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Your Word For the Day Is Leitmotif - Part 1

Posted Mar 17th 2011, 11:16 by Penguin Pete

You hear them every day. You recognize dozens, perhaps even hundreds of them. You can recognize them in a few notes. Yet you have no idea what any of them are named - collectively or individually.

They're leitmotifs. "Leitmotif" is a word borrowed from the French, which means a recurring musical theme used to invoke a person, place, thing, or idea. Usually, works of audio and video media will pick an easily-recognizable public-domain tune with no copyright royalties tying it up. For instance, when you're watching a film and they play a few bars of "Here Comes the Bride," you know that we're going to a wedding. If you're watching a TV show and it plays "Home on the Range," you know the setting is the Old West. Watching a commercial and hearing "Jingle Bells"? Christmas time must be right around the corner.

The frustrating thing in the Internet age is when you don't know the name of something, and so you can't type it into a search engine to find it. Until we get search engines you can whistle into, it's not likely that you'd be able to find out that Sailor's Hornpipe is that whistled little tune they always play for sailors or even in radio ads for fish 'n' chips seafood. And heck, look at us; the best we could find for you is a guy playing the ukulele! It has a cool little jig dance that goes with it, even done in cartoons (and not just Popeye).

Here, we'll try to round some up for you:

William Tell Overture Finale

Hiyo Silver, it's the Lone Ranger! And just about anybody galloping around on a horse, especially in a chase or race against time. The few people who know that this is William Tell think that this is the whole thing; it isn't, it's just one movement.

William Tell Overture - Ranz des Vaches

Good morning! Rise and shine! And ah, how's that fresh country air?

William Tell again, The Storm

Torrential thunderstorms and flash floods, raining cats and dogs, gale force winds, etc. Incidentally, Gioachino Rossini wrote the opera in 1829, yes everybody thinks the whole thing was done for The Lone Ranger.

La Cucaracha

Mexico. Also actually popular in Mexico, in a rare case of getting it right. If you live in the American Southwest, this is what the horn on every catering truck sounds like.

Oriental riff

Seriously, that's what it's called (or Asian or Chinese riff). Invokes the Orient in a few pecks, and it's even woven into Western songs about Asian subjects, from Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting" to the beginning of The Vapor's "Turning Japanese."

Fanfare For the Common Man

Sports and sporting competitions, especially those of Olympic proportions. Also used for big cityscapes, sweeping pans of huge bridges and dams, and anywhere where it makes sense to say "Look what humans can achieve!" If we ever meet aliens from other planets, they'll probably borrow this as a leitmotif for humans on their TV shows.

More to come next time.


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