How Bear McCreary Built the Musical Themes of Rings of Power

How Bear McCreary Built the Musical Themes of Rings of Power

Crank those horns!
Photo: Courtesy of Prime Video

In the sixth episode of The Rings of Power, a succession of story lines intersect in a fight scene between various factions of humans and elves and orcs. If you decided to close your eyes, you could probably follow the events of the sequence just by listening to the big, orchestral score: Here’s the melody associated with Arondir in the horns, followed by the entrance of Isildur in a separate riff. “Then Galadriel comes charging in and you hear her theme,” says composer Bear McCreary, describing the scene enthusiastically and indicating the motion of the different factions with his hands. “Then there’s Adar’s theme, the chanting orc vocals — all these pieces come together.”

In McCreary’s estimation, he composed 17 central themes for the first season of The Rings of Power, bits of music associated with the primary characters and locations integral to major events in the Second Age of Middle-earth. Those themes recur throughout the series in different orchestrations and contexts, interlaced with music developed for specific situations. When Galadriel charges after Adar on her horse in that battle sequence, for instance, McCreary decided not to use her theme or his, but a new bit of intense choral music he might reuse for other high-stakes clashes down the line. The process, as McCreary describes it, is a bit like a crossword puzzle, determining what might be appropriate for each character while fitting in with the rest of the score and, more subtly, evoking elements of the music from Peter Jackson’s film series, written by Howard Shore (who also composed Rings of Power‘s theme music).

Many of the themes for the main characters on The Rings of Power are written to purposefully contrast with the context they come from. For the elves, for instance, McCreary rendered the music of Valinor, their homeland across the seas, with an ethereal choral ostinato. But Galadriel, who goes against the elven court’s wishes and continues her search for Sauron, has a theme built around a reaching minor seventh followed by a melody that descends, rises, and falls again. That gives her the sense of being a searcher, and to some audience member’s ears (okay, specifically mine), it might even sound a bit like the theme for the One Ring that Howard Shore wrote for the films, which has a similar turning rise and fall. “Legally, I cannot quote anything from the New Line films,” McCreary said. “But it makes me happy that you said that. Her arc in Rings of Power is about her becoming the presence she is in Fellowship of the Ring, and she is connected to Sauron in that way.” And if you’re on the hunt for Easter eggs within the Rings of Power score, McCreary adds that he did write an overt “ring theme” specifically for the show, and though it doesn’t have its own track on the soundtrack, “you have already heard it, several times.”

The hardest theme for McCreary to write for the show was for Elrond, who’s torn between his friendship with Durin IV the dwarf prince and the expectations of the elvish court. Initially, he tried music that would’ve been a good fit for the authority figure the character becomes later in life, but after notes from the showrunners, realized he needed something with less certainty. (“Wouldn’t be the only time my fandom would bite me in the ass,” McCreary joked.) The theme he settled on, now some of his favorite music in the series, opts for a lilting woodwind and string melody that captures Elrond’s conflicted nature. (Elrond is a half-elven orphan; his brother opted to be human and establish Númenor while his parents are off in Valinor, where his father’s a star and his mother can fly like a bird … there’s a lot to live up to.)

Similarly, there’s a streak of rebellion in his pal Durin IV’s music, a stately march that has less of the propulsive clamor of the music associated with his homeland of Khazad-dûm and his father. “All these companies have outlier characters,” McCreary said. “Their themes are engineered to be built from the same instruments of their culture, but lean away from them. They’re more melodic, have more yearning, and something else in them that their society doesn’t have.”

Another clear contrast between a society and an individual comes between the Harfoot theme, below, and their outlier Nori Brandyfoot’s more melodic iteration, above. But the instrumentation at play here is interesting: “If you were to ask a general audience what theme they remember from Peter Jackson’s films, it’s Howard’s Shire theme,” McCreary said. “It has this Celtic influence, but it’s very British in a Ralph Vaughan Williams sort of way. The Harfoots, one day, will settle on a place called the Shire, but for now they’re nomads. I wanted to write music that could evolve into that, that had a proto-British folk vibe.”

Their music has bagpipes and penny whistles, combined with a lot of mallet and West African balafon percussion. “My thought was that this is the sound of nature,” McCreary said. “As they’re wandering through the woods, they might pick up logs and pieces of wood to make mallets out of. When they stop wandering, they’ll settle in and their music will become more orchestral. I’m passing the baton to Howard.”

The mysterious man known as the Stranger falls out of the sky into Nori’s Harfoot life, and so far, The Rings of Power isn’t telling you much about him. Is he good? Is he evil? Is he a wizard? Might he be Sauron? His music also leaves things open to interpretation harmonically. “It is both major and minor, both heroic and twisted,” McCreary said. His melody opens with a major seventh, a wide open interval that’s rarely used in popular music, and the pattern you hear in the background is built with tones from a gamelan ensemble, an Indonesian percussion instrument. “That sort of tells you … nothing,” McCreary said with a hint of glee. “There’s no hint to how he’ll fit into any other faction on the show. He’s otherworldly in a literal sense.”

Take that in contrast with the music for Halbrand, whom Galadriel meets on a raft off in the middle of the ocean. His music is very closely associated with his homeland, the Southlands, which is under attack in the first season. “The instant you see him, you hear the nickel harp associated with the Southlands,” McCreary said. “If you’re really thinking about it, well, you might even wonder, Why is the composer going to great lengths to tell me this? It heightens the drama.” (Get your tinfoil-hat theories about Halbrand going.)

In the era of The Rings of PowerNúmenor is the pinnacle of human civilization, a sort of Atlantis off in the ocean, but it’s not around by the time of the Lord of the Rings series, because, well, do you know what happens to Atlantis? In providing the music for the locale, McCreary knew that while audiences might expect certain styles of music aligned with what Howard Shore wrote for the films, this would have to be something new. “If the events of the books and films were taking place now, then Númenor at its height is as far from our time as ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Mesopotamia,” McCreary said. “So I wanted its music to sound like the ancient empires of our world probably sounded.”

He orchestrated the music of Númenor with Middle Eastern frame drums, Indian dhol drums, Armenian duduk woodwinds, and a Turkish yaylı tambur string instrument combined with a traditional European orchestra heavy on the brass section. “It’s Babylon meets Camelot, because there’s an Arthurian legend aspect to this,” McCreary said. “It also creates a color that, hopefully, if a future fan starts with The Rings of Power and then watches the films, they will notice the absence of in the Howard Shore score. It went extinct.”

Flip to a random page in one of Tolkien’s books and there’s a good chance you land on a song. The man loved to write lyrics into his works; The Rings of Power, therefore, has its own songs too. The melody of Nori’s song, “This Wandering Day,” sung by Megan Richards, was written before McCreary was hired, with the showrunners working with a group called Plan 9, which wrote songs for Peter Jackson’s films; McCreary then arranged and orchestrated the song for the score. JD Payne, one of the showrunners, wrote the lyrics for that, as well as all the other lyrics in the score — “He’s very lyrically minded,” McCreary said — and McCreary wrote the melody for the song the elves sing on the boat to Valinor, as well as the music for Princess Disa’s “Plea to the Rocks,” sung by Sophia Nomvete. That was recorded live on set, with the dwarven accompaniment arranged around it.

In many places in the score, choral music uses the languages ​​Tolkien invented in his writings. “Anytime you’re hearing text in the choir, a shocking percentage of the run time of the show, that text is in the appropriate language,” McCreary said. They used a total of six languages, counting English, as well as the elven languages ​​Quenya and Sindarin, the dwarven Khuzdul, Númenorian Adûnaic, and the black speech of Mordor in the chanting associated with Sauron.

For that theme, McCreary took words from the poem associated with the One Ring, since there aren’t many instances of Tolkien providing a lexicon in the black speech. “Leith McPhearson, the dialect coach, made a recording of every cue for the choir, and they would listen on their headphones and learn it line by line,” McCreary said, joking that he should release a meditation album of her reciting every cue in the score precisely as it should sound. “The choir, because of NDAs and secrecy, didn’t even know what they were saying. Once we got to the first utterance of Sauron’s theme and they listened to Leith saying it, they were like, ‘We know what this has to be.’ Even though I had notated ‘piano’ in the music, once they started singing it, it felt ten times louder, and so evil,” McCreary said. “In the source material, it’s implied that when you speak in black speech, an evil cloud fills the room. And that happened!”

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