In music, a motif is a short melodic, harmonic or rhythmical idea or one using any combination of these three characteristics. A leitmotif is a recurring motif that represents some aspect of a performance’s plot, often a character, place or important concept.
Film composers regularly use leitmotifs to connect storylines, create suspense, foreshadow events, and evoke emotional responses (Think: the Star Wars theme for Darth Vader—another of John Williams’ compositions). Leitmotifs appear over the course of the dramatic action, when their associated plot elements occur. Tonality, orchestration, rhythm and other features of a leitmotif are altered to match the story’s development.
Master composer and conductor, John Williams, wrote the score for the first three of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter films. “Hedwig’s Theme,” (and more specifically the section called, “Hedwig’s Flight”) has become synonymous with the magical world the movies portray. Although its title refers to a notable white owl, Williams’ leitmotif is not used for this character exclusively. Instead, it represents the concept of magic and mystery more universally, and Williams composed it specifically so.
The melody is given to the celesta—an orchestral keyboard instrument that uses internal hammers to strike metal plates and produce bell-like sounds. Its high pitch range and pedal-driven blurring effects help establish the sound of mystery and wonder we think of when considering the Harry Potter series.
Williams also selects certain specific and surprising notes to further foster the sense of magic. The celesta’s first five measures establish the key of E minor, using only notes from that scale. In the sixth measure, however, Williams substitutes chromatic tones outside the key to create an unusual resolution. Similarly, in measure fourteen, Williams adds a chord that leads the listener to anticipate a dominant-to-tonic resolution, but then surprises by skipping the dominant chord altogether.
Williams’ orchestra score aptly begins with the descriptive label, “Mysterioso.”