Word: leitmotif

Pronunciation: LYT-moh-teef

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Have you ever watched a movie or musical play and noticed that some pieces of the musical score always played when certain characters were on-screen/stage? This use of recurring themes is a popular trope in works that use music to convey ideas or represent characters. One of my favorite examples of such works is the video game Undertale, which makes heavy use of recurring and remixed musical themes to hint at connections between characters in the story. This has led to the common consensus among fans that creator Toby Fox is a genius when it comes to using “leitmotifs”!

A “leitmotif” is a theme that recurs throughout a musical or literary work and is associated with a particular person, idea, or situation. The word arose in English in the late 19th century and comes from the German noun Leitmotiv, meaning “leading motive”. This noun comprises the verb leiten “to lead” and the noun Motiv “motive”.

The word “leitmotif” was originally used in reference to Richard Wagner‘s operas and is a device most commonly associated with musical scores and soundtracks, as evidenced by its Wikipedia and TV Tropes pages, though its modern usage seems to be expanding its definition into literature. Note that “leitmotif” can also be spelled the original German way: “leitmotiv” (though it needn’t be capitalized in English as all nouns are in German). You may not find this word particularly useful if you only write literature, but if you compose music for stories (or write characters who do), “leitmotif” could be a handy addition to your vocabulary!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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