The Star Wars series has instantly recognizable leitmotifs for many of its characters, all of them awesome. Particularly notable are the Imperial March, which goes with both Darth Vader and shows of Imperial power, and Luke's Theme (also the main theme of Star Wars). John Williams got to have some fun with his leitmotifs when scoring the prequel trilogy: Anakin's Theme has weaving through it Luke's Theme, Leia's Theme, and the Imperial March, thus telling us musically what we already know; this little kid is going to do some very big things before he's through. Likewise, when at the end of Attack of the Clones we see the Clone Army mobilizing, the fanfare morphs into the Imperial March played in a triumphant major key, telling us that while this is a good development for now, it's going to lead to much, much worse things. The best, however, is Augie's Great Municipal Band, at the end of Episode I; the melody of the song is the Emperor's Theme, switched from minor to major and sung at fast pace by an exuberant children's choir. The Emperor's Theme is also used as the motif for Darth Sidious who is the same person.
This is notable to a lesser extent in Williams' other works; he has often been quoted as saying that Wagner was a great influence on his work.
Knights of the Old Republic uses many of the leitmotifs of the films along with at least two original ones. Most notably, Revan's Theme is played during character creation.
Also, Bastila's theme is played as you approach the top of the Rakatan temple and your confrontation with her.
The Master Ninja episodes featured character Leitmotifs (including stereotypical Japanese flute music that played whenever the title character's recurring enemy appeared). The idea of Leitmotifs is explored during a skit where Joel and the bots — dressed up and acting like characters from the movies — "battle" each other with their theme music.
Not to mention the end of the episode, where Joel cheered up the bots by leading them in a loud, acapella version of the Master Ninja theme while reading viewer mail (occasionally pausing to loudly add "Master Ninja Theme Song!" to the music).
Fugitive Alien had a recurring horn-heavy piece of orchestra go on whenever something actiony happened. Thanks to Joel and the Bots, it will forever be known as the "He Tried To Kill Me With A Forklift!" theme.
Davy Jones of Pirates of the Caribbean fame goes so far as to play his own leitmotif on a gigantic Ominous Pipe Organ, in the bowels of his cursed ship, during a thunderstorm, with his beard, in case we'd forgotten he was a badass demon squid pirate who had the time and money to put a pipe organ in a ship that frequently went under water. He also possesses a locket that plays a music box version of the same, though it's not one-of-a-kind. This inevitably forms a plot point of the third film.
And of course, Captain Jack Sparrow also has his own one. It usually starts with a cello motif, sounding like it's supposed to represent an almost 'drunk' mood. It's incredibly fun to play and listen to, as it just sounds mischievous.
Jones also has an organ theme for his pet Kraken.
The character Cutler Beckett and the East India Trading Company (pure eeeeevil, in real life and in fiction) had a creepy single string melody that played every time a character affiliated with him/them, or even every time their logo appeared on screen. In the third movie, this melody evolved into a full fledged theme. It was based on the melody of Ennio Morricone's "Man With a Harmonica", which gets a full, electric guitar-led homage in the third film.
The "Fellowship theme", a traditional balls-to-the-wall triumphant brass theme as heard over the montage of the Fellowship traveling out of Rivendell towards Caradhras. Later used for the Three Hunters, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. Notable in that, according to the composer Howard Shore, it never quite makes a full reappearance after the events in Moria; at least one note is off, or the rhythm is changed.
The "Hobbit theme", a sort of jaunty flute piece with bassoons and oboes evoking pastoral countryside. Plays over the "Concerning Hobbits" narration. Gets more and more wistful the more the hobbits, especially Frodo, go through Break the Cutie - only to be restored to full orchestral glory when everyone bows to the hobbits during Aragorn's coronation.
The "Rohan Theme". Wistful when we first hear it on the Norwegian fiddle when the heroes arrive at Edoras, it later appears in full-on brass mode for Helm's Deep. Plays over the charge of the Rohirrim at the Battle of Pelennor Fields, with Norwegian fiddle and brass sections working together.
The "Gondor Theme". Majestic, soaring theme that wouldn't sound entirely out of place in a pirate movie. Heard as Gandalf and Pippin arrive at Minas Tirith and gallop up the city to see Denethor, as well as over the lighting of the beacons. An early version of this theme is played on solo French horn as Boromir speaks at the Council of Elrond.
A bit of Fridge Brilliance: 2nd half of this clip. Those blasting trumpets? The Gondor Theme. The soaring violins? That's the Númenor Theme.
The "Mordor Theme". Dark and dramatic with lots of brass and ominous chanting when needed. Heard as Gandalf witnesses the arrival of the Nazgûl. Used to excellent effect first as a threatening sound when Sauron first appears before the Allied Army, single-handedly stopping their attack with his very presence, and then blasting into angry brass and choir as he sweeps away scores of soldiers with casual swings of his mace.
"Gollum's Theme", appears all the way through the second film whenever Gollum is around, but most notably as a song in the end credits sung by Emiliana Torrini.
The "Isengard Theme," (no, not this one) played with heavy brass and percussion in the Caverns of Isengard or when the Uruk-hai are on the move. Unlike other themes, which are in more conventional timing, Isengard's theme is done in 5/4 time, which sounds a little bit off or unnatural (as most music these days is done in 4/4 or 2/4 time), to reflect the twisting of nature and industrial methods of Saruman.
"The History of the Ring", representing the power of the One Ring, especially when it changes hands or when someone tries to take it — plays under the title card of each movie, so easily mistaken for the theme to the trilogy itself — or perhaps it is, in a way. It also plays in The Hobbit when Bilbo sees the Ring for the first time.
The appearance of Mrs. Tweedy in the movie Chicken Run is always accompanied by what sounds like a mandolin.
In Kill Bill the same eerie, whining siren-like riff plays in several scenes when The Bride lays eyes on her targets of vengeance.
That tune they play when the Bride spots a target and remembers what they in particular did to her, is the first few seconds of the Theme Tune from the series Ironside.
Fritz Lang's 1927 movie classic Metropolis featured specific tunes for nearly every major character. In addition, many recurring events (such as the worker's monotonous march into the factory) also had their own distinct tunes.
Hedwig's Theme (Lumos) from the Harry Potter movies grew to prominence over the entire rest of the score. It essentially became the theme for Harry Potter and, more interestingly, a musical cue representing good magic. It has been retained through all eight films, even as the original composer, John Williams, left after the third.
Notable in that it is played over the sight of the innumerable other owls trying to deliver Harry's letter of acceptance - long before Hedwig herself has even been introduced.
The motif did get significantly more discordant and darker along with the movies. Notably, in the opening sequence of the fourth film, the first to have characters die outside of flashback, the theme starts up in minor.
Fawkes' Theme, a heart-lifting, memorable melody, is one of the most successful adaptations from book to film: phoenix song builds courage in those who hear it.
Similar to Hedwig's Theme above, the James Bond theme is another. When taken by itself or as accompaniment to the Bond Gun Barrel sequence it stands for the franchise as a whole, but within the movie it stands for "Bond being Bond". It plays in fragments and licks woven into the score when he's preparing to be awesome, and rocks out in brassy belligerence when it comes time to give him an awesome Theme Music Power-Up.
Bond's theme was notable in Continuity RebootCasino Royale by its absence — set up in several subtle moments across the duration of the film, it didn't play in full until the very last seconds, when he snipes a man and comes up to him looking dangerously dapper in a suit.
In fact, the first time we hear the Bond Theme harmonies only, it's when he is wearing a tuxedo for the first time.
Bond's theme through the rest of the film was an instrumental version of the movie's theme song, up until the moment when the iconic Bond Theme appeared in full force.
Vesper also had a theme in Casino Royale, conveniently titled "Vesper". The main motif that's repeated are the four piano notes played at the very beginning.
The 2007 Transformers movie has a few notable leitmotifs, particularly the Ominous Latin Chanting of the Decepticons - No one has been able to determine exactly what's being sung, but by gum if it doesn't make you afraid of giant evil robots.
According to the composer, he based the "Decepticons" theme on the Catholic prayer, Dies Irae.
This is used to particularly great effect whenever Megatron shows up; given that he is the Big Bad of the film, this is somewhat appropriate.
As compared with the Decepticons, the Autobots also get their own leitmotif, which compared to the deep, chanting, build-up present for the Decepticons, sounds far more uplifting and angelic.
The new Big Bad, The Fallen, also gets one for Revenge of the Fallen.
Optimus Prime also has his own theme that is different to what was used in the first film, although it could apply to the previous Primes. Moreover the theme first used for the government group, NEST, also makes a number of reprisals in the film. Most notably the 'main' part of the theme plays when anything especially 'heroic' happens.
In fact, the Autobots' leitmotif gets reused when Optimus goes into Unstoppable Rage/Papa Wolf during the Forest Battle (skip to 1:24). Parts of "Arrival to Earth" (considered one of the best tracks) gets reused twice: Optimus parachuting into Shanghai at the beginning, and during the search for Jetfire at the Smithsonian.
Interestingly, the humans have one tucked into Scorpnok's theme, which is used when the cavalry is called in. A modified version, tucked into Optimus vs Megatron (at 1:56) complements Lennox's Crowning Moment of Awesome.
Disney's The Lion King. The first time the theme "This Land" appears is during the rainstorm immediately following the confrontation between Mufasa, Scar, and Zazu, and it is as grand and choral as you could possibly imagine...that is, until it takes things a step higher during the scene where Simba speaks to his father's ghost. There's also a heartbreaking rendition which occurs in the gorge after cub Simba finds Mufasa's body. By the time the finale arrives, and Simba is ascending Pride Rock to the most powerful, stirring, and uplifting version yet, you know Hans Zimmer is truly a genius. What is most disappointing, however, is that one of the most awesome versions of this theme ever, that which plays during Simba and Scar's Battle Amongst the Flames, does not appear on the official soundtrack and is in fact not available anywhere.
Part of it is actually on the Spanish-version soundtrack. Good luck finding it, though; this troper has only seen it available on cassette tape.
In Disney's The Great Mouse Detective, the three main protagonists had their own recurring leitmotif tunes. Basil's leitmotif was also the film's main title theme music, Dr. Dawson's leitmotif almost always prominently featured a bassoon, and Olivia Flaversham's leitmotif was also used for the tune the musical dancing doll her father made would play. Professor Ratigan also had his own little leitmotif played on a clarinet.
In The Brave Little Toaster, composer David Newman gave all five the appliences a theme, which pops up whenever one of them does anything. You really have to pay attention. There are also themes for some secondary characters, the Master and ElmoSt. Peters.
There are similar tunes during when Blanky tries to snuggle with Toaster and he/she pushes him away and when Toaster similarly does the same to the flower later on, causing it to die and changing the Toaster's attitude to Blanky later.
That music actually IS Blanky's theme. He and Kirby probably have the least-heard music in the movie. Kirby's theme is heard primarily when he rescues Blanky from the tree and when he's first shown at the beginning. The Toaster's is most easily heard when he's looking at his reflection after the waterfall scene, Radio's plays pretty much any time he talks, and Lampy's can be heard in near the very end of the credits played on a xylophone.
Actually, if I'm right in what the leitmotifs are, you can hear nearly every one in quick succession when each one sinks in the mud. (Though Toaster's is usually longer than just three notes.) Ironically, the only one not heard is Radio's. The song cuts off when he's sinking.
Aladdin is also based heavily on themes. Aladdin himself is represented by "One Jump Ahead," Jafar has a set of dark, descending notes, the Sultan has his own Fanfare, Jasmine has a haunting little tune, and there is a lovelytheme represnting freedom. Jasmine's theme and the freedom theme were later combined to create a new song called "To Be Free."
The Batman franchise has spawned this a few times. Most notably, the famous title theme from the 1989 Batman movie became the initial leitmotif for Batman The Animated Series, but was phased out as the show came into its own and replaced with the animated Batman's true leitmotif for every show in the rest of the DCAU - Shirley Walker's Batman theme, which eventually got its own cinematic treatment as a gigantic orchestra/choir version in the opening credits of the animated movie Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm. When the film franchise was rebooted for Batman Begins, so was Batman's leitmotif — he got a sort of dark plucking of stings accompanied by strong percussion, reminiscent of the 1989 Batman theme but not identical to it. (Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard deliberately left the theme incomplete until the very last scene of the film, much like James Bond in Casino Royale, mentioend above). In The Dark Knight, the Joker got a leitmotif of his own... of a sorts. Rather than any traditional sort of motif, the Joker is represented by a single sustained violin chord followed by discordant strings growing in crescendo as he pulls off his big badness (appropriately based on the notes D and C). Also in The Dark Knight, the pre-existing Batman themes become more complex as the character does, climaxing in the leadup to the final fight scene with the Joker when Batman is taking down police—nonlethally—to keep them from accidentally killing hostages, and only setting up his further fall from favor at the end of the film to a frantic and complicated treatment of the main theme.
This use of villain themes began with the campy 1960s Batman t.v. series. In the 1966 film, the four primary villains (The Catwoman, The Penguin, The Joker, and The Riddler) are all introduced accompanied by their individual themes. The leitmotif for Burgess Meredith's Penguin became particularly well-known, even making an appearance in a popular rock song in the 1980s.
The Nolan movies' Batman leitmotif sounds an awful lot like a minor key version of the Adam West series' "NUH-nuh NUH-nuh NUH-nuh NUH-nuh BAT-MAN!", of all things.
Oh, "NUH-nuh NUH-nuh NUH-nuh NUH-nuh BAT-MAN!" counts as a leitmotif itself. So much any homage to those cheesy fighting scenes have to include both onomatopaeia and the theme.
Dorothy has "Over the Rainbow" representing her in a few scenes, such as during "Merry Old Land of Oz" (you can hear it playing when she's getting her makeover) and when she's held captive at The Witch's castle.
Dr Zhivago and Lara's Theme. So many times that it gets annoying!
Iron Man combined a Leitmotif with a shout-out to the original Marvel animated shows by using a jazz version of the cartoon theme as background music when Tony Stark is being crass and selfish in Vegas, then later by using the tune as his ringtone on a friend's phone.
The Incredible Hulk does something similar as "The Lonely Man" theme from the 70s TV show plays as Bruce makes his way back to America.
Repo! The Genetic Opera is chock full of these, of course. They can be as subtle as Blind Mag's indiscernible vocals in songs she's not even part of (Things You See In A Graveyard) to the hilariously blatant "REEEEPO MAN!" that follows Nathan's alter-ego.
Calm but eerie music was used every time the title character in Mikey was scheming or about to do something evil.
Ennio Morricone liked to use instruments to represent characters in The Dollars Trilogy, rather than particular melodies, which is a tendency which gets more pronounced as the series goes on. In A Fistful Of Dollars, Joe is accompanied by a swift descending scale on a recorder whenever he does something impressive/we see his face/he happens to blink. In For A Few Dollars More, Manco was represented by a different recorder riff, and Mortimer was accompanied by a single twang on a Jew's harp. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, everyone has the same melodic motif, probably because everyone is an equally shitty human being in it, but it's played on different instruments for each character (recorder followed by a wah-wah voice for Blondie, screams followed by a wah-wah voice for Tuco, and a bass ocarina followed by an electric guitar for Angel Eyes). Which instrument goes with which character is drummed into our heads right from the very beginning of the opening credits when the rotoscoped characters appear in quick succession, accompanied by their themes. And they each get Boss Subtitles, which play their themes as they come up. Twice. You will not forget who's who.
Played to the point of shear maddness with the Love Theme in Red Sonja...Ok Ennio, we get it! She going to boing him sometime, you don't have to point it out "EVERY" damn time they are on the screen!
Every major character in Mary Poppins is accompanied by a signature tune. This is most obvious with Mary Poppins herself (Spoonful of Sugar), Bert (Chim Chim Cher-ee), Mr. Banks (A British Bank), and Mrs. Banks (Votes For Women).
The Third Man. The Harry Lime theme underscores the menace and charisma of Harry's presence in the film.
In Atonement, while Briony schemes against Robbie (albeit unknowingly), we are introduced to a sinister tune as she walks around the estate. The song returns whenever Briony does.
The music of The Matrix (composed by Don Davis) uses a staggering series of horns as the primary series leitmotif. While it doesn't seem that Neo himself has a specific leitmotif, he shares a love leifmotif with Trinity in all three movies (you first hear it after Neo saves Trinity after jumping from the helicopter). Agent Smith shared the original foreboding agent leitmotif in movie # 1 with the other agents, but later gained not only one, but two pieces of musical flair for "Reloaded" and "Revolutions." The first is a nasty chant (listen to it just as Neo begins wailing with the metal pole in "Reloaded's" 'burly brawl') and the second is a buzzing viral sound as he replicates relentlessly in the last films.
Particularly fitting seeing that "Farkus" is the Hungarian word for "wolf'.
The Shredder from the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie had a particularly memorable theme which started with an ominous drum bass before working it's way up the something decidedly more 'metal'. It then becomes a very unique sounding theme (most notably played when he fights the Turtles for the first time) that feels so thematically conflicting.
In the 2007 CGI movie, Raphael's alter-ego, The Nightwatcher has one.
"Mr. Sandman" appears to be the theme song of 1955 Hill Valley or something. It's played when Marty first enters the 1955 town square in both Part I and Part II, something which inspired us to name a trope after it.
Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame had the villain, Frollo, followed by an ominous greek choir singing "Kyrie Eleison", which in church greek translates into "Lord have Mercy."
Various recurring themes are heard in the movie version of Battle Royale. Most recognisable are Kiriyama's theme (rising strings and a repeated blast of low choir humming) and the eerie choir music that plays whenever Noriko and Kitano are together.
Every character in Oldboy has his/her own theme. Oh Dae-Su has the low techno beat and trumpets of "In A Lonely Place"; Mido has the flutes and strings of "The Last Waltz". The theme most thoroughly worked into the movie, however, is Lee Woo-Jin's theme. This waltz is recurrent with some variations even on the soundtrack album, as "Cries and Whispers", "Breathless" and "Farewell My Lovely". Apart from reinforcing many scenes as a part of the soundtrack, it is also heard as the little midi tune accompanying the release of the gas in Oh Dae-Su's prison, and it is the ringtone on the phone Oh Dae-Su given when he is released.
Several songs were used as leitmotifs in Ken Burn's documentary The Civil War, mostly from the American Civil War era, and often played either when a quote from a specific person was spoken, or in a section devoted to them. Marching Through Georgia represented General William Tecumseh Sherman, while a piano rendition of Kingdom Coming represented Ulysses S. Grant. There were also specific songs played for parts involving Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, as well.Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier was often used during tragic events, and after the conclusion of battles.
Brief Encounter has Rachmaninov's Second Piano concerto, over and over again. The second movement is mainly used for love scenes, with the darker outer movements used to more dramatic effect.
Inglourious Basterds: Hugo Stiglitz has a deep, rock-ish, two-note leitmotif that shows up twice right before the film features his flashbacks. These are both accompanied by his awesome bitchface.
In Hal Hartley's The Book Of Life, Lucifer has a brief 70's riff that plays for a moment when he appears on screen.
Some of the more iconic horror films have instantly recognizable leitmotifs. For example, the "ki ki ki, ma, ma, ma" music that accompanies Jason in the Friday the 13th films. Also, the simple piano melody played in the Halloween franchise.
The Indiana Jones series has its fair share of memorable leitmotifs. The most prominent one is Indy's triumphant seven-note trumpet theme. The villains of the films, including the Nazis, Soviets and Thuggee Cultists, all get ominous leitmotifs too. Some supporting characters get their own themes too, including Mutt and Marion. The Indy series is notable in giving leitmotifs to objects: all the central Macguffins have their own recognisable themes. The Ark of the Covenant in particular has an awe-inspiring, mystical and downright spooky one.
Wilbur's theme from The Rescuers Down Under was the guitar riff to "Wipe Out" when ever he was about to take off for flight.
Zeiram has an incredibly unsettling theme, being equal parts classical Japanese instruments, spacy sci-fi music and Ominous Latin Chanting.
The version of Treasure Island starring Charlton Heston as Long John Silver featured leitmotifs provided by the Chieftains for the loyals, the pirates, the island, and the ship. The only character to have his own leitmotif was Silver, however.
X-Men: First Class plays with leitmotifs quite a bit for foreshadowing. The X-Men theme plays heavily in Cerebro and X-Training and heartwarmingly shows up for Erik in Sub Lift, while Erik's theme forms the core of of Not That Sort of Bank and Frankenstein's Monster, before finally blasting into the bombastic Magneto at the end of the film. Mystique's theme shows up in Would You Date Me? and To Beast or Not to Beast.
Both Kung Fu Panda movies have a few subtle ones, but they're there. At least Po, Tai Lung and Lord Shen have themes that usually accompany their appearances. Po's is called "Panda Po" (Remixed as "Dumpling Warrior" and its remix in the sequel's OST), Lord Shen has "Ancient China/Lord Shen" and Tai Lung's, while not named in the OST, first appears as the music Shifu plays on his flute/staff, and is featured prominently in their battle as well as, naturally, his escape from Chorh-Gom. The movie's main theme also appears to be Oogway's, since it plays during his Ascent to a Higher Plane of Existence scene.
The Crocodile from Peter Pan has a leitmotif based on the Cut Song "Never Smile at a Crocodile."
There's also Peter's theme, which is heard in a fanfare at the very beginning of the film. It is often played on the flutes.
John Slade from the movie I'm gonna git you sucka has a band that follows him playing his theme music. Stating that "Every good hero should have one", Jack Spade then gets his own band at the end of the film.
The Prince Of Egypt makes some use of leitmotif. One of the more notable uses is a snippet of the melody of "All I Ever Wanted" (the part of the song where the lyrics are "This is my home") that plays when Moses is living in Midian with Tzipporah, signifying that he has found a place where he is truly happy, but he's still hiding from the task at hand. A Cherubic Choir also appears several times to signify a miracle occurring. The choral part becomes a lushly orchestrated theme right after Moses encounters the burning bush.
How to Train Your Dragon takes an interesting approach, using at least three recognizable "melody" leitmotifs as well as assigning particular instruments to particular characters. The Vikings are represented by thundering warpipes, the dragons by noisy brass instruments, a violin comes into play when Astrid is on the scene, and our stalwart hero, Hiccup, is represented by...a piping tinwhistle and/or flute. These instruments weave in and out of major themes such as:
The flying theme, a bright and swelling melody which plays softly over the opening Dream Works logo as the first music heard in the movie, resurges whenever Hiccup and Toothless are at their most Badass, is repeated when the pair are rescued by Stoick from drowning and the pair take flight together to face down the Red Death, and triumphantly finishes off the film with the rousing addition of a parade-ground drumbeat.
The dragons theme, an almost swashbuckling/piratical melody which blasts into play the minute Hiccup says "Dragons!" and comes back in nearly every major scene involving them, including most of Hiccup and Toothless' flying scenes and several of the training sessions.
The romantic theme, a gently swirling violin-heavy melody which makes a brief cameo during Astrid's epic walk away from the fireball at the beginning, reaches full bloom during her flight through the sunset clouds with Hiccup and Toothless and briefly reappears when she kisses Hiccup at the end.
The Green/Red Death's theme, an earblasting melody which first appears in the dragons' den and again during the final battle, involving horror-movie-style frantic strings over booming brass and a deep, steady drumbeat reminiscent of heavy footsteps.
In the 2011 film Warrior: Brendan's trainer Frank Campana uses Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" as his intro music, which is at odds with the rap and Russian music intros of the other fighters.
The Saw franchise has the Scare Chord-heavy "Hello, Zepp", written for the climax of the first movie and remixed for the (many) sequels. When it starts playing, you can expect some combination of Once More With Clarity / an especially gruesome death / the villain sealing someone in a room and declaring "Game over." It's also been used in movie trailers and, for some reason, a Brazilian gymnast's floor routines.
"Ringo's Theme (This Boy)" from A Hard Day's Night. It's actually just an instrumental version of the song "This Boy," but it nicely captures the melancholy of Ringo's 10-Minute Retirement in the film.
For the animated Alice in Wonderland, Alice is represented by the title song, the White Rabbit by "I'm Late", the Mad Hatter by "The Unbirthday Song", the Cheshire Cat by "'Twas Brillig" and the Queen of Hearts by "March of the Cards".