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The Magic and Application of the Leitmotif in Video Game Osts

Updated on July 23, 2018
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Noah is a young composer for indie games. He's studying as a Computer Science major and Music minor at the University of Delaware.

What is a Leitmotif?

A leitmotif is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as "an associated melodic phrase or figure that accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person, or situation". And it is exactly that. In the world of video games, there are countless leitmotifs that we can instantly recognize and relate to. It is this iconic memorability that enforces what I like to call the magic of the leitmotif.

As an example, let's play a little game. You have the easy part, you just have to think about the picture I show you. Let's play!

Do you hear anything when you see him?
Do you hear anything when you see him?

You probably just started to audiate the Mario theme in your head if you hadn't seen the picture and weren't doing it already. Weird, right? There are a couple of reasons for this.

  1. This melody of Super Mario Bros. has been used over and over throughout the series.
  2. The Mario franchise is simply so huge, you're more likely to have heard and remember this tune than to not have.
  3. You have memories associated with playing the games or hearing the melody.

This is the magic behind leitmotifs such as the Mario theme, the relation that the melody has both to its game, its franchise, and most importantly to its listeners. These three fulfillments make the leitmotif timeless to its listeners.

Recognizing Types of Leitmotifs

So you know what they are, and you can think of plenty. But here's where the magic continues to show; where leitmotifs repeat not only throughout a song, but throughout a soundtrack.

Let's take a couple of leitmotifs from one of my favorite games, and one of the most influential games in my life, Xenoblade Chronicles.

Here's our first song, the Main Theme:

Ooh, right off the bat it gives me serious chills. I love this game so much, and the compositions, by Yoko Shimomura, Manami Kiyota, and Yasunori Mitsuda are so ingenius.

Anyways, we're introduced to a very significant crew of leitmotifs.

The first is the melody plays throughout the song. The piano and strings both incorporate it as the song continues. This melody will be used later.

The second leitmotif is the instrumentation of this song. It is a song based around piano and string orchestra. These instruments begin to take on a role as leitmotifs, representative of emotion in the score of this game.

Let's take a look at another song in the OST, to elaborate and perhaps recognize a few more motifs. Here's Shulk and Fiora:

Sound familiar in the first couple of seconds? Yeah, that's right! This leitmotif and its melody represent the main character, Shulk's relationship with his love interest Fiora. The plot of the game (without spoiling it too much) hinges on this relationship, with Fiora getting captured and Shulk going to rescue her.

Don't forget about the second leitmotif we'd identified, the use of piano and strings. Here, they are continuing to represent the emotion of the scene in the gentle but thoughtful timbres of the piano and the similarly supportive timbres of the string orchestra.

There are so many more examples of these leitmotifs at work in the Xenoblade Chronicles soundtrack. I find them to be stunningly beautiful and profound, in the ways that these motifs are used. Some additional examples include the melodic motif of Thoughts to a Friend and Reminiscence, and the battle themes like You Will Know Our Names and Mechanical Rhythm. In any case, let's move on.

Leitmotifs don't have to be melodic motifs!

That's right! Not every leitmotif is a melodic concept, as you learned with the second leitmotif we heard in the Xenoblade soundtrack. Some leitmotifs could be chord progressions, called Harmonic Motifs.

Let's listen to couple of samples of an infamous harmonic motif that is a common denominator among countless video game tracks.

These songs exemplify the harmonic motif that is sometimes referred to as 'The Mario Cadence'. If you listen to the chord progression underneath the three songs, you'll hear it!

The secret unveiled!
The secret unveiled!

This cadence carries a very iconic and driving feel. It seems to retain the energy of the song well. If the track that it concludes is a present, the bVI-bVII-I cadence ties the bow around it very well, well enough to let a track loop, and simultaneously well enough to leave it be.

The reason that this cadence sounds so recognizable is simply by its structure (of course). The bVI and bVII chords do not occur within the natural major scale. However, they do appear, technically, in the relative minor scale. For example, in the key of C, without modulating to another key, the 6th and 7th scale degrees of C minor are Ab and Bb, the bVI and bVII degrees that our cadence needs.

This cadence is a leitmotif in many classic Koji Kondo compositions, and just many older-era video game songs, for that driving energy that it brings to the end of the songs.

Composing with Leitmotifs

Let's say you want to make a soundtrack that has its share of a couple of iconic leitmotifs. Remember, to be a leitmotif, a musical figure has to have or create an association to something. Think of the Xenoblade melodic motifs we went over, representing emotion, and the harmonic motifs of the classic video games. Here's the big question: what do you want your leitmotifs to represent for your game?

Perhaps you have a melody you feel that is gorgeous enough to represent a character whose past, present, and future are portrayed in equivalent beauty. Maybe you've discovered a chord progression so heart-wrenching that it would be foolish not to use it for emotional scenes. A certain rhythm you've written out, a time signature, or a specific instrumentation implies something, perhaps, that your game's soundtrack couldn't live without.

Don't forget, it's all up to you. As a composer, the air your sound vibrates is your canvas, and these leitmotifs help you blend, paint, and introduce profound ideas to fill that canvas.

Good Inspirations for Leitmotifs

Nintendo music is rich with leitmotifs, being franchises that depend strongly upon these tried-and-true figures to relate with their players. The Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker manages motifs unique to the game and major motifs from the franchise amazingly.

For our first example, let's listen to the theme for Aryll, Link's sister who gets kidnapped during the events of the game.

This melody is unique to the Wind Waker, and is used as a leitmotif to represent Link's relationship to his sister. In the music for Outset Island, Link and Aryll's home, her theme appears all over the place, as both the flute melody and as a beautiful chorale in strings later in the piece; a subtle implication of Link always thinking of his sister when wandering his home island. In using this motif, Aryll also associates with the sense of homeliness and familiarity that Outset Island carries with it. This makes for a powerful emotional leitmotif that is relevant to the game and poignant to the player.

Wind Waker also uses a healthy blend of classic Zelda motifs and songs, such as the Fairy Fountain themes, the Hyrule Castle theme, and of course Zelda's Lullaby.

In terms of motifs, the Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker is a great example of what it means to incorporate and pioneer new motifs that may be common to the series or unique to its entry.

In Conclusion,

Leitmotifs are an essential part of any game soundtrack, and an incredibly versatile tool to relate with, evoke emotion from, and overall better the experience of the player. Mastery of leitmotif incorporation will create a more accessible soundtrack to listeners,and a more immersive, complete game experience.

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