Tag Archives: leitmotif

Film Music 101: Leitmotif

In film music (and classical music, especially opera), a leitmotif is “a short, constantly recurring musical phrase, that is associated with a particular person, place, or idea.”

The most famous user of leitmotif in 21st century Hollywood would have to be composer John Williams in the seven Star Wars scores (1977-ongoing)

(for more on the leitmotifs of Star Wars see: The Empire Strikes Back or, Everyone has a Theme! Part One: Leitmotif and “The Imperial March” and The Empire Strikes Back Part Two!: Han and Leia in Love and Yoda!! )

Leitmotifs can be found in many films, for example, in the Star Trek franchise there is a popular theme known as the “Enterprise motif,” this is the fanfare of rising fourths that occurs almost every time the Enterprise appears on the screen (this is especially true in the original series and in the Next Generation films).

The concept of leitmotif (which roughly translates to “leading motive”) predates the creation of film by several decades and is closely associated with the late-Romantic composer Richard Wagner (though Wagner did NOT invent the concept himself as some have claimed)


Wagner’s operatic music had a HUGE influence on modern film music

In Wagner’s famous cycle of operas known as Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs, aka “The Ring Cycle”), Wagner created an entire series of leitmotifs to represent specific characters or themes in the story.

For example, the hero Siegfried is represented by a leitmotif known as “Siegfried’s Horn Call,” seen here below:


Another important motif represents the god Wotan’s spear:


Other motifs represent: Fire, The Rhine, The Ring, and Sleep

Whatever the context, leitmotifs are an integral part of a film score (when they are used), and they provide an interesting connection to the world of 19th century opera.

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See also:

Film Music 101: “Stinger” Chords

Film Music 101: Dubbing

Film Music 101: Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Music

Film Music 101: Underscore

Film Music 101: Sidelining

Film Music 101: “Test” Lyrics

Film Music 101: The First Film Score

Film Music 101: Borrowing

Film Music 101: Arranger

Film Music 101: Anempathetic sound

Film Music 101: Empathetic Sound

Film Music 101: Foley

Film Music 101: Montage

Film Music 101: Compilation Score

The Empire Strikes Back or, Everyone has a Theme! Part One: Leitmotif and “The Imperial March”


The Empire Strikes Back
Released: May 21, 1980
Director: Irvin Kershner
Music by: John Williams
*All music is the property of Lucasfilm

The Empire Strikes Back is considered by many to be the greatest movie of the original Star Wars trilogy and it’s no wonder. The film contains battles both on land (Hoth) and in space (the Millennium Falcon vs. Star Destroyers), a terrifying villain (Darth Vader), moments of comedy (C3PO) and one of the biggest twists in the history of film. It also features a gorgeous score composed and conducted by John Williams, a film composer who has been working in Hollywood since the 1950s and is solely responsible for some of the greatest film scores of all time.


For his work on The Empire Strikes Back, Williams began with the musical themes he had established for the original Star Wars and used it as a starting point for the sequel. Two themes were already set in stone:

Luke’s Theme/The Force

Leia’s Theme

As the role of Darth Vader was being greatly expanded from his first appearance, Williams concluded that Vader would need a theme to match. This lead to the creation of “The Imperial March,” a theme that is now synonymous, not just with Star Wars and Darth Vader, but with anything evil in nature.

Darth Vader’s Theme/The Imperial March

These themes, and how they are used, derive from a technique created for opera, known as leitmotif. Leitmotif was made popular by the Romantic composer Richard Wagner in his famous series of “Ring” operas.

Leitmotifs, by nature, are meant to evoke a particular character and are played whenever a specific character is seen on stage OR when they are mentioned by another character. This happens a great deal with “The Imperial March”, and not just in The Empire Strikes Back.

Starting with The Phantom Menace, echoes of “The Imperial March” are heard towards the end of the film when Yoda (reluctantly) gives Obi-Wan permission to train Anakin. (specifically: when Yoda says “Nevertheless, grave danger do I feel in his training”)

The theme grows stronger in Attack of the Clones, but again is heard primarily at the end of the film when the Clone fleet is seen landing in Coruscant, announcing the start of the Clone Wars.

Finally, in Revenge of the Sith, the theme is finally heard in full when Anakin turns to the Dark Side and is dubbed Darth Vader by the new Emperor Palpatine. (The theme can be heard in snippets throughout the latter half of the film, but fully comes out when Vader is being placed into his armor, particularly when the mask slips into place).

Part Two will explore the theme of Han and Leia’s love and the theme of Yoda. Until next time!

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

See also:

Film/TV Reviews

The Empire Strikes Back: “The Imperial March” by John Williams