a motif or theme associated throughout a music drama with a particular person, situation, or idea.

Origin of leitmotif

1875–80; < German: leading motive
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for leitmotif

Contemporary Examples of leitmotif

Historical Examples of leitmotif

  • He will come back, murmured Chavvy, in concordance with her leitmotif.

    Twos and Threes

    G. B. Stern

  • It was what I had always called "Rosemary's leitmotif," expressed in perfume.

    The Brightener

    C. N. Williamson

  • "More work for the undertaker" should be the leitmotif of the evening's fun.

    Perfect Behavior

    Donald Ogden Stewart

  • Indeed, they recur again and again, like a Leitmotif in music, in everything he wrote.

  • In her direct and genuine nature there is a 'Leitmotif' of pure sweet melody that will enrich the life of its discoverer.

    Bee and Butterfly

    Lucy Foster Madison

British Dictionary definitions for leitmotif




music a recurring short melodic phrase or theme used, esp in Wagnerian music dramas, to suggest a character, thing, etc
an often repeated word, phrase, image, or theme in a literary work

Word Origin for leitmotif

C19: from German leitmotiv leading motif
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for leitmotif

1876, "a musical figure to which some definite meaning is attached," from German Leitmotiv, literally "lead motive," from leiten "to lead" (see lead (v.1)) + Motiv (see motive). A term associated with Wagnerian musical drama, though the thing itself is at least as old as Mozart. "The leitmotif must be characteristic of the person or thing it is intended to represent." ["Elson's Music Dictionary"]

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

leitmotif in Culture



A frequently recurring bit of melody, usually in opera, associated with a person, thing, or emotion; Leitmotiv is German for “leading theme.” The leitmotif may be heard in the instrumental or the vocal part.


Leitmotifs are particularly associated with the operas of Richard Wagner.


Recurring themes or subjects in other forms of art or literature are sometimes also called leitmotifs.
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.