Mood Motif

Sound and music are significant in storytelling to help the viewer grasp the personalities, moods or locales in which the story takes place.

Leitmotifs are usually used to identify a character. Regional Riffs are to give the listener an audio cue to the location of their story, and Mood Motifs are to help set the tone of the sequence. You may also find Standard Snippets traveling in tandem with the instruments common to this trope.

Here we're exploring Mood Motif - and the musical instruments that seem inexorably linked to certain moods and situations. Most of these are fairly ancient connections, often dating back to opera.

Some composers are fairly well known for their Motif music.


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Featuring French Horns, Tubas, Trumpets, Trombones, Flugelhorns, Sousaphones and such. It may come as no surprise that James Horner has written many of the brass examples.

Instruments that must be struck or shaken to play.

    Tone Percussion 
Instruments in which a tone-producing series of notes is produced by mallets, hammers, etc. (...includes piano.)
  • Church bells of:
  • Joy
  • Doom
    • Executions
      • Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard has an ominous bell ringing throughout much of its Act I finale, leading up to the execution of Fairfax.
      • It tolls for thee!
    • Warning
      • The British are coming!
      • The sky is falling! (Disney's Chicken Little)
      • A storm is upon us! (Though sometimes sirens are used instead.)
  • Ominous Bells
    • "Tubular Bells" from The Exorcist is widely considered creepy. So, oddly enough, is the all-bells instrumental version of "Carol of the Bells"
      • Funny, because the intro is what's famous from The Exorcist, and it's mostly piano and glockenspiel. When the aforementioned bells kick in, Tubular Bells is thrusted quite firmly in the "Joy" section mentioned above.
    • Church bells herald Arthas' triumphant return home in Warcraft III. Of course, at this point he's already been thoroughly corrupted by the Frostmourne.
  • Funeral bells (small bells rather than the usual deep chimes; rarely heard nowadays)
    • While not actually featuring a funeral, "For Whom The Bell Tolls" By Metallica has funeral bells in the intro.
  • Sleigh Bells of Christmas (and/or the Wintertime)
  • The Xylophone of:
    • Skeletons!
      • See any old cartoon, such as Walt Disney's "The Skeleton Dance", where skeletons are dancing or the skeleton's ribcage is used as a xylophone.
      • "Danse Macabre" by Saint-SaŽns may be the Ur Example. The same xylophone motif was reused in "Fossils" from "Carnival of the Animals".
      • "Remains of the Day", from the Corpse Bride soundtrack.
      • The Simpsons is aware of this:
    Homer: I share your xylophobia!
    Lisa: No, Dad, you mean "xenophobia". Xylophobia would be the fear of xylophones.
    Homer: I am afraid of xylophones. It's the music you hear when skeletons are dancing!
    (You'd think that Lisa would know that xylophobia is the fear of wood. Hope somebody got fired for that.)
    • Pulled off in the "Be Prepared" musical number of The Lion King. One of the hyenas uses a skeleton as a xylophone.
    • Little things scurrying
  • The Glockenspiel of:
    • Icy wintertime
      • The Trope Maker here might be the "Sinfonia antartica" by Ralph Vaughan Williams (originally written as movie music), which had many passages with glockenspiel, celesta and piano playing over eerie harmonies.
    • Little girls
  • The Celesta of:
  • The Piano of:
    • Loneliness
      • The piano theme from The Incredible Hulk was meant to underscore how sad and lonely David Banner's life was, and that he could never settle and find a home while the Hulk dwelled within him.
      • This Mood Motif was given Homage when the Hulk got his own movie, underscoring Bruce Banner's loneliness and sorrow.
    • Introspection
    • Nostalgia
    • Family Drama, etc.
    • Time Passes Montage
    • Old Time Western Saloon (frequently an out-of-tune upright); played by The Piano Player
      • The ballet Rodeo begins "Ranch House Party" with a piano solo in this spirit.
    • Old Time Damsel in Distress
    • The toy piano of smallness/childishness
      • Lampshaded by the animated version of Charles Schulz's Peanuts. Schroeder plays classical music as if on a normal sized piano most of the time, but when he's irked at Lucy, he has been known to make the same toy piano sound exactly like the toy that it is.
    • Death
      • "Funeral March"
    • Heartfelt confession (tinkly)
    • The Dead- piano is often used in mood pieces in zombie media- examples include Dawn of the Dead, Resident Evil (particularly the 2nd one) and Left 4 Dead.
    • The Player Piano of
      • Silent Movies
      • Old West Whorehouses (so the Madam didn't need a man to play it).
  • The Waterphone of:
    • India
    • Mysticism
    • Creepy creepiness

    Reeds and Woodwinds 
Instruments such as Clarinet, Oboe, and Saxophone.
  • The Saxophone of:
  • The Slide-Whistle of Wackiness/Cartoon Falling
  • Flute of
    • fluttery flying things
      • "VoliŤre" from Saint-SaŽns's Carnival of the Animals.
    • mischievousness
    • sadness
      • The senza misura nightingale-call imitations in the last movements of Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony and "Das Lied von der Erde."
  • The Alto Flute of Tenderness and Tranquility
  • The Oboe of:
    • Sneak
      • Old cartoons with "Mysterioso Pizzicato" (the musical sting that goes dun dun dun dun DUUUUUUUH duntuntuntun and repeats, rising in pitch for the first four notes, holds, and then quickly descends).*** Key of A minor: A C E A F EDCBA C E A F etc.
    • Sorrow
      • Good way to convey the loneliness of a character is by having a mournful oboe solo.
      • Tangled has the love theme "Now That I See You" played in a mournful oboe solo as Flynn-becoming-Eugene-Again realizes that his old criminal friends have caught up with him and want the crown from him.
      • The English Horn, a cousin of the oboe, is often the king of plaintive melodies, particularly in the lower part of its register; it can out-sorrow the oboe. See e.g. "die alte Weise" from the third act of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.
    • Despair
    "Did you honestly think you could dip your corpulent snout into the imperial beetle coffers like that and get away with it?? Did you think your revolting abuse of the public trust would go unnoticed??? THINK AGAIN, GOOD SENATOR. WHILE THE PROSECUTION MAY BE BLIND, REST ASSURED THE LEAGUE OF LEGISLACERATORS SEES ALL."
    • J.S. Bach often uses a solo oboe for "sad" movements of his music.
  • The Bassoon of Slapstick
    • The bassoon is traditionally viewed as the "clown" of the orchestra.
    • Its use in The Sorcerer's Apprentice (used in Fantasia to accompany wacky magical broomsticks carrying buckets of water) helped cement that tradition.
    • Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan) is well known for his bassoon jokes.
  • The Bamboo Flute of The East
  • The Native American Flute of The Old West Showdown
  • The Clarinet of Klezmer
    • Remember: If it's Jewish, it's accompanied by clarinet in Hijaz scale.
    • Bonus points for "Hava Nagila" or "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof.
  • The High Clarinet of Cheekiness, preferably a small clarinet in E-flat or D, as used in several Gustav Mahler symphonies, "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" by Richard Strauss and "El Salůn Mťxico" by Aaron Copland.
  • The Kazoo Of:
    • Mockery: frequently used to make fun of someone who is self-important or full of themselves.
    • Wackiness and Goofiness

Instruments with strings, from Guitar to Harps. (See Tone Percussion for piano, vibes etc.)
  • Violins, Violas, Cellos, etc.
    • Psycho Strings
    • The Tremolo of Suspense and/or The Sustained Note of Tense Suspense: when there's a moment hanging in the balance, the strings will crescendo and then hold a long note.
    • Romantic Strings
      • That classic sound found now only in old films, complete with the diffuse closeup of our leading damsel
      • Also invariably features in the middle portion of any 70s procedural TV show opening theme
    • Strings that sound like animals
      • Batman Returns had the Mood Motif of strings evoking cats for Catwoman.
      • Flight Of The Bumblebee is the definitive string riff on invoking insects.
    • There's a shrieky, staccato violin riff for 'ahh, get it off me, get it off me' creepy crawlies that are coming to do terrible things to us.
    • Strings of Emotion
      • See also Cherubic Choir, Piano of Tragedy (above).
      • The Violin of Woe. More often parodied than played straight nowadays.
    • The Devil
      • In The Devil and Daniel Webster, "Mr. Scratch" manages to pick up and play a rather tempermental fiddle
      • The Devil Went Down to Georgia is the modern archetypal example, with numerous homages and parodies (ie: the Robot Devil)
      • In Saint-SaŽns' "Danse Macabre," the solo violin's highest string is tuned half a step flat, so it can played together with the next lower string (the very first thing that it does in the piece) to produce a tritone, the nasty-sounding interval justly termed "diabolus in musica" (the devil in music).
      • Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat is another well-known example.
    • Theme Music Power-Up
    • The frantic strings of Stuff On Fire.
    • Fast back-forward movement with one tone for storms or hostile gusts of wind.
    • The Solo Violin of Enthralling Feminine Beauty
      • Exploited heavily in the tone poems "Scheherazade" by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and "Ein Heldenleben" by Richard Strauss.
  • The Banjo of:
    • Hillbillies
      • "Dueling Banjos", heard on Deliverance is the ur-example.
  • The Electric Guitar of:
  • The Acoustic Guitar of:
    • American Heritage
    • Cowboys
    • Campfires
    • Blues
    • Honky Tonk
  • The Spanish Guitar of:
  • The Harp of:
    • Heaven
      • Out of This World, which begins on Mount Olympus, was one of the few Broadway musicals to employ two harps in the orchestra.
    • Flashback
  • The Koto and Shamisen of Japan
  • The Harpsichord of:
  • The Steel Guitar of (That sliding guitar sound, "brrrrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRRrrrrrrnnnnggggg!"):
    • The honky tonk or red neck bar
    • The singing cowboy
    • Hawaii and Polynesia in general
      • Cabaret uses this in "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)," despite Schultz pointing out that it's from California.
  • The Walking Bass of Shiftiness

  • Ominous Latin Chanting
  • Cherubic Choir
    • The eerily dreamy chanting prominently featured in Coraline. The composer, Bruno Coulais, is known for extensive usage of choirs in his works, and it shows extremely well.
  • Opera Singer of:
    • Epicness / Artiness
    • Dramatic Death Scenes
    • European Immigrants
  • Acapella Choir of Whimsy
  • The Choir of Uplifting Inspiration
    • The Sting
    • Subverted and Lampshaded at the end of Airplane! when the choir gets more and more obvious — louder, higher, and with overarticulated vowels, finally ending in a screech.
  • The Choir of Weird Whimsy
    • Tim Burton movies are famous for this.
    • The "Freaky Fred" episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog has a choir of children singing creepily to underscore everything Fred the freaky barber does.
  • One-Woman Wail
    • Flash Gordon: Used in the sequence where Aura resurrects Flash after his execution.
    • Gravity Falls: Used in "Sock Opera" for a rather peculiar version of "Ave Maria" to punctuate Gabe's horror at Mabel's puppet show going horribly, horribly wrong.
  • Human Whistling of:
    • Warm Childhood Memories
      • In a word: Disney.
    • Not So Innocent
    • Utter Creepiness
      • Used to excellent effect in Kill Bill when Elle Driver whistles the theme to Twisted Nerve.
      • Strangely enough used in The Walker Papers, because apparently Whistling thins the walls between worlds. That's pretty creepy.
      • Played for laughs in this Infidelamsterdam video. When Infidel asks his alter-ego Baldrick to help re-enact a scene where he and an ex were arguing about ghosts, Baldrick proceeds to whistle in a mock-creepy manner while waving a skull around.
    • "Fun" defiance, when done in a march (the Colonel Bogey March was the trope codifier)
  • Rhythmic Chanting of African Heritage
  • Gospel Choir of Joyous Celebration/Epiphanies

    Other Instruments 
Instruments that don't fit elsewhere.

    Multiple Ensemble 
Certain combinations of instruments achieve a motif.
  • The Secret Agent/Spy riff involves Guitar and Brass.
  • The Slap Bass and wah-wah guitar of The Seventies.
  • Chamber Music of Upper Class Period Pieces
  • The Baroque Ensemble of Ancientness
  • String Quartet of Elegance
  • The Waltz of Old-World Nobility
  • The Orchestral Flourish of Swashbuckling
  • The Minor Chords of :
  • The Porn Groove involves the Saxophone of Sex and the Guitar of Porn.
  • The Sacred Plagal Cadence

These composers have a certain Mood Motif that is a kind of auditory trademark in their music.