A leitmotiv is a musical element that is recognized by the listener, and has two main functions:

  • denotation: the leitmotiv refers to one person or one idea or object
  • connotation: the leitmotiv has specific characteristics that define psychologically the denoted element: grandiose, joyful, sad, martial …

A leitmotiv has variations, and in each variation the leitmotiv is enriched with new meanings, and the bound with the denoted content is stronger.

A leitmotiv must be easy to recognize (short rhythmic-melodic cell), even through variations, and clearly associated to the denoted meaning.

Leitmotivs in Gohatto (Nagisa Ōshima, 1999; music by Ryûichi Sakamoto)

Leitmotiv ≠ Leading melody or main theme

In classical Hollywood cinema, producers imposed the use of songs or «catchy melodies» in the films and film scores, the goal is to increase the sales with record/radio performances, and bring larger audiences to films when the song was popular.
Serious composers reacted against this diktat that sometimes destroyed the meaning of movies.
In some cases, the melody had to be «catchy» and repeated over and over in the film score (e.g. Doctor Zhivago).

A melody repeated through the score as a main theme is not a leitmotiv, as it is not varied and does not refer to one specific element.

Monothematic use of ‘Laura’s theme’ in Laura (1944). There is only one melody in the score.

Diegetic song and leitmotiv

Some composers made an efficient use of the diegetic songs to create leitmotivs, but using a varied combination of musical elements (not one leading melody). For instance Mancini in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the pioneer work of Max Steiner in Casablanca.

as time goes by cell score2


Perception literature shows that:

  • popular music in a familiar style is easier to recognize and memorize
  • singable elements are easier to assimilate and memorize (short intervals, predictable harmony)
  • the presence of lyrics (text) helps memorization
  • visualizing someone singing helps the assimilation and recognition of the melody (oro-facial movements, voice projection).

The leitmotiv is more clearly associated with its denoted meaning when there is a diegetic association.

Diegetic appearance of the song ‘As time goes by’

Further diegetic appearance of the song ‘As time goes by’

Non diegetic use of the leitmotiv ‘As time goes by’

The diegetic presentation of La Marseillaise. The diegesis gives it the meaning of a positive anthem associated to freedom and democracy more than a national anthem.

La Marseillaise leitmotiv with variations (non diegetic) to finalize Casablanca.