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How to Write a Leitmotif for Video Games and Movie Scores

Writing music has become easier than ever, thanks to the growing number of digital audio workstations and plugins available today. Bedroom producers have tackled most popular music genres, from hip hop and EDM to indie songwriting.

Film scores are one of the few spaces that musicians still avoid. Maybe it seems too difficult, but the truth is that anyone can write a theme for games and movies. It's actually a lot of fun to do as an exercise, even if you never publish the music.

In April 2024, the San Diego startup PlusMusic announced it would be joining the ranks of new adaptive video game music companies like Reactional and Infinite Album. These services seek to create generative music that match in-game events in realtime. But what about the classic art of composing a melody?

Ordinary songs rely on lyrics and visual cues (like music video or album art) to convey meaning. When writing an original theme for films and video games, you're no longer limited to combining words with your melodies. The plot of your story does a lot of the heavy lifting. You just need to create a piece of music that evokes the right feelings for each of the main characters.

In this article we'll walk you through the basics of themes and leitmotifs in popular culture. You'll learn some of the different ways a composition conveys meaning, from the main melody to the harmony that surrounds it.

What is a theme in music?

The notion of a theme in music predates films and video games by many centuries. Classical composers have always used instruments to tell a story. Even indigenous medicine songs, like the Amazonian icaros, are centered around distinct melodic themes.

At its core, a music theme is a succession of notes that lasts long enough to make a meaningful statement. Anything shorter than that would be considered a motif.

The concept of a "main theme" can have two different meanings. It could refer to the theme music for a movie, the same way television shows similarly have a theme song. On the other hand, music theorists also refer to the main theme as the most important musical idea within a piece. This is common in counterpoint, where a main theme is followed by variations.

Musical themes vs leitmotifs

A musical theme sticks out and can be recognized by the listener without too much effort. A motif, on the other hand, is repeated over and over to create a musical pattern.

When you connect a motif to character or location in a story, you create a special musical entity called a leitmotif. This word was originally coined by classical composer Richard Wagner, for works like his Ring Cycle opera in the late 1800s. A century later, film composers used the same technique to brings movies to life. In case you're wondering, it's pronounced light-moh-teef. You're welcome.

Have a listen to the Jaws theme. This piece offers a great example of a leitmotif, where the string section play two notes repeatedly and symbolize the approach of a shark. This song also has a second layer of horns that play a longer melody, and this layer would be considered the musical theme. The letimotif and musical theme come together with the rest of the arrangement to create the theme music for this film.

Introduction: How to write a leitmotif

As I mentioned earlier, songwriters tend to shy away from composing themes because it seems intimidating. But the essence of a leitmotif is not actually complicated. The tricky part is learning how to write a melody that matches the feeling of a character or location. I'll share some tips on how to do that here.

1. Choose a character to focus on

choosing a character

To get started, you'll need a source of inspiration. Think of a character from your favorite book, movie, or video game. Try to avoid anyone with a theme that you already know intimately, so that you don't end up mimicking an existing melody.

2. Write a short melody for your character

Start by focusing on the personality of this character. If you had to summarize them musically, how would you do it? It's easiest to do this if you already play an instrument like the guitar or piano. Let your mind can flow through your fingers and experiment until you land on something that feels right.

Super Mario Bros leitmotif

In the Super Mario sheet music above, we hear a bouncy and cartoonish melody that refuses to be predictable. It covers a massive two octave range. rarely lands on the down beat and when it does, you hear a triplet. The use of chromatic passing notes also breaks the constraints of the key signature.

By analogy, Mario's character is constantly jumping, dodging enemies, and rushing forward. The triplet section of his melody sounds as though it's about it fall on its face. Overall, this lends to a feeling of excitement by defying expectations.

3. Choose a few chords that capture the feeling of a location

Choose a location
Choose a location to inspire your chords

Put your melody aside for a moment. Choose a random location that has some personality and choose a few chords that capture that feeling. I'm using imagery from Mario here, but that's just for fun. You can pick from any location.

Limit yourself to 2-4 chords, so that you can focus on their deeper meaning. The goal isn't to write a song yet. You don't need to add any rhythm yet, unless you want to. Just focus on capturing a mood.

4. Combine the character-melody with the location-chords

Now that you have a location in mind, see what you can do to place the melody within that context. How would your character behave in that space?

Make small adjustments without completely changing the chords or melody.

When you've achieved this, try writing chords for a second location and use the same melody in that new context. You can modify the rhythm or the scale to match that new feeling.

Using AudioCipher to create leitmotifs from words

Want to create an even stronger bond between your melody and the character or location it represents? AudioCipher lets you turn words directly into MIDI chord progressions and melodies. Just choose your key signature and type in the name of your inspiration.

Once you've turned your word into a musical sequence, you still have work to do. You'll need to mold it into the feeling that's right for your character and location.

Create musical themes with AudioCipher

6 Movies and games with powerful leitmotifs

There's a saying that good composers borrow and great composers steal. It's not really advocating for plagiarism. It just means that the best way to learn how to write good music is to study the work of your favorite artists. Find out what kind of melodies and chords they used to evoke a similar personality or location. Then see if you can recreate it and make it your own.

To help you get started, we've included four great film and video game composers who specialize in writing musical themes and leitmotifs.

Star Wars and Harry Potter (John Williams)

The Star Wars movies are jam packed with leitmotifs, each dedicated to specific characters and locations that evolve over the series.

For example, the first time you hear the Force theme is an understated moment when Princess Leia gives R2D2 the plans to the Death Star. Later in the film, Luke looks out over the horizon at the twin suns and the theme plays again, in a new form. It plays a third time as Luke escapes a TIE fighter jet from the Death Star. In this way, the music foreshadows his journey.

John Williams went on to compose iconic cinematic works for decades, partnering with Hollywood giants like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and David Yates. His main theme for Harry Potter is a recognizable melody that appears throughout the series, representing Harry himself and his heroic journey. Other leitmotifs include the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry theme, the Dark Mark for Lord Voldemort, and the theme for Dobby the house-elf.

Visit this website to download free MIDI files of his movie scores. Then import them into your DAW to study his technique and understand how all the instrumental melodies fit together.

Lord of the Rings (Howard Shore)

Howard Shore is a renowned film composer, best known for his work on the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. By using leitmotifs, Shore creates musical scores that not only enhance the emotional impact of each scene, but also help to tie the different elements of the film together into a cohesive whole.

The audience instantly recognizes the themes associated with each character, from the heroic and adventurous theme of Aragorn to the mysterious and ominous theme of Sauron. These themes are introduced early on in the film and reappear throughout the trilogy, building a strong musical narrative that is intertwined with the story.

Shore's use of leitmotifs in "Lord of the Rings" has become a hallmark of modern film scoring, and has had a significant impact on the way that music is used in film. By creating a rich and intricate musical landscape, Shore was able to add an extra layer of depth to the film, drawing the audience into the world of Middle Earth and helping to bring the characters and their stories to life.

Final Fantasy (Nobuo Uematsu)

Nobuo Uematsu, the composer behind several soundtracks in the Final Fantasy video game franchise, made extensive use of leitmotifs in his compositions. The technique allowed him to imbue his music with emotional depth and to support the storytelling elements of the games.

Uematsu's use of leitmotifs in Final Fantasy has become one of the defining musical signatures of the franchise. For example, the recurring "Main Theme" of Final Fantasy serves as a musical representation of the series as a whole. It creates a sense of familiarity each time you play a new game, despite entering a new fantasy world.

Each game has its own cast of characters with their own leitmotifs. Final Fantasy 7 stands out from the others with its dense musical symbolism. Musical themes from multiple characters and locations are woven together in locations and scenes, to hint at the deeper meaning of a moment in the game.

Zelda and Mario (Koji Kondo)

Koji Kondo is another legendary video game music composer known for his work on the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda franchises. He has a unique approach to creating music, using specific themes for each character, location, or event. In fact, he famously snuck his Mario 3 warp whistle theme into a later Zelda game, the Ocarina of Time.

The iconic Super Mario theme is a through line across all of the games. His style of composing is whimsical and lighthearted, even when players enter the underworld. If Mario enters a dark and dangerous area, Kondo finds a way to make scary melodies and chords sound fun and light at the same time. The same is true with his Legend of Zelda games.

Kondo's use of musical themes and leitmotifs reached an almost magical height with games like Ocarina of Time, Windwaker, Majoras mask, and Skyward Sword. In these games, the player learns short motifs after beating a boss or solving a difficult problem. When you first perform the leitmotif, a video sequence takes over and the full musical theme is performed with accompaniment.

As the games progress, players pull out the instrument and play the short motif to magically transform their environment. Like a magic spell, the music can change night to day, teleport the character, and much more. These games dissolve the boundary between leitmotifs and the plot, offering a unique immersive experience.

We'll be diving deeper into the music theory behind some of the great film and game leitmotifs in future blog posts, so stay tuned!


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