Monday, December 24, 2012

What is a Leitmotiv, and Why Does It Matter?

Welcome to Leitmotif December! This is going to be one of my many attempts to write multiple articles around the same theme in a single month. Given my track record for updates thus far, I figure it's a fairly lofty goal. But I have some pretty fun ideas, and I'd love to share them with you!

This first article deals with exactly what a leitmotif is and how it works within the realm of video games. There have been many arguments within the academic community about what a leitmotif really is; it's a term that is most closely identified with German composer Richard Wagner (although it was used more by his critics than by the man himself), and many definitions of leitmotivs come from the analysis of Wagner's work. Since a strict definition of the term was never pinned down, scholars argue about the use of the term when describing movie soundtracks, game soundtracks, and other media music. This article will aim to provide a working definition of the term, the controversy that the term inspires, and a deeper look into the usage of the term when talking about game music.

A leitmotif, in its simplest form, is defined as a short musical passage that often repeats and is associated with a person, place, thing, or idea. On the surface, it's pretty easy to see how this idea applies to video game music.

One look at this stage should be enough to tell you why.

In movies and games, leitmotiv is used broadly to describe music that is associated with a particular character, location, or idea: a "theme song" of sorts. In early games, this pertained almost exclusively to level themes since very few games were focused on narrative. Certain songs came to be associated with particular areas. For instance, the song that plays in World 1-1 of the original Super Mario Bros. also plays for every above ground level, eventually associating itself with the style of level that the player will encounter. This also applies for the underground and underwater levels.

"World 1-1" - Super Mario Bros.

Many classic characters and RPG characters have their own "theme song" as well. The above theme song is often referred to as the "Super Mario theme." In fact, the piece comes to represent Mario as a character in later games as opposed to the "above ground" levels in its original form. But a lot of RPGs use these leitmotivs to identify their characters. Frog's Theme from Chrono Trigger is one example; it comes to represent not only the character of Frog but also his chivalry and heroism. While character-associated leitmotivs are not limited to RPGs, they are usually only used for games that have a longer narrative. Adventure games such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Ace Attorney make use of many character based leitmotivs.

"Objection!" - Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Finally, a leitmotiv can be used to symbolize a recurring thought or idea. While these are the most fitting examples of what a leitmotiv is truly supposed to be, it is also the most difficult to describe. Many of the best examples of a thought-based leitmotiv require a longer explanation of the inner workings of the narrative. In its simplest form, however, it can represent something as simple as reaching the end of a level or achieving victory, as discussed in my last article. More about this particular type of leitmotiv later.

This simple definition begs the question, "If leitmotivs are simply snippets of music that are associated with people, places, or things, then wouldn't everything in a game be a leitmotiv since the music is programmed to play during different situations?" Technically, this is correct; this is why we need to narrow the definition of a leitmotiv, which is also where much of the contention lies. Generally speaking, the piece needs a sense of thematic significance in order for it to be described as a leitmotiv. In addition, the musical passage must play multiple times throughout the work (almost always in different forms, and sometimes even intertwining with other leitmotivs to create something completely different).

Let's take a look at two examples - one that is not a leitmotiv and one that is - that are both from the same game.

"Cerulean City" - Pokémon Red/Blue

Cerulean City's theme is very bubbly and upbeat, much like its resident gym leader. Although the music can also be heard in Fuchsia City, there aren't any similarities between the two locations. In other words, it repeats itself throughout the greater narrative, but it doesn't hold any thematic significance. (As a side note, the repetition of a piece within the same area generally lacks any symbolic implications. While this is not a hard and fast rule, I will be proceeding with the assumption that track repetition in the same locale/situation is insignificant unless stated otherwise.) Therefore, with the given information, this piece does not have the qualities of a leitmotiv.

"Viridian City/Pewter City" - Pokémon Red/Blue

This theme plays in many different cities throughout the Kanto region, but its weight is due to its use in Viridian City, the first town that the protagonist visits. It's a theme that you hear right at the beginning of the protagonist's journey away from home. Later, you must return to Viridian City to claim your final gym badge and thwart the evil schemes of Team Rocket. However, these events alone do not make the Viridian City theme a leitmotiv. At the end of the game, after the final battle, Professor Oak rushes into the room and a certain theme begins to play. It's the Viridian City theme, albeit at a slower tempo. The inclusion of this piece is not an accident. It represents the protagonist's entire journey, from the moment he stepped away with his new Pokémon to his quest to win every gym badge to his victory against the Elite Four. With this repetition and added meaning, this theme is reminiscent of a leitmotiv. 

Film music theorist Theodor Adorno mentions in his book Composing for the Films that one needs an incredibly long piece of work (or "musical canvas") for a leitmotiv to take on any importance "beyond that of a signpost." This has been the cause for many a debate within the academia of film scoring, but there is certainly some merit to this point of view. The example of "World 1-1" above does just this. In the original game, it acts as a signpost for the above ground levels, and since then, it has become a signpost for almost any game in which Mario appears. It requires clever, thematic usage of a tune to truly make it a leitmotiv. And, unlike film, video games tend to have a lot more time to extend their "musical canvases."

Next, we'll be taking a look at proper and improper uses of leitmotivs in modern video games. Stay tuned!


  1. I actually just wrote my final paper for a music class on Leitmotivs in gaming, specifically about Aryll's Theme from Windwaker. Leitmotivs are pretty much the reason gaming music is so enthralling to me, and its nice to see you do an analysis of them :)

    (PS: Great to have you back!)

  2. I actually don't think World 1-1 counts as a leitmotif. Calling it Mario's theme in other media, sure, but a leitmotif is usually more of a motif than a theme and it calls to mind a particular narrative element. World 1-1 is just a level theme. It doesn't symbolize outdoor areas because outdoor areas aren't special enough to be symbolized.

    In my opinion, without some set pieces -- through-composed scenes with special music -- leitmotif is fairly meaningless. Chrono Trigger is an exception. One important use of leitmotif is Crono's theme, Chrono Trigger. It's the main theme, and it's Crono's theme as well, being adventurous and exuberant. If you stray too far from Guardia, you get to hear it again in the Present overworld, except much more distantly, like a tired journey rather than an adventure. At the end of the game, the final credits song starts out with the same rhythm and contour as Chrono Trigger, indicating the successful completion of the adventure related in the theme. Of course, those three chords on the title screen before the main theme starts can be considered leitmotif as well, though more subtly. I'm not sure I'd call character themes leitmotifs since they're entire *themes* and don't get used as snippets -- motifs -- elsewhere.

  3. Great blog of music and games like where also you can play online games and download latest music

  4. Music has always been an important part of movies and games. Thanks for detail info what a leitmotif is and how it works within the realm of video games.