Leitmotif Listening

Stuck inside all day in the snow?  No worries!  Spend some time with your favorite epic movie franchise and give it a closer listen.  You may be surprised at what you find.

With “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” breathing new life into the epic Star Wars series, I was recently inspired to do a lesson plan for my middle school students on the concept of leitmotif and how composer John Williams uses this technique to bring to life a galaxy far, far away.  This was a really fun lesson that engaged my students to the max – I’ve never seen the more attentive (even the non-Star Wars geeks).  I won’t go through all the listening examples with youtube video links here (if you’re having trouble pinpointing a specific theme, give me a shout out on Facebook!), but if you’d like to do the activity I outline later in this post, my handout from class will help you out.

So now that you’ll be stuck inside all day, peering out the window wondering when Luke and his Tauntaun are going to show up, you might want to pop in your favorite Star Wars movie to while away the hours.  I’m a teacher, though, and I can’t suggest such a brainless activity without giving you something to enrich the experience.

1. Print out a few copies (the pdf is only one page) of my Leitmotif Listening Worksheet.

2. Check out my class handout or the wikipedia page on the music of Star Wars to familiarize yourself with the various themes from the movies.  There are dozens you will recognize throughout the series and some you will hear only in one of the movies, so a little musical briefing before you dig in will be helpful.

3. As you watch AND LISTEN to the movie, jot down notes on the themes you hear.  In the Leitmotif column, write the title of the theme.  Also notate if the theme appears in a different form (more drawn out, truncated, different instrumentation) from when it is originally introduced.  Use the words motif or theme to help you differentiate between shorter and longer pieces of music.    Under the Action column, write a few short words on what is taking place on scene.  For Emotions, write down what the characters might be feeling or what you as an audience member are experiencing during the scene.

4. Afterward, think about how the music adds to the action and the emotions of the scene.  Or, discuss with friends!

If Star Wars isn’t your thing (I won’t hold it against you, I promise), another great series to do this exercise with is the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The music for these movies was composed by Howard Shore, and it is every bit as complex and intricate as the tapestry of Star Wars themes Williams has created.  If you do this with any other movie, beware, you will only have the best results for a franchise or series where the music was composed by the same person throughout (unfortunately, this rules out Harry Potter, but you can still analyze each movie as a standalone).

So, my friends and students, have at it!  If you plan on doing this activity today, or sometime soon, please leave me a note in the comments!  Or, join me on Facebook with any comments, questions or observations you may have.