Friday, March 8, 2013

Speaking of music...

This morning, I went on a walk with a friend of mine and declared that this blog post was going to be a simple one, because I didn't have time to spend hours on a topic that needed in-depth research.

Which is why we will be discussing leitmotifs in music and how those principles can be applied to your writing to highlight important connections between characters or events.


And it's not because I'm that smart. It's because I'm that stupid, and don't really know how to write a 'simple blog post.'

Leitmotif: a musical term referring to a short, recurring musical phrase associated with a particular person, place or idea. Some of the most popular leitmotifs in film are Darth Vader's and Jack Sparrow's theme songs.

As you may remember, the music to Les Mis is on constant repeat at my house these days. Even when I don't want it to be. The Song of Angry Men has even become the theme song for my dieting endeavors. The CD (perhaps I should say "CDs" because we have several different versions) don't even have to be playing anymore. One kid will walk through the otherwise silent house mindlessly humming "Look Down" and the tune will get picked up by anyone in earshot, and pretty soon we're all singing along or sharing our latest Les Mis finds from youtube, which is a gold mine of Les Mis related stuff. (Really. Look up Nick Piterra and Les Mis. Or Les Mis Flash Mob wedding.)

A little background: I first heard I Dreamed A Dream years ago, when I learned it on the piano. I thought it was gorgeous, and so I read Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, which was one of the most dismal things I'd ever read...right up there with The Grapes of Wrath. When my mom fell in love with Les Mis, the musical, I thought she was crazy. A musical rendition of the most depressing book ever written? Really? Whose brilliant idea was that? And I never, not even once, listened to it with her. Years later, my daughter fell in love with Les Miserables the musical, and she was more persistent than my mom. My daughter can wax eloquent about every Broadway performer from Les Mis ever, and when I refused to listen to the music with her, she enlisted her brother as a fan. One by one, the songs hooked me.

Because I listened to it in such a haphazard manner, it took a long time before I noticed all the recurring melodies in Les Mis. Every time I find one, it feels like a special gem that I'm ferreting out for the first time, to the general astonishment of the rest of world. 

But really, anyone, listening for the first time, would notice the similarities between The Work Song and The Beggar's Song.

The Work Song:
Look down, look down
Don’t look ‘em in the eye
Look down, look down,
You’re here until you die
The sun is strong
It’s hot as hell below
Look down, look down,
There’s twenty years to go

The Beggar's Song:
Look down and see the beggars at your feet
Look down and show some mercy if you can
Look down and see the sweepings of the street
Look down, look down,
Upon your fellow man!

But it took a lot longer before I noticed the leitmotif that binds the moment when the Bishop is first kind to Jean Val Jean with the moment when Marius returns to the café to find all the chairs empty. That particular connection still gives me chills.

My favorite, absolute favorite connection is the Song of Angry Men and the Epilogue. Somehow I missed hearing both of those songs until I saw the movie in the theatre. I loved The Song of Angry Men immediately, and when the music was reprised in the Epilogue, with the changed wording, I couldn't help but sob. To me it symbolizes the idea that people who sacrifice their lives for someone else go to heaven.

In literature, a leitmotif would be a recurrent use of a word, an expression or a concept that becomes linked with a person or theme. A leitmotif helps create depth in a story. One simple example of a leitmotif would be the descriptions of Sirius Black, James Potter, Peter Pettigrew and Rita Skeeter. Throughout the Harry Potter series, the descriptions of their appearance and personalities all refer back to the animals they transform into, and the characteristics associated with those animals. 

What are your favorite leitmotifs in literature? What do they add? Do you think they are worth the added effort?


  1. My first reaction to your post was: "Slaughterhouse-Five!" I think the phrase "so it goes" shows up more than a hundred times throughout the book, and if I remember correctly, it is a way of dealing with death and mortality, or other inexplicable/uncontrollable events. I think it also ties in with Billy's fatalistic sense of the world. It must have been a successful use of a leitmotif because ten years after reading the book, I still think of the phrase whenever something unpleasant happens that I can't change. Burned dinner? So it goes. Dropped my laptop down the stairs and crashed the hard drive? (And lost all my stories...sigh.) So it goes.

    Fantastic post. I'm going to have The Work Song stuck in my head all night now. :)

    1. I had a brain freeze right at the end of the post, where I knew there were dozens of examples swimming right on the edge of my consciousness, but I couldn't think of any. That's exactly the kind of example I was thinking about. Thanks Trisha!

  2. Wow Melanie, I wish I lived in your house. I'd love to join in on a good Les Mis sing-a-long. :)

    Great post. While I have noticed leitmotifs (I learned a new term) in movies and plays, I've never thought of them being used in literature. I'll have to keep my eye out for them.

    1. Maryann, the more the merrier. You're welcome anytime.

  3. Oh my Dawg!!! Leitmotifs AND Les Mis in one post!? I may never leave!
    I'm a new Les Mis groupie and have had "The Work Song" stuck in my head for the last two days. What you described is what's happening in my house at this very moment. (My three year old thinks we should do "I Dreamed a Dream" in the toddler music class I teach at the library. I told her I would consider the matter most carefully.)
    I'm so excited by your post I can't even THINK about literature at the moment, but I shall ponder your question all day...
    I'm a new follower/devotee. Please stop 'round my nut-tree for a cuppa if you'd like.
    ~Just Jill

    1. Aw, Jill, thanks! My 8 year old suggests that you start with the Song of Angry Men at toddler music class. It's very catchy. And welcome to the Prosers!

    2. And my teenage daughter is shocked and flabbergasted that I didn't realize it was called Do You Hear The People Sing, NOT the Song of Angry Men. Woops.


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