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

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 With resilience and technology as the new leitmotif, supply chains are now being upgraded in a manner that risks turning a mountainous gap into a chasm. Radu Magdin, Forbes, 20 Sep. 2021 That message became a leitmotif throughout Elder’s media career. James Rainey, Los Angeles Times, 29 Aug. 2021 Control over one’s own body within a larger social matrix is a complicated leitmotif of the exhibition. Los Angeles Times, 9 July 2021 His passion for running was the leitmotif of his life. New York Times, 23 June 2021 The same gesture was adopted after the putsch in Myanmar, the leitmotif of a protest movement millions strong. New York Times, 12 Apr. 2021 Palace spats are a Jordanian leitmotif — but never this public. BostonGlobe.com, 10 Apr. 2021 The interview raised another British leitmotif: the insular nature of the country’s upper crust. Los Angeles Times, 8 Mar. 2021 An adjacent leitmotif in Ishiguro’s fiction subjects the parent-child relationship to scrutiny. Judith Shulevitz, The Atlantic, 2 Mar. 2021

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

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

Dictionary Entries Near leitmotif

Leithner's blue



See More Nearby Entries 

Statistics for leitmotif

Last Updated

3 Oct 2021

Cite this Entry

“Leitmotif.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/leitmotif. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.

Style: MLA
MLACheck Mark Icon ChicagoCheck Mark Icon APACheck Mark Icon Merriam-WebsterCheck Mark Icon

More from Merriam-Webster on leitmotif

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about leitmotif


Test Your Vocabulary

Difficult Spelling Words Quiz

  • alphabet pasta spelling help
  • Which is the correct spelling?
How Strong Is Your Vocabulary?

Test your vocabulary with our 10-question quiz!

Love words? Need even more definitions?

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