we talk about the senior citizens running for president and how they try to look younger?," 6 Nov. 2019 The question has become a leitmotif of presidential politics, and the answer is almost always no. Washington Post, "Can we talk about the senior citizens running for president and how they try to look younger?," 6 Nov. 2019 His ability to see the humanity in those across the sectarian divide from him was the leitmotif of his career in politics. New York Times, "Seamus Mallon, Advocate for Peace in Northern Ireland, Dies at 83," 27 Jan. 2020 Pastor Jon shows up for the first time on Page 96 and on 30 subsequent pages — a leitmotif of faith and enlightenment. Washington Post, "His faith promises healing, but his patients can’t be cured," 23 Jan. 2020 The question has become a leitmotif of presidential politics, and the answer is almost always no. Washington Post, "Can we talk about the senior citizens running for president and how they try to look younger?," 6 Nov. 2019 The question has become a leitmotif of presidential politics, and the answer is almost always no. Author: Roxanne Roberts, Anchorage Daily News, "The senior citizens running for president and how they try to look younger," 10 Nov. 2019

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.

See More

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

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about leitmotif

Time Traveler for leitmotif

Time Traveler

The first known use of leitmotif was circa 1880

See more words from the same year

Listen to Our Podcast about leitmotif

Statistics for leitmotif

Last Updated

6 Jun 2020

Cite this Entry

“Leitmotif.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/leitmotif. Accessed 13 Jul. 2020.

More from Merriam-Webster on leitmotif

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about leitmotif

Comments on leitmotif

What made you want to look up leitmotif? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).

WORD OF THE DAY

See Definitions and Examples »

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Words for Summer: A Quiz

  • a closeup of a sunflower
  • Which of the following words means “of or relating to summer”?
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

TAKE THE QUIZ
Citation

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.

TAKE THE QUIZ
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!