How Leitmotifs are Used in Film Scores

A Leitmotif is a short musical phrase that is repeated throughout the film or series of films to emphasize recurring people, places, objects, ideas, emotions etc. Some of the best uses of leitmotif in cinema, in my humble opinion, come from film series with long run times where the scores for all of the films are composed by the same composer.  The length of the series allows the composer to create a wider variety of themes, and variations and combinations of those themes.  So for the examples in this article we’ll be looking at leitmotifs from the Star Wars scores by John Williams and from The Lord of the Rings scores by Howard Shore and how they are used in their respective films. 

Individuals, People, and Places

Of all the leitmotifs in Star Wars perhaps the most famous are those associated with individual characters. The main theme for Star Wars was originally intended as a leitmotif for Luke Skywalker.  It plays when he is first introduced (0:08 below) and at key points throughout his story in the Original Trilogy. 

John Williams uses the Imperial March a bit differently.  He uses it as a personal leitmotif for Darth Vader but also as a motif for the Imperial military at large.  Which is why its used for both Vader and the Imperial Fleet at 1:24 from the Empire Strikes Back 

Howard Shore handled leitmotifs for characters a bit differently.  There are a few characters that get their own themes such as Eowyn (at 0:05 in the first clip below), but the number of major characters in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was so large that it didn’t make sense for each of them to have their own theme.  Instead, Howard Shore wrote a number of themes for places and used those themes both as themes for the physical place but also as the theme for the people from that place.  A wonderful example is the theme for Rohan.  It’s played both during the world building shots of Rohan’s capitol, Edoras (0:24 in the first video below), but it’s also played very faintly when the Rohirrim first appear at the Battle of Minas Tirith (2:40 in the second clip) and more prominently when they ride into battle (5:06 in the second video) despite the fact that the battle in question is occurring in Gondor rather than Rohan. 


Objects of special significance are also good candidates for their own leitmotifs.  Naturally, Howard Shore wrote a leitmotif for the One Ring, in the Lord of the Rings.  It tends to play at times when the Ring is playing a significant part in a scene.  It plays extensively throughout the prologue when the history of the Ring is being told. (0:00, 0.54, 2:35 below) 

Leitmotif as Narration

Written works benefit from having a narrator to describe things beyond the basics of what a character is saying or doing at any one point in the story.  Visual media, however, can’t always get away with constant narration and that’s where the music can step in to help the audience understand what’s going on. 

Leitmotifs can be used either as a way of explaining what’s going on in a given scene or as a way of explaining the significance of what’s going on in a specific scene. 

Another of the more famous themes from the Star Wars films is the theme for the Force.  While this theme is used at other times it serves a narrative purpose whenever someone is actually using the Force. If you watch the scene below (at 1:08) without music you could be forgiven for not seeing that there is a difference between Luke reaching for the lightsaber the first time and when he reaches for it again.  The Force theme is there to tell us as the audience that while we can’t see much of a difference when Luke initially reaches out again he’s doing something more this time that he wasn’t doing the first time. 

There’s a theme in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy that has been called the theme for rescue or the theme for aid. It plays at times when one character or group of characters is coming to the aid of another character or group of characters that are in especially dire need.  It plays when the Ents decide to join the war and march on Isengard at 1:33 below and if you watched the beginning of the Ride of the Rohirrim clip above you will notice that while the theme for Rohan plays during the actual charge its this theme of coming to another’s aid that plays while Theoden is giving his speech.  

Another way in which leitmotif can be used as a form of narration is to express what the characters are thinking or feeling internally. In a written work this could be described with narration and sometimes in visual media you can get away with having characters either voice their thoughts or show their thoughts or feelings through their actions.  Other times though that doesn’t fully convey everything that narration would and that’s where the music comes in.  

The clip below features the Ring prominently, yet its theme isn’t heard here.  Instead when Boromir picks the Ring up another theme plays.  In the Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is repeatedly described as having a will of its own and as having a corrupting influence.  Without the music at 0:32 it might seem that Boromir is merely picking up the Ring and remarking about it. However the music tells us what’s really going on as that particular theme represents The Ring’s will and temptation.

In the Last Jedi, when Luke and Leia are reunited naturally we hear their theme (0:39), but it shifts into something else at 1:35 when Luke puts something in Leia’s hand and again at 1:45 when we see her holding Han’s dice.  The theme that plays at 1:35 is a theme that John Williams uses throughout the Sequel Trilogy for tragedy.  The theme at 1:45 is the love theme for Han and Leia.  Even though nothing is said here and even though Han is never mentioned by name, the music gives us a sense that both Luke and Leia are deeply grieving Han’s loss.  

Looking Forward and Looking Back

Leitmotif as used by Wagner has the notion that not only should the music correlate with what is happening in the story currently but that it can also be used to look forward and look backward through the story.  The structure of the Star Wars Saga films gave John Williams a wonderful opportunity to do just that.  The fact that episodes IV through VI were made first and the fact that many of their musical motifs became so well known allowed John Williams to use those themes as foreshadowing in the Prequel Trilogy and as a way of showing how the shadow of the past can linger over the present in the Sequel Trilogy.  He went about this in several ways, some more obvious than others.  

The most obvious way was to simply reuse themes exactly as they appear in the original trilogy. For example throughout the Prequel trilogy the Imperial March is used to foreshadow Anakin’s fall and the rise of the Empire. Such as in The Phantom Menace when Yoda says he senses that it would be dangerous to train Anakin (0:22 below)

In the Sequel Trilogy, the Imperial March is used to show that even though Darth Vader is gone, his influence still lingers, especially over his grandson. You can hear it when Kylo Ren finishes talking to Vader’s helmet in The Force Awakens (0:45 below). 

John Williams also uses another theme as foreshadowing in the Prequel Trilogy in a more sneaky way.  The final scene of the Phantom Menace is a celebration.  The Good Guys have won and everything is happy, but the Phantom Menace also puts many of the pieces in play for Palpatine to ultimately take over as Emperor. So the cheery celebration music we hear at the end is in fact Palpatine’s theme, it’s just being played in a major key rather than a minor key and has been shifted up to a higher pitch. 

If you listen carefully to the music of the Prequel Trilogy you will notice that it is absolutely filled with familiar cues hidden in clever ways that each provide just a hint of foreshadowing.

Leitmotifs can also be used as narration in a somewhat more abstract manner.  The clip below from the Empire Strikes Back contains 3 leitmotifs: one at 0:06, the second at 0:25, and the third that starts at 0:43 goes through a transition and then is restated at 1:20.  The second leitmotif makes perfect sense: Lando is addressing the people of Cloud City so the theme for Lando/Cloud City plays.  The third theme is Han and Leia’s theme which makes sense as a leitmotif looking back.  Han has just been frozen in carbonite and they’ve just watched Boba Fett fly off with him, that has to be on their minds even as they escape and the music is there to show that.   The first theme in the clip is a bit more abstract.  It’s actually Yoda’s theme.  At first glance this doesn’t seem to make any sense because Yoda is not in this scene, nor at Cloud City at all. So what’s his theme doing here?  I personally believe that John Williams used this theme here as a call back to when Luke had the vision of Han and Leia in danger and Yoda replies “If you leave now help them you could, but you will destroy all for which they have fought and suffered.”  John Williams just wanted to put in a little reminder of that line because Luke left, now Leia is escaping, and the very next scene is the “I am your Father” scene where we find out exactly why Yoda was worried about what would happen if Luke left. 

One thing that John Williams does with regard to leitmotifs looking forward and looking backward that is absolutely brilliant is that he uses leitmotifs from the Original Trilogy to build new leitmotifs for the Prequel Trilogy that look forward and leitmotifs for the Sequel Trilogy that look backward.   

John Williams knows that his themes from the Original Trilogy would likely be instantly recognizable to people in the audience for the Prequel Trilogy so he didn’t feel like he had to use the whole theme when just a few notes would get the point across.  A really good example of this is Anakin’s theme.  Anakin’s theme is every bit as sweet and innocent as you would expect for a good hearted little boy but there’s a touch of darkness at the end that sounds a bit familiar. 

The notes below are the opening of the Imperial March.  When John Williams wants to give just a hint of the Imperial March he plays just the F C A and it’s those same notes that he used when he wanted to add just a bit of foreboding to Anakin’s otherwise innocent theme. 

The fact that those notes appear at the end of Anakin’s theme is also very intentional. It tells us where this innocent little boy’s story is going.

Across the Stars is also built on a variation on this three note pattern (it would begin with E C A rather than F C A if we are keeping the last two notes the same).  The obvious connection between the two themes is of course that Anakin’s relationship with Padme plays a major role in his fall.  John Williams chose to brilliantly show the connection between the two themes by having the Imperial March transition seamlessly into Across the Stars for the finale of Attack of the Clones.  (The Imperial march begins at 2:17 and the transition is at 2:37).  

For the Sequle Trilogy Kylo Ren’s theme appears to have been crafted as a theme that looks back. Kylo Ren’s first theme is initially heard in the opening scene of The Force Awakens (0:00 below)

Arguments have been made that this theme could have been derived from one of two themes from the Originally Trilogy. The first is that it derives from a later section of the Imperial March. 

(Source: )

The other is that Kylo’s theme grew from the Emperor’s theme as shown below. 

There’s two reasons to think that the former explanation that Kylo’s theme came from the Imperial March is the correct one.  

A) John Williams said in the behind the scenes feature for the Force Awakens that when writing Kylo’s music he started with Vader’s music.  There’s a certain poetic brilliance in creating Kylo’s theme from a later section of Vader’s theme. Kylo is both Vader’s grandson and states in the Force Awakens that his goal is to finish what Vader started.  The beginning of the Imperial March is usually used as the leitmotif for Vader.  If Kylo is a continuation of Vader where better to draw inspiration for his theme than to continue the Imperial March. If the hints of the Imperial March in Anakin’s theme were looking forward to Vader, the hints of it in Kylo’s theme are looking back toward Vader. 

B) Stylistically Kylo’s theme sounds more like the brass heavy Imperial March than the choral Emperor’s theme.  Specifically I think that John Williams took inspiration for Kylo’s theme from the Imperial March blended with Battle of the Heroes as played during Anakin and Obi-Wan’s duel on Mustafar.  Here the Imperial March is broken up and surrounded by similar trumpet fanfares much like Kylo’s theme. 

(Personally I think that the fact that Kylo’s theme has similarities to the Emperor’s theme as well as the Imperial March suggests that the Emperor’s theme is also a theme John Williams created by growing it from the Imperial March.)

I hope this post inspires you to listen more closely to the music while watching a movie. If you hear a musical cue used throughout the movie stop and consider what the composer might be trying to tell you in how they use it.  

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