A leitmotif is a piece of music dedicated to a specific moment or character in a story. It’s basically theme music, but if you want to get technical, it’s a bit more nuanced than that.
Leitmotifs aren’t necessarily essential to a creative work, but the primary advantage to using them is that they better link the viewer to the content. Star Wars is a perfect example. John Williams established Darth Vader’s eminence and power with ‘The Imperial March’. And even if you don’t know that that piece of music was called ‘The Imperial March,’ you know exactly what music I’m talking about if you know Star Wars.
Darth Vader’s leitmotif communicates how intimidating and lethal he is quite well.
A leitmotif can connect audiences to specific, recurring moments within a work. If a specific piece of music is played whenever a couple is together in a television series or a movie, then your audience will be reminded of that couple whenever they hear that music. Leitmotifs can also be tied to certain places, like ‘The Riders of Rohan’ piece from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Characterization can also be emphasized or fortified with leitmotifs. In addition to the Darth Vader example, Fire Nation Princess Azula’s leitmotif in Avatar: The Last Airbender gives you a feeling of eeriness or uneasiness; it’s playful yet sinister at the same time. This translates very well within her character, and thus her leitmotif is able to reinforce her characterization.
Uncle Iroh on Azula. This quote communicates her personality almost as well as her leitmotif.
However, in order for such leitmotifs to work, they must stay consistent. The music has to convey a consistent meaning with which it can be associated by; it’s almost like classical conditioning in a sense. If the leitmotif is not maintained for that specific character or that specific moment it was originally used for, it can confuse your audience.
Hans Zimmer has been able to get away with something very cool, and that’s changing the leitmotifs of pre-established characters. Batman and Superman have been in and out of the entertainment industry over a period of decades, and their original theme music is often the only thought-out enough theme music to stick with audiences. But even in the Dark Knight series before the DC Universe revived Batman and Superman to segue into the Justice League, Hans Zimmer created a couple of noteworthy leitmotifs that were able to stick within the context of that trilogy.
Even so, no one had really touched Superman’s theme until Zimmer did in Man of Steel with ‘Look to the Stars’. And personally, it stuck with me. I knew it worked when the same music was used in Batman v Superman and I immediately associated it with Superman. What makes it even more impressive is that that piece of music sounds like Superman music. It’s able to convey a similar meaning that the original Superman theme had, but it’s almost more tailored to the type of character Superman is in the context of this movie universe, which isn’t the Superman we’ve always known.
New side of Superman, new leitmotif, same vibes, different nuances. The genius of Hans Zimmer, with the help of others of course.
Leitmotifs are like spices; they just make the dish better. They add subtleties and depth to a film and its characters, and, to me, it’s one of the definitive differences between an ordinary concept and one that is well thought out and personally developed by its creators.