motif vs theme vs symbol in a film

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I’ve seen some explanations and videos that say the theme is something abstract and overarching like love, and the motif is more concrete, like a rose, which I thought was more of a symbol, but because it reoccurs, it’s a motif. Or the theme of heroism and the Star Wars music as a motif. But I also have a professor who describes motifs like it’s a theme, like “the cowboy motif” or “war is a drug motif.” So I’m confused, when is it a theme, when is it a motif, and when is it a symbol?

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Well a motif is a recurring feature in a work. They are almost like a supporting structure and in some cases a building block for a theme. They’re a distinctive feature that represents either the whole theme or a certain aspect of the theme of a work. So you’d be correct in saying that in a book that had a theme involving love that a rose could be a motif. But a motif can be a symbol as well. Let’s say a book has an overarching theme about the value of romance in one’s relationship. A rose may symbolize love and the presence of a rose could represent the main character’s struggle with enjoying thing that are romantic. The recurrence of a rose in scenes where the main character struggles with their ideas about romance would be a motif. Sometimes like with the professor saying the cowboy motif, it means the distinctive feature of the general esthetic. So if a movie had a distinctive visual style or a book had a narrative style associated with cowboys, it would be appropriate to say that it has a cowboy or western motif.

The term motif in music is a short series of notes that is meant to give an impression and is built upon throughout a piece. It will usually be repeated just like a motif in literature or film. And when it represents a character or a concept it’s usually referred to as a leitmotif.