You may be familiar with the term “leitmotif” in reference to a Wagner opera, but did you know that this term has been used to reference musical themes in film? This month, Clef Notes is looking at the use of music in cinema. Today, let’s look at a few examples of how leitmotifs can be used in film.
A leitmotif is a recurring musical theme that can be connected to a particular character, object, place, idea, etc. Many film composers play on this idea in their work and as a listener, it’s often fun to watch a movie, picking out these significant musical ideas. One famous example is the shark theme in the 1975 film Jaws. Film composer John Williams used this two-note motive to represent the shark’s presence, whether actually seen on camera or not. This theme’s association with the shark brilliantly adds suspense for the viewer, who knows the dangerous beast could emerge from the waters at any moment. This theme has become so famous that many people who haven’t seen the film still know its association!
Another leitmotif shows up in The Wizard of Oz (1939). This theme connects Ms. Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West musically, implying for the viewer that they are, indeed the same villain, simply taking on different personas in Dorothy’s two worlds (Kansas and Oz).
Finally, a favorite leitmotif of mine shows up in the 1983 holiday classic, A Christmas Story. Prokofiev’s “wolf” theme from Peter and the Wolf appropriately depicts the neighborhood bully Scut Farcus each time he approaches Ralphie and his friends.
Have you heard any leitmotifs in your favorite films? If so, please share what or who they represent! I’ll give you a hint: if you’ve seen Star Wars, you’ve heard leitmotifs in film, as this series is famously known for this musical trait!