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From German Leitmotiv (leading motif), from leiten (to lead) + Motiv (motif), originally used to describe Wagnerian opera.


  • (Received Pronunciation) IPA(key): /ˈlaɪt.məʊˌtiːf/
  • (US) IPA(key): /ˈlaɪt.moʊˌtif/, (nonstandard) /ˈleɪt.moʊˌtif/, (nonstandard) /ˈlaɪt.moʊˌtɪv/
  • (file)


leitmotif (plural leitmotifs)

  1. (music) A melodic theme associated with a particular character, place, thing or idea in an opera.
    • 2014, Michael Slowik, After the Silents, Columbia University Press, →ISBN, page 14:
      In Wagner's operas, especially his cycle of four operas known collectively as the Ring cycle, the leitmotif did not simply label or point to one particular character or object but rather conjured up a realm of ideas.
  2. (by extension) A recurring theme.
    Synonym: common thread
    • 1953 January, Thomas E. Mann, “The Making of "The Magic Mountain"”, in The Atlantic[1]:
      People have pointed out the influence of Wagner’s music on my work. Certainly I do not disclaim this influence. In particular, I followed Wagner in the use of the leitmotif, which I carried over into the work of language.
    • 1975 October 27, Aaron Latham, “John Connally on the Comeback Road”, in New York, volume 8, number 43, page 48:
      If one looks for a pattern in the political life of John Connally, one finds a leitmotif of scandals which threatened but never destroyed his career.
    • 2009, David Gallagher, Metamorphosis, Rodopi, →ISBN, page 183:
      Mann's adaptation of Wagner's technique and its development throughout his writing is analysed, including how Mann uses the leitmotif in a naturalistic, characterising and mechanical sense in Buddenbrooks, attaching it to persons and situations as etiquettes.
    • 2021 January 19, Roger Cohen, “Trump Bequeaths Biden an Upended World”, in The New York Times[2], →ISSN:
      Such language about an American president from a European ally would have been unthinkable before Mr. Trump made outrage the leitmotif of his presidency, along with an assault on truth.