A Small Study of Theme and Motif in Hitoshi Sakimoto’s Music

A leitmotif, literally meaning “leading motif,” is defined as “a short, recurring musical phrase associated with a particular person, place, or idea.” In what capacity, and where, does Hitoshi Sakimoto’s work realize the idea of the leitmotif? This question came to me after watching a series of lectures by Leonard Bernstein and reflecting on a passage from my review of the Piano Collections: Final Fantasy XII album, which reads:

FFXII was a step away from the motivic emphasis that characterized, for example, Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics, preferring to make most of its material standalone and redistributing a couple of themes here and there in fragmentary ways…

But now I’m not so sure that this is true. Actually, it might just be the opposite — that FFXII brought Sakimoto’s music closer to a motivic emphasis. Or is the reality ambiguous? So we’ve got three principles at work here: length, repetition, and conceptual embodiment. Of the three, length is the most (immediately) ambiguous (on a deeper level, though, conceptual embodiment is tougher to parse). Is it a leitmotif if it’s thirteen seconds long, but not one if it’s fifteen seconds long? Well, there is no official guiding principle relating to chronology, partly because every score will have differing stresses. But if we’re to look at instances of forms that are considered to be leitmotifs, with the guiding structures of sheet note symbology, a consistency does emerge — one that would suggest that a leitmotif is commonly limited to a couple of, or several, bars.


Further examples abound online and in texts. The use of leitmotifs have grown from their origins with 19th century figures, such as Wagner, to extensive use in both concert repertoire and soundtracks (the most famous modern example is probably the first Star Wars trilogy’s score). The small form of a leitmotif makes sense if we think of it as a germ, a fragmented metaphor, one that can be recontextualized through techniques such as changes in key or alternations of chordal support. Such techniques become more possible with greater malleability; and greater malleability comes with a form that can be, as it were, grasped by the mind’s hand.

As Sakimoto’s scores have grown in number, a pattern has arisen that shows his preference for thematic reinforcement. This pattern is not discernible just because there are tracks with titles such as “Algus’ Theme”; it is also discernible because these thematic designs play outside of their namesake homes in the relevant scores. Yet these repetitions are acted out in different ways. What accounts for these differences, and what are the differences? Well, first of all, I have been careful to use the word “thematic” rather than “theme.” Is a leitmotif thematic? Yes. But is a leitmotif a theme?

While Sakimoto had been using thematic patterns in his shooter soundtracks such as Terra Diver, 1997’s Final Fantasy Tactics was where he popularised the concept. Take a listen to its “Hero’s Theme”, a reference to the game’s protagonist, Ramza. And, after that, listen to “Memories”, played during a moment wherein Ramza reflects on his past. What’s happening here? The second piece is a derivation of the first; in fact, it follows it note-for-note for much of its span with compositional differences in accompaniment and rubato (in fact, it really only makes a significant divergence in its concluding bars, going from a near-ubiquitous Lydian C scale to a dominant thirteenth). If we’re reviewing the definition of a leitmotif, the requirements of repetition and conceptual embodiment are met; but the requirement of length is not. Rather than being a new composition with a fragments of “Hero’s Theme” thrown in, “Memories” is an almost exact surface replication. Sakimoto’s own handiwork shows us that we’re dealing with a piece that can be fully relocated and, thus, a theme. It would be possible to break apart the constituents of “Hero’s Theme” and reapply them elsewhere to diversely abbreviated degrees, and we could describe these fragments as motifs in such a context. This is in fact what happens in “Enemy Attack” 25 seconds in, but this is not what is happening in the emphasized comparison. The point here is that the native idea, if we could call it that, in “Hero’s Theme” has a form that stretches beyond fragmentation, even though it can be fragmented just like any other composition.

Now, listen to the melody that appears fifteen seconds into “Bland Logo~Title Back.” For about 15 more seconds, Sakimoto develops the piece out of permutations from an isolated idea (G, D, A, G, F#, G). At the 48 second mark, he reintroduces it with a burst of triumphant elaboration and realization. I have notated this “realized” melody in a basic form below, set in its inceptive key, for two reasons: 1) to illustrate its length, and 2) to show that the final two bars partly repeat the prior two in their mission of bolstering the final A note that we heard an octave higher in bar two. To continue, listen to “Alma’s Theme”. Although the transcribed melody returns from “Bland Logo~Title Back,” it remains a fragment, content to let the mingling cello, pulsating strings, and key changes re-contextualize it. And in “Random Waltz,” the phrasing is the same as that of “Bland Logo~Title Back”; only now, it’s in a different key, and it acts as a framing device from which new phrases follow after fourteen seconds.


I feel that a fitting way to close off this part of analysis is by way of listening to “Antipyretic,” to reinforce the argument I’ve been making about the essential characteristics of the theme and motif. At the 38 seconds mark, that form from “Bland Logo~Title Back” appears again and crucially remains fragmented; it develops just by way of transpositions (as it did when we first heard it), and then fading away with a brief, unique elaboration and a chain of descending notes. Then arrives “Hero’s Theme,” once again following its original layout with (as with “Memories”) up to its only significant divergence near its conclusion. After, the Bland Logo fragment is voiced twice in modulated form, then yields to a couple of six-note descents borrowed from “Bland Logo~Title Back.” Once more, the evidence points to the melody of “Hero’s Theme” serving primarily as a theme, whereas that of “Bland Logo~Title Back” serves primarily as a motif. To reiterate: the argument here is not that “Hero’s Theme” cannot be used motivically (because it certainly is in the aforementioned “Enemy Attack” or “Battle on the Bridge”), but that its native idea is non-fragmented, whereas the “Bland Logo~Title Back” melody is inherently a fragment and is only ever used as such.

To keep this study short, we’ll skip ahead of the Radiant Silvergun and Vagrant Story soundtracks right ahead to Final Fantasy XII. Rather than trying to distinguish between “theme” and “leitmotif,” I’d like to call into question whether or not the most prevalent leitmotif (we will call it this for now) in the score is anything at all. The melody first appears at the 52 seconds mark of “Opening Movie,” ending at a 1:20 seconds (excuse the cutoff of the slur on the fourth bar; it leads to a note that is untied to the core melody).


This melody plays when, during FFXII’s opening cinematic, we first get a glimpse at a principal character, princess Ashe. However, we must not mistake this for her motif, as she does have a full theme, and it has nothing to do with that melody. Nor is this the motif of Rasler, Ashe’s husband and the man seen at her side; he dies shortly afterwards and his minor subsequent plot involvement (yes, the game believes in ghosts) is never attached to the melody. Listening on, we hear the melody, tweaked a bit, at 2:23, and then a reprise of its original form at 2:34. In-game, the narrative is showing a call to arms, and we are meant to identify with the war-ready characters and their allegiances. Perhaps, then, this is a nationalistic motif that is tied to the introductory setting of the kingdom of Dalmasca.

Let’s run with that hypothesis. It seems to be substantiated by the melody’s presence in “Clan Headquarters” (00:15), the theme of a building’s interior in the city of Rabanastre, Dalmasca’s capital where players assume control, and also in “The Dalmasca Estersand” (00:24), the first natural location visited. We run into snags, though: tracks such as “The Mosphoran Highwaste” or “The Sandsea” (subtly at 00:54) are themes for environments outside of the Dalmascan region;”Clash of Blades” (00:07) is a non-specific theme for boss battles; and “Nap” is the catch-all ditty played whenever players have the characters go to sleep. In these cases, the melody seems to be guided by a narrative that is freed from nationalism, perhaps having evolved to encompass the journey at large or the fellowship of the protagonists. The repetition conveys that the melody is an agent of familiarization, but what is it familiarizing us with? Conceptual embodiment has become hazy, or outright dissolved. What do we have on our hands?

Part of the problem here is that none of these track titles give us immovable grounding. Although the melody has a pivotal role in “The Dalmasca Estersand,” the Estersand is a specific locale among many others in Dalmasca and the Westerland theme doesn’t even reference the melody. But if track titles are a factor, this summons a possible problem with Final Fantasy Tactics and that “Bland Logo~Title Back” melody; that is, if, by taking center stage in “Alma’s Theme,” the melody thereby suggests that the motif involves some facet of Alma. But why is it such a prevalent motif in the game when Alma is not even the main character, and why is it present when she is neither conceptually or physically involved in the scenario? It’s even the first motif we hear in the credits music.

Could it be the case that any of the problems above are not really problems? Where these examples are concerned, a remolding of definition, a better understanding of what “conceptual embodiment” may mean, or a keener sonic insight may help bring resolve. Of course, this being a small study reduces the scope of analysis. As with so many other studies, more time, more listening, and more thinking will be our friends.

Posted on April 26, 2014 by Ario Barzan. Last modified on April 28, 2014.

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About the Author

Ario Barzan

is an independent writer, visual artist, and composer, and is a part-time educator. He lives in Boston, and is a recent graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts' graduate program.

5 Responses to A Small Study of Theme and Motif in Hitoshi Sakimoto’s Music

  1. Thanks for the interesting article. The FF Tactics examples were especially engaging. As I reflected, the use of leitmotifs in Sakimoto’s music goes all the way back to Terra Diver and Back to the Future, neither of them particularly deep, meaningful games. My personal feeling is that his motifs aren’t generally intended to depict specific characters or locations, but rather to characterise the overall tone of the game while providing a hook for listeners to latch on to. I think it would be fascinating if you extended this analysis to Terra Diver and Radiant Silvergun especially, both among his most motivic scores. I also think research further into his history and interviews would benefit here, and provide more insight into the whys rather than the hows of how he uses leitmotifs. Our biography is here, which gives a bit more perspective into his wider work: vgmonline.net/hitoshisakimoto

  2. Christopher Huynh Christopher Huynh says:

    Thanks for this, Ario. I haven’t played or listened to the soundtrack of Final Fantasy XII (or much of Sakimoto’s works), but you are certainly piquing my interest. I ended up reading the entire article and checking out the pieces. I look forward to your future features!

    • Ario Barzan Ario Barzan says:

      Thanks much for the feedback, Christopher. I’m always hoping that pieces like this will motivate others to, if not write essays of their own, at least listen to the music in question!

  3. While I still believe that FFXII was his last truly ground-breaking solo work, I still regard Hitoshi Sakimoto’s one of the most talented and innovative composers in the industry. He’s not classically-trained, but still manages to create orchestral pieces that are harmonically sumptuous and texturally rich (although I should say he has done some incredibly electronic works too). Out of everyone, I’d probably say he has the most in common with Shostakovich, but his style is still his own. I’d especially recommend Vagrant Story, FFXII, Tactics, Tactics Advance, Tactics Ogre, and Radiant Silvergun.

    • Ario Barzan Ario Barzan says:

      I agree, Chris. I have enormous respect for Sakimoto as a composer who has crafted his own style and in most cases avoided becoming trapped by it. And it can’t be overstated how impressive it is that he has written so much and remained worth listening to to this day, even if I do, like you, find FFXII to be his last highpoint.

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