Each December between 2001 and 2003, Tolkien fans and film lovers alike flocked to theaters to see The Lord of the Rings films. Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s work invited audiences to immerse themselves in the landscapes and peoples of Middle-earth. Howard Shore’s film music became integral to that process and consequently garnered critical attention. Many have noted Shore’s adoption of musical techniques used in Romantic opera, especially his predilection for Wagnerian leitmotifs. Yet Shore scores Middle-earth in a far more nuanced manner than just the adoption of the leitmotif. He distinguishes entire peoples of Middle-earth through entire systems of harmony.

In fact, Shore’s score parallels an ordered triple of races (Hobbits, Men, and Elves) with an ordered triple of harmonic accompaniment (major-minor diatonic, modal diatonic, and nondiatonic [chromatic mediants]). Moreover, analysis of each race in this series places them on a continuum of familiar to unfamiliar, from ordinary to fantastical, derived from associativity codified in the Romantic era. I first trace the associativity of each harmonic system to developments in the nineteenth century and then locate their correlates in the textual and cinematic depictions of each race, as well as their leitmotifs. For example, tonality’s association with normativity parallels the Hobbits, the familiar. Next, the revitalization of modes as expressive deviations from tonality and as markers of the past suggests how Men reflect both familiarity and unfamiliarity. Finally, composers often have used mediant progressions to summon the fantastical, which parallels music of the Elves, the unfamiliar.

Howard Shore’s compartmentalization of harmony in The Lord of the Rings invites close investigation as to how film scores can continue several nineteenth-century traditions and can assist in our understanding of entire peoples in the fantasy genre.

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