Listening for Leitmotives in Wagner

It's hard to hear anything mentioned about the music of Richard Wagner without also hearing someone mention the word 'leitmotif'. Leitmotifs, if you are unfamiliar with the term, are small, dynamic musical ideas that are associated with a person, place, idea, or feeling. These leitmotifs undergo many different transformations throughout Wagner's operas and most importantly, contribute to the dramatic narrative. While this may be common knowledge to most musicologists, how different groups of people actually experience these leitmotifs has remained very unexplored in much of the academic literature.

Recently the Transforming Musicology team in the Psychology Department at Goldsmiths have began to look into this question of how listeners perceive leitmotifs in Wagner's operas. For the first experiment of this project, we have started out with a very basic question we wish to answer: How good are listeners at recognizing leitmotifs and what (if any) factors lead to an individual's ability to identify leitmotifs? Based on similar research that has already been done we have assumed that factors such as an individual's musical training, familiarity with Wagner, the orchestration of the leitmotifs, the compositional structure of the leitmotifs and sheer number repetitions of a leitmotif would contribute to recognition rates.

In order to gain insight into this question, we designed an experiment that requires participants to listen to a ten minute excerpt from Der Ring des Nibelungen and then give them a memory test on some of the musical material they just heard. After this memory test, we ask participants to fill out a survey about their musical background, their familiarity with the music of Richard Wagner, as well give them an objective quiz about the life and music of Wagner. We plan to use the data that we collect to hopefully be able to predict how well an individual can recognize leitmotifs based on the survey results and the other previously mentioned factors.

We are still collecting data for the experiment, but have currently run into a minor difficulty in diversifying the sample from our population. It is easy enough to find participants of varying musical background that are willing to come and participate in a twenty minute experiment, but in order to find the trends that we have hypothesized to exist, we need to make sure that we have a wide spread of participants with varying Wagner expertise.

We are currently scouring London for anyone who would self identify as a fan of the music of Wagner and are looking for any help we can get in finding enough 'Wagnerians' to give our first experiment a sample that might yield some interesting trends. If you have ever considered calling yourself a 'Wagnerian' or know someone who might, please refer them to us. We would be more than happy to have them come into the lab and test their Wagner-ness in the name of science!

David Baker is a student on the MSc. programme in Music, Mind, and Brain in Psychology at Goldsmiths. As well as contributing to the Transforming Musicology project, this work will also be included in the dissertation David will submit as part of his degree. Please contact David directly by email <> if you'd like to take part in the study.

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On 2014-05-20 15:25 Jane Susanna Ennis said:

This sounds wonderful.....would love to join in!

On 2014-05-20 16:06 dennis marks said:

If you know any Wagnerians you will also know that the entire list of leitmotiven is printed on their cerebral cortex. They are all borderline obsessives, as I discovered during my time running an opera house.