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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.

Examples of Mood Motif include:



 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
    • Wedding Day, happy endings, Christmas
      • Ridiculously common in Opera. The opening of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer is even based around this.
  • 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 funereal, "For Whom The Bell Tolls" from Zombieland has some bells of funeral.
  • 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-Saens 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 literally in the "Be Prepared" musical number of The Lion King. One of the hyenas uses a skeleton as a xylophone.
  • 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.
    • Introspection
    • Nostalgia
    • Family Drama, etc.
    • Time Passes Montage
    • Old Time Western Saloon (frequently out of tune); played by The Piano Player
    • Old Time Distressed Damsel
    • The toy piano of smallness/childishness
      • Lampshaded by the animated version of Charles Schultz'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.

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
    • mischievousness
  • The Oboe of:
    • Sneak
      • Old cartoons with the musical sting that goes dun dun dun dun DUUUUUUUH duntuntuntun and repeats.
        • If you're referring to the "Hall of the Mountain King" theme that was common in old cartoons, that's a bassoon.
        • Not that one. The one that rises 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.
    • Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan) is well known for his bassoon jokes.
    • 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 Bamboo Flute of The East
  • 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.



 Instruments with strings, from Guitar to Harps. (See Tone Percussion for piano, vibes etc.)



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
  • String Quartet of Elegance
  • The Waltz of Elegance
  • The Orchestral Flourish of Swashbuckling
  • The Minor Chords of :
  • The Porn Groove involves the Saxophone of Sex and the Guitar of Porn.



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