Have you ever noticed how some musicians repeat a similar melody or rhythm throughout several songs while still making it sound unique yet recognizable every time?
Loosely speaking, I’m talking about leitmotif, which is not to be confused with a concept album. A concept album has an overarching theme. The use of leitmotif is more subtle; the theme doesn’t always span the entire album, and sometimes you have to listen deeply to hear the recurring parts. It’s like a little Easter egg for music nerds.
Classical composer Richard Wagner is one of the first well-known artists to be associated with using leitmotif in his opera cycles, “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” and the idea has carried over into modern music ever since, albeit in different ways.
And I think what makes leitmotif so interesting is how broadly it can be defined. It can deal with any recurrent theme, and it can be about a person, an idea or a situation — so basically anything. It’s kind of up to the listener to determine what a leitmotif is, and I’m sure some people have differing opinions.
For example, Pink Floyd’s album The Wall is what I would consider a concept album. However, I think some people might call the themes in it leitmotif. Conversely, some people might consider the leitmotifs in music from “Star Wars” to be themes.
When used in certain ways, the leitmotif can tell a small story within an album and help you think critically about an artist’s music. Recently I’ve noticed a few subtle and not-so-subtle leitmotifs that a few of my favorite bands deploy, and it’s helped me listen to the music in a new way.
Need Somebody To Love
First we’ll start with Chicago artist NNAMDÏ’s latest album, BRAT. There is one set of lyrics that occurs in four songs: “I need you need something new/I need you I need something new.” This leitmotif is introduced on the intro track, “Flowers to My Demons,” and then recurs again in “Wasted,” “Glass Casket” and “Perfect in My Mind.”
The leitmotif on this album seems to deal with searching for a new life, one where you can settle down, find someone to love and be comfortable in your own skin.
“Flowers” starts this off, and the song is about NNAMDÏ accepting and “showering” with his inner demons. I think this idea of “showering” refers to living an everyday life and doing everyday things knowing the demons are there. He talks about casting them out only to invite them back in again, and later goes on to explain that he’s OK living with these demons now (“tried to fight it now I’m not afraid to like it”).
Then he breaks out into the line about needing someone new. In this context, I think that “someone new” might actually be himself. The whole song is about looking inward; it’s about understanding that you have demons but that you have to live with them. Because of this, the new person he needs here might just be his new self, one that’s no longer held back by his demons and now ready to love someone else.
This point is supported by the fact that the end of “Flowers” abruptly leads into the next song “Gimme Gimme”, where the first lyric/melody is “I’m ready for love” (which is actually a kind of leitmotif-ish call back to the song “Me 4 Me” on NNAMDÏ’s previous full-length DROOL!)
But then in “Wasted,” the mood changes. He repeats the line about needing someone new, but this time it feels like he is talking about someone else. He says, “I would definitely give you anything you want/ if you ask me you deserve it all.”
Now, it’s entirely possible that he’s still talking about himself, but here it seems like the next chapter in the mini-story. In “Flowers” he was working on himself and overcoming his demons. He didn’t like himself (“I don’t know what this feeling means, my reflection screams/’I don’t like you. Un-invite you. You’re my allergy.”) And now, in “Wasted,” he’s talking about someone he loves and wants to be with, and reminding them that there’s no time to waste. Then he drops that familiar lyrical phrase again in the last line of the song: “If you ask me now you deserve a crown/ Yeah you do, Yeah you do/I need you need something new.”
“Glass Casket,” a slow, atmospheric song about providing for your family, brings the story to a turning point. It’s almost like he finally found the relationship he wanted in “Wasted” but then he struggles with a work/life balance in “Glass Casket” because he needs to make money to support the people he loves. At the very end of the song, the lyrical phrase about needing someone new plays again, but this time it deals more in melody, and when it ends it feels like a candle has blown out. (When I say it deals in melody, I mean that the leitmotif lyrics in this song are not listed as a formal part of the lyrics, and the vocals here are clearly used as another instrument.)
Finally, bringing the story to a somewhat sad close, the lyrical phrase is again used in “Perfect in My Mind,” sung with high-pitched vocals over layered instruments (again, not listed as formal lyrics). The song has few words, and it doesn’t give much information about the subject except that whatever he tried to make work did not work. It was perfect in his mind, but he “couldn’t make it right.”
There’s also something to be said about the way the leitmotif sounds in each song, as the feel of it changes drastically.
At the end of “Flowers,” the leitmotif has an upbeat, triumphant sound, and the wild drums behind it add a chaotic element, as if the song was the sound of NNAMDÏ’s thoughts. Whereas in “Wasted,” the leitmotif only occurs in that one line at the end, and it sounds very calm yet confidant.
The mood drops in “Glass Casket,” and the leitmotif reflects that feeling in a powerful way. The way he repeats the phrase is spacey, and at the end it fades out slowly. The leitmotif is repeated in a similar way in the next song, although instead of fading out, it seems to be fading in slowly, as if NNAMDÏ was thinking back to the phrase but acknowledging that it’s in the past.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
While the leitmotif in BRAT can be fairly easy to hear, the idea is sometimes used in a more subtle way. Take the last two tracks on Boston band Pile’s latest album Green and Gray. In this instance, leitmotif deals directly in melody.
There’s a melody that occurs in the song “Hiding Places” that’s then used again in the final track “No Hands.” And while the songs don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another lyrically (as explained in this track-by-track breakdown), musically they might.
I see these songs as almost two parts of one song, as they end the album and play off each other dynamically. “Hiding Places” is a massive slow burner that feels as weighty as the world. It’s moving and emotional, dark and honest. Directly after, “No Hands,” a softer, less-abrasive track with tasteful piano, slows things down, while carrying that dark honesty to a close with lyrics like “Anything too stupid to be said is sung.”
Where the recurring melody shows up in “No Hands” — in the middle of a soft bridge — it almost feels like a call-back to “Hiding Places.” This is even more apparent because the melody comes back at the very end of “No Hands,” concluding the album on a mystical note.
In “Hiding Places” the leitmotif sounds heavy, loud and powerful, like someone’s world crashing down around them. But in “No Hands,” the leitmotif is resolved and played in very subtle way, almost to the point that you don’t realize it’s the same melody.
While listening to Pile’s discography, I found out that they use an even more subtle leitmotif on their album You’re Better Than This, although I have no idea what it might mean. The phrase “Only pictures, always pictures” shows up first in “The World is Your Motel” and then again in “Touched By Comfort.” Honestly, knowing a little bit about Pile’s lyric writing process, it wouldn’t surprise me if these lyrics are completely unrelated and simply used to fill space.
Finally, unlike Pile and NNAMDÏ, Connecticut’s Queen Moo uses leitmotif on their self-titled album by repeating an extremely subtle melody in two songs and then tying those songs together lyrically with the final song. Overall, the general theme seems to be of attempting to amend a relationship, though it’s unclear whether it’s platonic or romantic.
“Leech” starts it off, and this is the first time we hear this leitmotif melody. It’s softly whistled for the first few seconds, and then the guitar picks it up with a gentle strum. The song is centered around that melody, and the drums alternate on- and off-beats.
We hear this same melody return in “Captain Glee,” a restrained, acoustic track. The lyrics of “Captain Glee,” focus on really taking a hard look at yourself and your feelings, but only because someone else told you to. The lyrics read like someone who is not fine telling themself that they are fine in a sarcastic way.
So it’s like “Leech” introduced a relationship that had some issues, and then “Captain Glee” is the next chapter, when the main character takes a hard look at themself at the request of their partner or friend. It’s a sadder song for sure, but the leitmotif melody — which has kind of a folky, feel-good rhythm— shines through like a ray of hope in the darkness.
And while the final track, “Amends,” does not share the same melody as the previously mentioned tracks (it actually shares a different melody with “Leech”, which I will later refer to as L2), the lyrics seem connected to the overall story.
“I sat tight and wondered what I missed/You say it’s nothing personal I’m wondering what is,” Queen Moo’s lead vocalist John Rule belts out in “Leech.” Then in “Amends”, the last lines read: “There’s a difference between personal and making false amends/I said what I meant.” This is where L2 comes in, connecting these lyrical verses with the melody.
When you look at all three songs together, it seems the relationship didn’t survive the struggle, and ending the trilogy — and the album — with the lyrics “I said what I meant” serves to close everything up tightly.
This is all speculation, but leitmotif is an interesting element that I’d love to see used more and in different ways. And the meaning doesn’t necessarily matter, because not knowing the exact meaning leaves the leitmotif and songs open to interpretation, which is what some of the best artists do.