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A theme, or other coherent musical idea, which returns more or less unaltered, as identification for the audience or to signify recollection of the past by a dramatic character. It is an important ancestor of the Leitmotif .

The systematic use of motifs for dramatic purposes first developed in France and Germany in late 18th-century opera, though earlier examples may be found (for example where one character quotes another’s music allusively). With the weakening of the closed aria form, greater importance began to pass to arioso, recitative and scena; and the association of motifs with characters and events began now to provide not only a useful system of illustration but, gradually, the means of applying formal control through quasi-symphonic techniques. An early formulation of the principle of associating a musical idea with a character occurs in Lacépède’s ...