The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power brings new sounds to J.R.R. Tolkien’s world. Middle-earth veteran Howard Shore composed the series’ opening theme, but composer Bear McCreary, whose work you know from Battlestar Galactica, God of War, and so much more, brings a vibrant new score to the story. With The Rings of Power telling a fresh story set in Arda’s Second Age it’s only fitting to have new music accompany it. McCreary’s imaginative themes add depth to the show’s many locations and characters, making each distinct—except when they’re supposed to feel connected. Nerdist talked with McCreary about crafting The Rings of Power‘s character themes.
To learn about the different themes, McCreary shared his philosophy on how he approached creating themes for every character except for Sauron and the Stranger.
“Our story is told with various cultures. Notably, you have the Elves, which I’ll put in one category for now. Technically there are more, but for right now, let’s put them in one. You have Men, which are in two categories: the Low Men of the Southlands and the High Men of Númenor. You have the Dwarves and the Harfoots,” McCreary said. “So these are five different sounds that required five different musical languages. I used orchestra and choir to form the background layer of the entire score, but I have instruments that are specific to all five of these cultures. That means each culture has an anthem.”
The Dwarves have “Khazad-dûm,” the Harfoots have “Harfoot Life,” and so on. For any character who represents the status quo of a given culture, the culture’s anthem comes into play. For example, when we meet King Durin, he doesn’t have a theme separate from “Khazad-dûm” because he is the personification of Dwarven tradition.
But not everyone follows tradition. McCreary explained, “There’s always a character that’s an outsider that doesn’t belong or doesn’t fit in that realm. Prince Durin, Nori, Elendil and Isildur, and others are outside the norm. That means their theme needs to sound like it fits.”
The characters taking steps towards different paths have themes that tie to their culture’s anthems but have their own unique markers.
Prince Durin IV, for example, is one of those outsiders. The latest episode of The Rings of Power featured his search for an incomparable metal, something of which his father doesn’t approve.
“When you hear Prince Durin’s music, you know he’s a Dwarf,” McCreary said. “There are little clues in there that tell you he’s a Dwarf, but there’s also obvious implications he’s not like his father, he’s not like the other Dwarves. There’s a layer of jovial, almost jaunty personality; and then there’s this depth and an emotional quality to his melody that is not present in the anthemic, patriotic march of ‘Khazad-dûm’.”
Bronwyn and Arondir
Bronwyn and Arondir have exchanged a number of longing glances. Relationships between humans and elves are challenging, what with one half being immortal. But that doesn’t stop the yearning between this pair.
“That was the first theme that I wrote,” McCreary recalled. “Meaning, of all the different character themes, the one I thought would be my way into Lord of the Rings was theirs. So I wrote them this love theme that I wanted to fill with yearning and attraction, but also sadness. And then I wrote all the other themes. I wrote 15 others, and realized that the Arondir and Bronwyn theme wasn’t good enough.”
McCreary revisited the theme and added in influences from melodic music he liked. He cited Dmitri Shostakovich and Samuel Barber. And in cinematic terms, he went back to Nino Rota’s “Romeo and Juliet” and themes John Williams wrote. “These are all melodies that I think of for tragic romance. You want a melody that has these leaps, these upward moving lines,” McCreary, making upward gestures with his arms. “These repeated upward lines tell the listener there’s an aspirational quality, there’s a yearning. It’s like Romeo looking up at Juliet. That upward leap makes me feel like there’s a sense of longing there.”
Nori Brandyfoot isn’t like the other Harfoots. She looks outside of their nomadic, insular life towards the bigger world. Her theme reflects that.
“If you look at ‘Harfoot Life,’ it’s quirky, it’s off kilter, it’s in 11/8. It’s like a cart wheel that has a bump in it, and it’s just rolling along. Bagpipes, penny whistle, and African balafons. There’s a very unique sound,” McCreary said.
“When we get to Nori’s theme, all those elements are there, except it’s in 6/8. The broken wheel is fixed,” he continued. “The Celtic instruments are moved to the forefront. The mallet instruments are moved to the back. And her melody, instead of weaving along these little intervals, has these big leaps. Why? Because she is the one Harfoot that is looking outward. She’s looking upward. It tells you she is our character that is not going to be satisfied living a regular Harfoot life.”
We still aren’t entirely certain about Halbrand’s history, but we do know he’s from the Southlands. He might be their ruler. For McCreary, he wanted to preserve mystery but he wanted to make clear to the audience what is clear to Galadriel at the end of the second episode: Halbrand is of the Southlands.
“He is a displaced person. We know he’s very brave. He’s got a mysterious past, but we know he comes from the Southlands,” McCreary affirmed. “And in a way it is the most obvious theme in the show, because his theme and the Southlands theme are basically identical.”
To connect to The Lord of the Rings and the music Howard Shore wrote for the Low Men in the Third Age of Middle-earth, McCreary used the same instrument, a Hardanger fiddle. It was the sound of Rohan in the film trilogy. “Howard Shore wrote a different theme and he was using the instrument in a higher register, and I’m also doubling it with a Nordic instrument called a nyckelharpa, but nevertheless, the similarity is there.” McCreary said. “The sound of Low Men in Middle-earth is the resonant reedy tones of the Hardanger fiddle, and I’ve added the nyckelharpa, both of which come from Northern Europe and Nordic folk traditions.”
Galadriel is the outlier for the Elven culture. She’s driven by a desire for justice and maybe even a desire for revenge. “What’s interesting about her theme is that it has a beautiful upward leap in it. You notice many of my heroic themes start with this upward motion. In the case of Galadriel, this minor 7th. No one else’s theme has that exact interval, so you know in two notes that it’s her,” McCreary said, singing the first two notes (McCreary makes sure the first two notes in every theme are distinct and identifiable).
The composer described Galadriel’s theme as having an aggressive propulsion that moves forward, representing her desire to find Sauron. He said, “There are places where her moder[ato] blurs with Sauron’s theme. Sauron’s theme starts off also with a moder [McCreary sings]. And there are places where I just blur them together, or you’ll hear Sauron’s theme as a moder because Galadriel’s just thinking about him, and her theme will sit on top of it. In a way, it’s like she’s so driven by her quest to find him that her theme and his theme almost have a correlation that I’ve designed to be similar.”
This was a theme McCreary struggled with. With some guidance from The Rings of Power showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay, McCreary revisited Elrond’s character theme by discussing what Elrond’s arc would be over the season.
“The most important step is I really had to erase from my memories Hugo Weaving’s depiction from the films,” McCreary explained. “He is such an imposing, wise, authority figure. He is so authoritative that I just associate the word Elrond with all of those traits. And that’s really not the character that we meet in The Rings of Power. He will become that. He’s an optimist, he’s a politician, a diplomat, and most importantly, he’s an outsider. His father and his brother are legendary and successful in ways that almost defy description. And yet here he is, half-elven, not quite fitting in the world that he has chosen.”
Elrond may be an Elf trying to find his path, but he’s not quite the outsider when it comes Elven culture. “When we cut wide and see Lindon, the home of the High Elves in the first episode, it is Elrond’s theme we are hearing,” McCreary said. “In his scene at the end of that episode where he’s speaking with Gil-galad, it’s also Elrond’s theme. That’s not to say that Elrond is the ultimate prototypical Elf; far from it. It just means that for this season and these early episodes, I wanted us to wrap our brains around who Elrond is.”
McCreary wanted to capture Elrond’s innocence, naïveté, and optimism. He used a weaving quality in Elrond’s theme. He said, “It starts in a major key, and then three chords later, it pivots back around to where it started in a minor key. It really doesn’t quite know whether it’s happy or sad, and I love that quality about it.”
A mysterious figure who crashes to Middle-earth from a comet in the sky, the Stranger is a unknown quantity. His theme reflects that. “The Stranger does not share any musical traits with any specific [Rings of Power] culture,” McCreary noted. “His theme always starts off with these Balinese gamelan ensemble tones that are only used with his theme. It doesn’t sound like anywhere on Middle-earth, because we don’t know where he’s from. He’s mysterious.”
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power soundtrack is available wherever you buy music. Amazon Music releases episodic albums weekly.