a motif or theme associated throughout a music drama with a particular person, situation, or idea.

1875–80; < German: leading motive

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World English Dictionary
leitmotif or leitmotiv (ˈlaɪtməʊˌtiːf)
1.  music a recurring short melodic phrase or theme used, esp in Wagnerian music dramas, to suggest a character, thing, etc
2.  an often repeated word, phrase, image, or theme in a literary work
[C19: from German leitmotiv leading motif]
leitmotiv or leitmotiv
[C19: from German leitmotiv leading motif]

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Word Origin & History

1876, "a musical figure to which some definite meaning is attached," from Ger. Leitmotiv, lit. "lead motive," from leiten "to lead" + Motiv "motive." A term associated with Wagnerian musical drama, though the thing itself is at least as old as Mozart. "The leitmotif must be characteristic of the person
or thing it is intended to represent." ["Elson's Music Dictionary"]
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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American Heritage
Cultural Dictionary
leitmotif [(leyet-moh-teef)]

A frequently recurring bit of melody, usually in opera, associated with a person, thing, or emotion; Leitmotiv is German for “leading theme.” The leitmotif may be heard in the instrumental or the vocal part.

Note: Leitmotifs are particularly associated with the operas of Richard Wagner.
Note: Recurring themes or subjects in other forms of art or literature are sometimes also called leitmotifs.
The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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Example sentences
Picture frames are used as a leitmotif throughout but with varying degrees of success.
These debates over reportorial hunger would become a leitmotif of my editorship, but only after the first six months.
Rather it was change, ceaseless change, that was the ideological leitmotif of a revolutionary era.
Nonetheless, it pervades this report as a leitmotif.
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