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.
… a hip awareness of its own cheesy implausibility, right down to the music: The thunderously orchestrated score uses "Itsy Bitsy Spider" as a motif.—People, 29 July 2002In retrospect, it is now clear that the alien invasion motif in 1950s science fiction movies reflected the Cold War atmosphere of the period.—Paul A. Cantor, Gilligan Unbound, 2001The first-class scowl, shaved head and scars on his right shoulder and biceps fit the tough-guy motif, but it's a facade.—Ric Bucher, ESPN, 28 May 2001The branding is done by combining a commercial trademark with one or another subcultural motif, a subculture the buyer belongs to or wants to join: surfing, skateboarding, …—John Seabrook, New Yorker, 20 Sept. 1999
The wallpaper has a flower motif.
the motif of mute figures standing in lonely isolation is a recurrent one in the artist's works See More
Recent Examples on the WebThe festival ended with streetwear’s princess Teyana Taylor presenting her final stage performance with red roses, latex, and workwear motifs.—Nyla Stanford, Vogue, 29 Aug. 2023 Amal made a grand entrance, displaying her signature sophisticated style, which often includes motifs and silhouettes reminiscent of the ’60s mod era.—Chelsey Sanchez, Harper's BAZAAR, 29 Aug. 2023 Many depict leafy landscapes, delicate floral or botanical motifs, and other larger-than-life designs that give drama and depth to walls.—Jessica Bennett, Better Homes & Gardens, 28 Aug. 2023 The carousel of photos featured shots of the duo enjoying sunny days together, as Khai could be seen wearing a white dress with strawberry motifs.—Brenton Blanchet, Peoplemag, 27 Aug. 2023 Hulman Building and Garage 20 N.W. 4th St. and 109-111 N.W. 3rd St. in Evansville
Courtesy of its art deco style, the 10-story commercial skyscraper displays carved scenes of transportation and industry along with floral and zigzag motifs.—The Indianapolis Star, 22 Aug. 2023 Consequently, the exhibition has many sculptures featuring hooded snake motifs and just as many featuring trees — a ubiquitous motif in Indian religions.—Sebastian Smee, Washington Post, 14 Aug. 2023 So, in the former room, the busy motif is tempered by the streamlined silhouette of an oval lacquered wood table by the Swedish architect turned designer Gustaf Westman.—Max Berlinger, New York Times, 18 Aug. 2023 The motif transcends trends as an enduring design element.—Sophie Flaxman, Better Homes & Gardens, 18 Aug. 2023 See More
These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'motif.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.
French, motive, motif, from Middle French — more at motive
: a distinctive usually recurrent molecular sequence (as of amino acids or base pairs) or structural elements (as of secondary protein structures)
These RNA molecules have an intriguing structural motif, absent in normal RNA, that recognizes an amino acid and chemically binds to it, forming a novel type of RNA enzyme, or ribozyme.—Jessa Netting, Science News
Only about half these genes have recognizable motifs, or DNA-sequence patterns, that suggest possible functions.—Alan E. Guttmacher and Francis S. Collins, The New England Journal of Medicine