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Leitmotif revisited
by Gustavo Costantini

For Michel Chion

Music and Sound were there

Sound was always present in film projections. Through piano accompaniment, a gramophone record, someone talking to the audience... the early films were surrounded by sounds. But in the early days music was the main source of film sound. The musicians were there to enhance action, create an atmosphere, reinforce drama. Duplicating the presence of the image through sound was a common practice. Film music of the silent days was highly coded: one motif representing water, another trains, yet another explosions and so on. Editors published little scores with these motifs along with melodic lines for different situations: chases, battles, duels, and so on[i]. Thus music was mostly there to make audiences hear the absent sound effects and help them understand the dramatic situations involved. Theatre music and opera did much the same thing. Richard Wagner found a very sophisticated way of organising musical material to fit action and mood.

Practical or philosophical reasons

The pioneer Kurt London (one of the first theoreticians to write a book on film music[ii]) wrote that music was included in film to cover the noise of the projector. The projections were indeed noisy, but his explanation reduces the problem to a minor detail. Theodor W. Adorno and Hans Eisler[iii] refuted London with a philosophical explanation: cinema shows the human being as an artefact of industrial society, yet another object placed among industrial machinery. Following the path of György Lukacs’ developments of Marx’s ideas on the “fetishism of commodities”[iv], Adorno and Eisler tell us that romantic music has the effect of calming us, that in some way it denies or conceals the terrible fact of seeing ourselves as mere objects of the mercantile world. Whether or not one agrees with this powerful statement, or the simpler idea of Kurt London, music was there from the beginning as an integrating element, while, at the same time, guaranteeing the absence of noises from the outside word, because being conscious of the presence of the projector takes us away from the alternative world the screen is offering us. Romantic music was not only a choice of style, it was the dominant model. And Wagner operas were the closest art forms to cinema, which is a sort of inheritance of Gesamkunstwerk.

What is a leitmotif? First things, first...

Wagner leitmotifs were both a complex form of codification and a way of producing subtle sensations and associations in the listener. It was not mere chance that film music opted so strongly for the Wagnerian approach. According to Grove’s Dictionary of Music[v], leitmotif (leading motif) is “a theme, or other coherent idea, clearly defined so as to retain its identity if modified on subsequent appearances, and whose purpose is to represent or symbolise a person, object, place, idea, state of mind, supernatural force or any other ingredient in a dramatic work, usually operatic but also vocal, choral or instrumental”. The term was coined by F. W. Jähns in his Carl Maria Von Weber in seinen Werken (1871). But it was Wagner who gave leitmotif a new status as a determining element of musical form. His flexible way of using musical themes enabled musicians to resolve a lot of problems when films began to include sound. Firstly, to find a structure for organising musical material. Secondly, to link characters and situations by means of music. And, finally, to avoid duplication (image / sound / musical onomatopoeia, having sound and music do the same thing). Romantic music entered the film sound field associated with all these technical, psychological and formal aspects, helping narrative film to aim higher. People were aware of the musical code, and the associations with characters and situations allowed directors to delineate and complete plot ideas through sound. And because cinema was not as demanding as opera - at least at those days - the musician’s task was simplified by the use of leitmotif.

Don’t look now. Listen...

One of the first uses of leitmotif was in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). And there, we find an application of leitmotif that opens new possibilities. Leitmotif is presented at the very beginning in the title sequence. While we see a large “M” covering the screen, we listen to a fragment of Edward Grieg’s Peer Gynt. The simple, repetitive and effective rhythmic theme is immediately retained in auditory memory, making it very easy to associate with the mysterious murderer. But it is not the same music which establishes the link: it’s the murderer’s whistling which tells us that this man - whose face is not seen - is M. This example is interesting because - despite its simplicity - it introduces the idea of identifying or labelling a character by means of sound. Lang was aware of it and it was not by chance that he decided to include a blind balloon-seller. M buys a balloon for Elsie - the next victim - and he whistles the leitmotif to indicate (us) the identity of the killer. The blind man is telling us “you don’t have to try to see the face, you have to listen to what I am able to recognise”. The blind man will be the key to catching M, or to put it better, his ears listening to the leitmotif will.

Solving crimes through leitmotif

From the beginning of the sound era, the cinema has included leitmotifs other than musical ones. But musical leitmotifs were (and still are) the most used. If we have to mention one film of the classic period that condenses a lot of characteristics of musical leitmotifs, it is probably Otto Preminger’ s Laura. Laura begins with the big portrait of Gene Tierney as Laura, with the title Laura superimposed and the leitmotif sounding in all its splendour. A beautiful Hollywood star, a musical theme played by an orchestra, a portrait, a title, a link between the actress / name / song... Do we need more?

After the title sequence, we see Waldo’s apartment and we hear his voice-over: “I’ll never forget the weekend Laura died...” What music do we listen to meanwhile? A sort of negative version of Laura’s leitmotif. Where Laura’s is consonant and cantabile, Waldo’s is dissonant and intricate. But if we listen carefully, we will discover it’s the same theme. This time, with obscure timbres and a sinister character. Waldo’s leitmotif derives from the transformation of Laura’s. And his leitmotif preserves the reference to Laura as a negative because Waldo (supposedly) killed Laura. In the same sequence, when the detective (Dana Andrews) interrogates Waldo, there are lots of indications of his culpability. The sound of the big clock, the image of the clock, and Waldo’s words mentioning the clock (“the detective was seeing my clock, and there was an identical one at Laura’s apartment that I bought for her as a gift”)... Is it necessary to say the clock is the element that helps to solve the crime?

In another sequence we see the most obsessive use of leitmotif in history: when the detective is alone at Laura’s apartment, every time he sees her portrait, he touches her belongings, he smells her perfume or even when he thinks about her, we hear Laura’s leitmotif. Every time he goes to another part of the house, or pays attention to something unrelated to her, the music immediately abandons Laura and becomes a transition. The result is a message that lets us understand in what way (fetishism) the detective is evoking Laura. The hyper-codification of romantic music in alliance with leitmotif associations allows composer and director to explain without words the nature of the particular liaison between the detective and the supposedly dead lady[vi].

Use the Force

In recent decades, the composer who most clearly represents the leitmotif tradition is John Williams. In “his” films, he uses a lot of Wagnerian stuff, such as diatonic scales for hero-themes (Indiana Jones, Stars Wars, Superman); chromatic scales or themes for objects, things or negative elements (Jaws, the Empire leitmotif); bright sounds for positive elements; darker, obscure timbres (and located in the extremes of the register) for negative ones. Although John Williams is one of the most successful scoring composers, and one of the most respected, it has to be said that his use of the Wagnerian leitmotif is, in some ways, schematic. His approach is very direct and strong, and no one in the theatre will fail to recognise any link between the themes and the characters associated to them. His extraordinary capacity to reach the audience like a classical composer makes him the perfect choice for films dealing with mythical subject matter, or for a kind of cinema that wants to resemble that of the classical era[vii].

The symphonic sounds of Williams do not connect with sound design, at least in the way composers like Howard Shore (in the car washer sequence in Crash, for example), Mychael Danna (the flute and electric guitar sounds overlapped when Ian Holm discovers the destroyed bus in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter[viii]), Gabriel Yared / Walter Murch (deliberate confusion between music from the score, music from the screen and sound effects in the wonderful first minutes of The Talented Mr. Ripley). Despite the fact that musical leitmotifs intended to describe characters or situations are the most used, we will try to recognise other possibilities and establish a classification of types, links and functions of leitmotifs, beyond classic scoring.

Not only music

Following the path opened by M, we can add sound leitmotifs. The problem with these is that on most occasions they are only a single sound repeated throughout the film. This is not exactly a bad thing, but simple repetition is on the verge of being just a case of mere redundancy[ix]. In most cases, these are sounds from within the scene. But it is possible to use leitmotif sounds from beyond the film’s frame, thus dissolving the frontiers between diegetic and non-diegetic status[x]. (This is the case in the sound of the clock in Scorsese’s After Hours, ambiguously used as the sound of a clock or an off sound - in Chion’s terms - more involved with Howard Shore’s music than the scenes it accompanies. Later we’ll come to the heartbeat sounds in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, very close to After Hours’ clock.)

Most sound leitmotifs are a kind of mark intended to give a clue to the viewers. It is possible to think of these leitmotifs as replacing a visual sign or signal (a mysterious character wearing a ring or a funny hat). The intense breathing of the killer Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween belongs to this category. The mask he wears could have been the only evidence of his presence, but it was impossible for Carpenter to show the character during daylight scenes wearing the mask. And this procedure allows the director to create a sort of subjective sound: we see an objective shot but listen through the ears of the killer (instead of his eyes). Besides this interesting resource, the mask or another distinctive element could replace the sound of breathing.

Faust revisited

Finally, we can talk of the most interesting kind of leitmotif: the audio / visual one. This leitmotif has to be done through a link between a visual sign + sound sign, both related to a character or thing. These leitmotifs are the most complex and hard to find, but are surely the most fascinating ones. In Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, a singular version of Faust, there are three leitmotifs (or at least two, with a third element having a different function). But first, we will focus on the audio / visual, the Louis Cypher’ s (=Lucifer). The visual signs are the images of fans spread throughout the film. The sound signs are the metallic noises of the fan starting to revolve. Both elements are related to Cypher through a metonym: these ventilators reproduce the circular movement of Cypher’s cane/trident and make (almost) the same noise as the contact between the metallic tip of the cane and the wooden floor. Both elements are present in the first interview of Cypher and the private investigator Harold Angel/Faust, and are connected in a very subtle way. Cypher is playing with his cane making it turn in circles again and again. When we see Harold Angel, we are forced to see the cane randomly entering the frame. This obliges us to ask what it is. When we recognise that it’s Cypher’s cane, we did not know that we are receiving a signal, a path to link the cane to Cypher (instead of simply seeing the cane in Cypher’s hands: this procedure, this emphasis guarantees the link). But this metonym is more interesting since Harold Angel looks up and sees one of the ventilators slowly starting to turn. The same path again and similar noises.

I’m afraid of American... fans

Everyone who saw Angel Heart remembers the fans and the suggestive effect they produce. Why do people feel this? Because they saw the scenes where the fan appears as a logical sequence of events: before each killing, we see a ventilator starting to revolve (and of course hear the sound). And this movement and noise recall the cane, metonym of Louis Cypher. Fans suggest the ghostly presence of Lucifer in the scene, pulling the strings. Harold Angel doesn’t know he is in the verge of losing his mind in order to commit a crime. We see Angel talking to someone in a place that has a ventilator. Later we will see a scene where Angel discovers the dead body. What do we see in between? We see a strange dream-like scene that shows Harold Angel somehow lost or disturbed. In most of these scenes, we see the fans again, mixed with a sort of recollection of past events. This honest development of the script is telling us what is happening in Angel’s mind while he is not aware of being possessed. It is interesting to see the final encounter between Angel and Lucifer, in which Lucifer has a different cane, a trident that suggests his power and status. And primarily, the first shot of Louis Cypher (when they meet for the first time) is a close shot of his hand holding the cane; we only see his face after seeing his cane.

I know who I am... thanks to songs

As regards complex and not schematic uses of musical leitmotifs, Angel Heart also provides an interesting example. The Harold Angel / Johnny Favourite leitmotif is a song. But we will know this close to the end. In the title sequence we listen the leitmotif, but perhaps it is so transformed as to be imperceptible for some people. Trevor Jones - composer of the wonderful score - introduces what appears to be a typical musical ground, a low note on the synthesiser. Over this ground, Courtney Pine plays on tenor sax a chromatic slow line, which is the melodic line of Johnny Favourite’s song. In this postmodern and distorted version of Faust, Harold Angel does not know he is Mephistopheles and Faust at the same time. He is seeking for his lost identity. He asks himself to fulfil the contract with the devil. As Angel, he is a private investigator who has to find the lost singer Johnny Favourite (he does not know he is searching for himself).

Throughout the film, we listen to this tune: he whistles it, plays it on a piano, or someone else sings it. Johnny’s song is gradually “revealed” as the mystery of the plot. The important thing about this is that it’s the opposite of the typical construction of leitmotif. If in Hollywood classics leitmotifs are clearly recognised at the beginning, here it is only recognised at the end. In the title sequence, the leitmotif is transformed in tempo, orchestration, character, harmony, so it’s barely distinguishable. After this early appearance, the parameters are gradually changed and each new appearance is closer to the original source. Angel whistles it in his car (while in the background we hear the same music from the non-diegetic score, a clear indication to pay attention to the tune). Later he will be at a bar and we will listen to a piano (whose source is offscreen) that let us clearly hear the melody line. When he interviews Margaret (Charlotte Rampling), he himself plays the leitmotif on a piano, and now with a jazzy rhythm (the slow chromatic scale becomes just ornament). Close to the ending, he faces the fact that melody in this head is a song: when he returns to his room, he finds the girl (Lisa Bonet) taking a bath and singing... “The” song. He asks her: “what is this tune?” She answers: “It’s a Johnny Favourite’s song. My mother was always singing it to me.” At last, when Harold / Johnny reencounters his mentor, Louis Cypher, we will listen to the song for the last time. Lucifer puts the record on the old gramophone, and we hear the distant voice of Harold’s past life as Johnny, the crooner.

Logic: the classics and beyond

We can trace the formula of the classical leitmotif in Hollywood classics as this:

Original theme / variation 1/ variation 2/ variation 3... variation n (the variations are not necessarily more complex during their successive appearances).

The treatment in Angel Heart is the exact opposite:

Variation N... variation 3/ variation 2/ variation 1/ original theme (the logic is n = more different; variation 1 = more similar to the song source).

What begins as typical 80s film music, ends as a typical song of the late 30s that helps to solve the mystery. The important thing here is the parallel between detective investigation and musical revelation. And beyond the originality and the skills involved in the process, it is interesting to think in the symbolic dimension: a song that identifies someone, the self-leitmotif, the musical version of the “I”...

Not all is leitmotif: Idée fixe

The third repeated sound, the obsessive heartbeat, allows us to introduce a related form to leitmotif: the idée fixe. It was Berlioz who invented this predecessor of the leitmotif. He wrote a theme that is repeated a few times throughout his Symphonie Fantastique. This “recurrent idea” is re-interpreted each time, because in between, there is a lot of information that develops the musical narration. As the music tell us “its story” (or at least as Berlioz intended it to), the interpretation of the theme changes. In soundtracks, the idée fixe is not as specific as in Berlioz’ music. But we can use this notion because of its difference from leitmotif. While leitmotif is always “the leitmotif of someone or something”, idée fixe is a kind of “presence” in itself, pointing out and connecting things. Things, persons, situations, etc, seen at different moments and not having a clear link between them, will be somehow connected by this invisible string. Idée fixe is resource that makes us notice key elements of the plot.

The heartbeat of Angel Heart could be described as the leitmotif of the “real” and dead Harold Angel, metaphorically present in the inside of the “new” Harold Angel (Mickey Rourke). But it is impossible to think of this metonym while seeing the film. Even though the film is called Angel Heart, and even when we learn whom the Angel referred to is or was, we guess the heartbeat is the detective’s.

It is more appropriate to think of this heartbeat as the obsessive sound that forces us to rethink the plot: the heartbeat is pointing something out, but we don’t know what it is. So, we have to guess, and progressively, we begin to separate what seems so literally connected: the heartbeat of Angel in Angel Heart. At last, we know another Harold Angel and another heart; the heart of the sacrificed victim. That’s the way Johnny became Harold, through the rite of eating the heart of a sacrificial lamb. If we think again about the After Hours clock, we discover a parallel: heartbeat / heart, clock / hours. A sound created about what the title suggests; that is, in fact, an independent source, denying what seems so faithful and logical. The clock sound not only is not related to the clocks we see, but is a part of the score. Its function is to awaken our attention, and to link different moments and elements in the story: facts, attitudes, faces, details, information.

In Joseph Losey’s The Go-between, the famous motif written by Michel Legrand (a perfect fifth followed by a minor sixth like C-G / C-Ab) is transformed throughout the film (mostly in the style of the baroque sequence), but is always easy to recognise. Its tension and strength forces us to ask: what is happening? Why are these beautiful images accompanied by this macabre theme? When the boy discovers the belladonna plant and when he stares at his friend’s elder sister - Julie Christie - we hear the idée fixe. Later, the boy is trying to sleep, but is disturbed (idée fixe again, louder this time). Why? Common sense probably makes us say “because he is not at home and he misses his mother”. Wrong! Idée fixe is telling us “because he is thinking of the disturbing beauty of the sister”. The contrast between the character of most scenes - all seem to be innocent - and the impact of the music forces us to think again about what we are seeing. To re-evaluate our perception of the things involved in the scene.

In the French film Dr Pétiot (Christian de Chalonge, 1990), there is a group of metallic sounds that invades all locations: sounds of bicycle wheels, knives, scratches, theatre stage devices, etc. The sounds seem to be the same, but they are not. We perceive them as the same because sound design cleverly uses the same kinds of object or objects having metallic parts. The idea is to connect all spaces in the film with the terrible final destination: Death. The ending shows a theatre - in which Dr Pétiot is hidden - performing a play about Death. All the metallic noises were related to the blade of the symbolic figure of Death (Dr Pétiot was making people die in order to let them escape from Nazi horrors...). This is one of the most interesting idées fixes since the sound mark is not fixed to one object alone. The presence of the noise in different spaces and situations becomes a sort of a subtle premonition of tragic events.

In Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there is an audio / visual version of idée fixe: on the one hand, the well-known motif played by toys, aborigines, etc; on the other, the “peak-less” mountain form that is seen in the shaving cream, in the mud of the garden, etc . These related elements allow us to understand what the film is really about. François Truffaut, presented as “the greater specialist in the field” (filmmaking? human emotions?) is leading people - who do not necessarily know each other - to meet and to share a destiny. Whether the aliens are angels or simply an excuse is irrelevant. Idées fixes enhance the capacity of the listener to recognise the nature of this special connection.

Finally, in Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, we can find two more examples of audio / visual idée fixe. We are tempted to think of Piazzolla’s theme (from Suite Punta del Este) and the monkeys’ icon as the leitmotif of The Army of the Twelve Monkeys (Brad Pitt’s gang). But besides its literal reference to the absurd teen-like organisation, the elements point towards different things. Every time James Cole (Bruce Willis) finds a clue to discover the army’s operations, we notice they have no chance of being so terrible. The idée fixe marks precisely the opposite: The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is not responsible for the biohazard disaster. But this false information gives as a path to think of the other idée fixe of the film: the obsessive dreaming of airports and killing. What James is dreaming of is his horrible destiny: he is condemned to escape to his own death. This dream is almost an equivalent to the original idea of Berlioz, and we rethink the sequence and the whole plot (including the monkeys) in order to understand the actual cause of world and personal apocalypse. The strength of Piazzolla’s motif becomes the sadness of Paul Buckmeister’s adagio (that includes a tango-like violin-sound litany).

Leitmotif or Idée fixe: types, links, functions

A repeated motif is an idée fixe only when it is not clearly linked to a person, object or situation; at the same time, this motif must reveal an invisible link between apparently unconnected things. If we ask what are idées fixes intended for, we have to say something about the functions performed by leitmotifs.  Not all plots or narrative structures are able to include leitmotifs or idées fixes. Thinking about the functions or the uses provided by each one, it is possible to guess which is more appropriate to each particular case.

If we think about the use of leitmotif, we will find three general possibilities.

  • Description: What happens to him or her? Is he or she to be regarded in a positive or negative light?

  • Indication (or mark): this is the killer / the monster is coming.

Finally, it is possible that leitmotif does a

  • Replacement: Laura’s theme, for example, is heard only while “she is dead”; when she happens to be alive, it is no longer heard. These leitmotifs replace the elements they are linked to.


Regarding the links, that is to say the element that they are associated with:

  • Character: refers to all the persons or animated protagonists presenting a psychological development.

  • Object: relates to things, monsters, animals, etc, without psychological qualities (the shark in Jaws could be important from a symbolic perspective but has no other function besides “hunting, eating and making baby sharks”, in Richard Dreyfuss’ words).

  • Situation: includes all genre-related elements. In action films, all chases have a chase theme; in a melodrama, the couple has its love song (for example, the Everly Brothers ‘ song in Ghost). These leitmotifs, if widely used, are less interesting to analyse because of their schematic nature and their subordination to genre or code.

In the chart, we see all the aspects of a leitmotif (regarding recognition). By combining the different terms, we have - perhaps - all the possible cases: musical/character/description (Star Wars, Superman and most characters’ leitmotifs in Hollywood classics); musical /object / indication (Jaws, Harold Angel), sound/ character/ indication (Halloween’s breathing), etc. However, some combinations may be impossible. This classification is intended to provide a resource for leitmotif analysis or to give a starting point to further development. There could even be a modest approach to establish compositional criteria regarding plot and character.
















Type Description Function
Sound Repetitive and disturbing sound not connected to the same character or thing every time it appears Reveals an instance of new signification of the sources or the associated elements
Musical A theme whose style, orchestration or character somehow differs from the emotion of the scene Reveals hidden or invisible connections (even antagonism) between characters or different elements in the plot


Two metonyms (a sound or musical theme / an image) related to a place, person, divinity, etc Reveals places (sacred, special, cursed, enchanted) or hidden aspects of a character

[i] Russell Lack wrote a deep study on the history of Film Music. Lack, Russell: Twenty Four Frames Under, Interlink Publishers Group, 1999.

[ii] London, Kurt (1936): Film Music. New York: Arno Press, 1970.

[iii] Adorno, T. W. and Eisler H.: Composing for the Films. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947

[iv] The fetishism of commodities: Marx's term for the practice of seeing the exchange value of a commodity as inherent in the object, rather than deriving from its labour-value. A commodity represents a given amount of labour-value, which we think is always rationalised (i.e., a thing is worth some determinate proportion of what it cost to produce). Commodity fetishism is later developed by György Lukács into the concept of reification (Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, 1923). Lukács, G.: History and Class Consciousness, trans. by Rodney Livingstone, Merlin Press: London, 1990, p. 169. In short: the proletariat see the commodity as representing labour-power (an abstract representation of their own labour), and therefore see themselves in commodities.

[v] 1980 edition.

[vi] For further reading on David Raskin and the soundtrack of Laura and about this sequence in particular, see Burt, George: The Art of Film Music, Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1994. An interview with David Raskin is included in Brown, Royal: Overtones and Undertones. Reading Film Music, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1994. Other Raskin’s soundtracks are analysed in Prendergast, Roy: Film Music. A Neglected Art, London, Norton, 1992 (2nd. edition).

[vii] For further reading and deeper approach on John Williams, see Aschieri, Roberto: Over the Moon, La música de John Williams para el cine. Universidad Diego Portales Press, Chile, 1999 (in Spanish).

[viii] It’s interesting to see how he uses leitmotif in this film. He wrote a leitmotif for the school bus. It’s a theme on (ney?) flute that also refers to Robert Browining’s Pied Piper of Hamelin. But this reference is very subtle because the flute is not clearly recognised as a flute. The bus is climbing up the hills and is seen from the air, maybe meaning the tragic destiny of the boy and girls inside. The music of the flute condenses the leitmotif of the bus and the piper, making us rethink the meaning of both elements.

[ix] In discussion this type of leitmotif, Michel Chion observed cinema was always involved with repetitive things. Lots of camera movements and character displacements are not infinite. In fiction film they are restrain to a certain amount and types. So, it’s important to recognise when they are used in the same way music leitmotifs are. However, they lack the kind of variations that music is able to do with themes. But it is possible to find some fine developments, which use sounds in the way musique concrète does.

[x] This distinction could be seen in Michel Chion’s terms as (regarding music) musique de fosse / musique d’écran, or (regarding sound) sound off, in, or hors-champ – main categories – and sound on the air, internal (objective and subjective) and ambience. The more diverse positions of the sound sources, the more interesting the sound design. See Chion, M.: Audiovision (translated by Claudia Gorbman / foreword by Walter Murch), Columbia University Press, 1994, and Chion, Michel: La musique au Cinéma, Paris, Fayard, 1995.


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