A leitmotif (also spelled leitmotiv) is a recurring musical theme, associated within a particular piece of music with a particular person, place or idea. The word has also been used by extension to mean any sort of recurring theme, whether in music, literature, or the life of a fictional character or a real person.
The German word Motiv is borrowed from the French motif, meaning motive or theme. Prefixing it with Leit- (coming from G. leiten, to lead), produces Leitmotiv (G. pl. Leitmotive), meaning "lead motif".
A leitmotif is usually a short melody, although it can also be a chord progression or even a simple rhythms. Leitmotifs can help to bind a work together into a coherent whole, and also enable the composer to relate a story without the use of words, or to add an extra level to an already present story.
The word is usually used when talking about dramatic works, especially operas, although leitmotifs are also used in other musical genres, such as instrumental pieces or video game music as well. The Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz is purely instrumental, but has a recurring melody representing the love of the central character. Berlioz himself called this an idée fixe. There is also some similarity with Beethoven's use of motto themes - in his Fifth Symphony, for example, when one particular melody is representative of fate.
Richard Wagner is the composer most often associated with leitmotifs, and his operas make liberal use of them. His cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, uses dozens of leitmotifs, representing characters, things, or situations; while some of these leitmotifs occur in only one of the operas, many occur throughout the entire cycle. However, leitmotifs had been used by other composers before him, most notably Carl Maria von Weber, who was probably the first to make extensive use of them. The first use of the word "leitmotif" in print, however, was not until 1871, when critic F. W. Jähns used it in describing Weber's work. The first use of the term with reference to Wagner's music was apparently in 1887 by H. von Wolzogen, the editor of the Bayreuther Blätter, in discussing Götterdämmerung. (Wagner had used "Grundthema" (basic idea) in speaking of his leitmotifs.)
Since Wagner, the use of leitmotifs has been taken up by many other composers. Richard Strauss used the device in many of his operas and several of his symphonic poems. The Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu used them in his soundtrack Final Fantasy VI where every character in the game had their own musical melody, or "theme". The Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev made heavy use of leitmotifs in his work Peter and the Wolf, a musical story with narration; in it, each character is represented by a specific instrument in the orchestra, as well as an associated melodic theme.
They are also very common in movie scores; a well known example is the Star Wars Imperial March associated with Darth Vader and his previous self, Anakin Skywalker, in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones respectively. Among Westerns, perhaps the most famous film to make use of leitmotifs is Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. The television soap opera Dynasty also used musical themes for each character, as did the action cartoon Batman: The Animated Series. Angelo Badalamenti wrote possibly the most famous television example, Laura Palmer's Theme on Twin Peaks.