home compositions videos planet suite leitmotiff tuition lyrics contact

Connotative Associations

Prior to this chapter we have looked at the way leitmotif functions on a denotative level. Denotation occurs when an image or a sign is related with a word or in the case of leitmotif a musical phrase. What we are going to look into in this chapter however is the connotative associations that a leitmotif possesses. Re 39


The denotative level of leitmotif doesn't have much of an effect in itself. On strictly a denotative level we are merely interpreting a certain sound to relate to a certain image.  

Connotation however relates “to the psychological or cultural aspects; the personal or emotional associations aroused by words." Re 40 or in our case music.

Rodman claims that the above connotative form of expression is a "Subjective, interpretive process". Re 41 Now this raises an interesting point. Could people from separate cultures perceive the same piece of music in different ways Leonard B. Meyer(2001) contests:

Affective experience may be a result of the private meaning that the image has for a particular listener. Re 42

If this is the case, then surely this could lead to confusion over the empathetic response many people would have in relation to a specific character. Could it be possible that someone could perceive a hero to be a villain and visa versa purely through the connotative powers of leitmotif? The answer to this question is a bit outside the scope of this dissertation but it is important to notice that the connotative powers of leitmotif are subjective and could differ from person to person. It is hard to define exactly where we get our own personal connotations from. Why do we associate a major key with happiness or a minor key with sadness?

 Let's look into the main elements that contribute to the connotative side of the leitmotif and see how this effects us on an emotional level.

I acknowledge that this is my own subjective view. Emotional responses to some of the tonalities that I refer to may differ from culture to culture.  

Through centuries of conditioning we have developed emotions relating to what we hear. Something played in a major key, usually sounds positive and happy, whilst something in a minor key sounds negative and sad. Other keys, modes and harmonies can also have a desired effect. For example, a melody played in the whole tone scale can often sound dreamlike and mysterious whilst something played in the diminished scale can sound dark and ominous. These tonal attributes can be applied to a leitmotif, this in turn gives the leitmotif a connotative identity.  

David Neumeyer and James Buhler(2001) give an example of the powers of connotation in their analysis of Raiders of the Lost Ark(1981):

The dark filmic ambivalences of Indiana Jones' character in the prologue... are forgotten the moment the score breaks into bright tonal sounds of the theme as Indy runs toward the plane. The music here proclaims Jones' fundamental heroism long before this is evident from the narrative itself. Re 43

 A similar example can be seen in Superman(1978). When we first see Lex Luther's sidekick Otis, he is accompanied by a melody played on a tuba which is very similar to the music we would hear accompanying clowns at a circus. So before Otis has even uttered a word, our connotations tell us that he is a comical character that is not to be taken too seriously.  

Using the Star Wars trilogy as a model we can see three more examples of how the melodic structure of the leitmotif can vary depending on the character it is depicting (see appendix A). Yoda for example, has a motif that is based in the lydian mode (fig.1). The nature of this mode reflects the mystery and wisdom that this character radiates. The emperor on the other hand has a motif that is based in the natural minor key (fig.2). This key gives the Emperor characteristics of being evil and threatening. These attributes are made even more apparent by the use of a diminished 5th which can be heard at the end of the passage. Finally Luke's motif is based around the major scale (fig.3), this creates positive associations for his character. The V-I perfect cadence that occurs at the end of his theme emphasises these attributes.  

Harmonisation of the motif in a variety of ways throughout the course of a film helps us to empathise with the character and the situation he/she finds themselves in, it is also used to develop characteristics as the film progresses. Royal S Brown's(1995) analysis for the film The Sea Hawk(1940), offers an example of how simply changing the harmony can make us perceive the same theme in a completely different light..

By recasting a motif from the romantic theme in the minor mode and setting it to a dirge-like rhythm... Korngold turns audience emotions around 180 degrees from optimism to pessimism with an immediacy that bypasses the quasi-spatio-temporal unfurling of the narrative. Re 44

It is interesting to note from this example how the rhythm also reflects the state of affairs of our hero.

Another example can be heard as a variation of Yoda's theme that occurs in Star Wars III: The Revenge of the Sith(2005). After Yoda is unsuccessful in defeating the Emperor, we hear his theme re-harmonised in a minor key and also played in a shortened form. This is accompanied by his words “failed, I have”. His usual wise and mystical demeanour is thus diminished.  Timbre is another important element of the leitmotif. A motif played loud and bold using brass will sound quite different to the same motif played gently and submissively with strings or woodwind. Variations in timbre can be used as a technique to change and develop the character in the same way as altering the harmony can. David Nuemeyer and James Buhler quote a statement by Darby and Dubois(2001):

A motif whispered softly by winds in one passage and blared out fortissimo by the brass in another obviously shifts from membership in one style topic to another even if all the other musical parameters remain unchanged. Re 45

Neumeyer and Buhler proceed to give an example:

The Imperial March played serenely by flute and harp as Darth Vader dies near the end of Return of the Jedi seems laden with meaning, due to its timbrel distance from the model, which is nearly always pounded out by brasses from the moment it is introduced in The Empire Strikes Back. Re 46

This change in timbre is an indication that Vader has overcome his dark powers, and as he takes off his mask a human face is revealed. This theme is then appropriately played by softer instrumentation, which indicates a more humane, sensitive character that the audience can relate to in a more positive and sentimental way.

In the first chapter we looked into David Raksins score for the film Laura. As we recall, the film revolves mostly around a single theme (Laura's theme). Kathryn Kalanak suggests that changing the timbre can act as a leitmotif in and of itself. Thus the same theme can represent different characters simply by the change of instrumentation. She goes on to give examples of detective McPherson being represented by French horns, Lydecker is characterized by piccolo and bassoon, and Laura is recognized through strings. Re 47