I love how the Dies Irae melody, originally a medieval chant, has been universally agreed to represent the concept of death, fate, and judgement day. It is being quoted by many other composers, both classical and modern, and when they do they mean the concept, not just the composition it originated from. When Shostakovich quotes Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony, he refers first to the composition itself, and indirectly to its themes. But Dies Irae is used even in film music, and the medieval origins are hardly relevant. It is a leitmotif unshackled from its original context, open for anyone to use to make the listener feel that doom is imminent.

There's a thematic dictionary for classical paintings, e.g. orange peels represent death. Are there more motives used in music old and new, by different composers in different circumstances, to refer to the same ideas?

  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's a combination of a very broad question and will just turn into a list of songs with infinite answers possible. – Dom Jan 11 at 6:08
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    @Dom I have to say it's curious that you expect an infinite list when 2 of the 3 answers have concluded that the thing I was looking for examples of simply does not exist? – KeizerHarm Jan 11 at 9:13
  • From one of the answers "There are a lot of themes that have universal symbolism like Dies Irae, but I don't know of a compiled list or book on the topic." Because there are a ton of valid answers, people can just post one and you'll never get a complete answer. – Dom Jan 11 at 16:48
  • @KeizerHarm: I agree with Dom, because almost any time a composer quotes another musical work (not just reworks or arranges or borrows an idea, but deliberately makes a reference), it's usually intended to convey some context/meaning related to that quote. As you note, sometimes these meanings also become standardized and reused by many composers. And often the quotes no longer need to be exact, but rather just in the general style. Here's a searchable database on musical borrowing in general, which may provide resources for your specific case. – Athanasius Jan 11 at 16:49
  • @Dom Wouldn't a link to such a book, or a website like Athanasius provides, be a valid answer? My question is "Are there more of these?" and to that, "There are millions of them" is a valid answer. I am not expecting anyone to list every single one of them, which would be silly. Did I give that impression? – KeizerHarm Jan 11 at 17:20

Only a subset of music tries to transport ideas/concepts at all: programmatical music, lithurgical stuff as funeral masses. The latter is especially prolific due to the huge lifespan of religious concepts.

I'm not sure, whether opera scores (where the concepts have to be borrowed from the action on the stage) qualify and even then the amount of cross-composer re-use is smallish.

There are some melodies used and cited for many years (Greensleeves, Folia variations, Hallelujah by Handel, Ave Maria by Schubert), but these have only weak or no relation to a concept.

  • It's very possible my perception is biased by my general love for programmatic music, symphonic poems, and the like. Though I have also encountered relations of motifs to concepts in many sufficiently exhaustive interpretations of other kinds of music - like how the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth have been interpreted as "Fate knocking on the door". So the idea of some of those themes being shared across different works and composers did not seem out of place to me. That's what the question was for, of course, to see if I was right about that :) – KeizerHarm Jan 10 at 15:28

I think it depends a lot on how restrictive you want to be regarding composers and univerisally agreed.

Musician quote Chopin's funeral march or Beethoven's fifth theme to signal some tragic or foreboding sense. Brahms lullaby seems pretty widely understood as peaceful sleep.

Of course such examples often are not integrating the theme into a new, grand composition. So that probably doesn't hit the mark of a composer using the theme.

The quote might be tongue-in-cheek. That could be seen as sort of contradicting the original symbolic concept, but the symbolism is still understood otherwise there wouldn't be any basis for the joke.

There are a lot of themes that have universal symbolism like Dies Irae, but I don't know of a compiled list or book on the topic.


Not sure if it's exactly what you mean, but if you can accept a locality as being a 'concept', we have the Arabian Riff:

The Oriental Riff:

And, of course, Entry of the Gladiators, which is often quoted to denote farce or comedy:

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    Nice examples. Especially the first two: Snake Charmer and the ...whatever it's called the Asian theme. Completely cliche, but that's the whole point. – Michael Curtis Jan 10 at 22:21

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