The Lord of the Rings: Episode 102

In this series of blogs, I explore the musical details of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. For a comprehensive introduction to my approach and my creative experience, start with my introductory four-part “Appendices:” Part 1 “Journey to Middle-earth,” Part 2 “Themes of Middle-earth,” Part 3 “Forming a Fellowship,” and Part 4 “There and Back Again.” I also blogged about scoring episode 101.


SPOILERS AHEAD: In the first episode of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, “A Shadow of the Past,” the score introduced a number of significant musical themes. Over the course of the next two episodes the music will continue to expand as the narrative introduces new characters, locations, and story arcs. “Adrift” brings to the score several significant musical themes and cultural styles that will be central to the story moving forward.


Picking up immediately after the shocking conclusion of the first episode, Nori Brandyfoot, the ever-curious young Harfoot is perched at the edge of a fiery crater. There before her, barely alive, lays The Stranger, a mysterious man who seemingly fell from the stars in a meteorite. Nori decides to help him. All of their subsequent scenes are underscored with wistful threads of the Nori Theme, intertwined with a distinctly new sound, The Stranger’s Theme.

Nori and Poppy do not know from where The Stranger originates; even he does not know. I wanted to highlight this mystery with the presence of a Balinese gamelan ensemble playing a hypnotic ostinato, a repeating musical pattern. (A gamelan ensemble plays in unique non-Western scales, but for this theme each note has been painstakingly retuned digitally to approximate the twelve-tone scale of typical orchestral music.) For this series, this distinct musical sound is wholly unique to The Stranger,  occurring nowhere else in the score. These gamelan tones instantly imbue his theme with a sense of being alien, far outside the cultural spaces of Middle-earth already established in the music. 

I always strive to design thematic melodies with unique first intervals. The more significant the theme, the rarer the first interval. In this regard, The Stranger’s Theme shines; beginning with a major seventh, it has the most far-reaching first interval of all the score’s themes. (When I was a freshman at the USC School of Music, my theory teacher taught intervals by referencing famous songs and film score themes. Popular melodies beginning with a major seventh are so rare that our teacher could not find an example of one, instead instructing us to imagine “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which starts with an octave, and ignore the melody’s second note. I hope I have written a melody here that might help theory students learn this gorgeous interval in the future!)

In addition to a distinct opening interval, The Stranger’s Theme has a unique harmonic thumbprint. The ethereal gamelan bell tones form a recurring pattern, The Stranger’s Ostinato.

This haunting pattern spells out two chords that function as chromatic mediants; these are distantly related minor chords that normally don’t occur together, but share a single common tone. For example, The Stranger’s Theme often begins with a pattern in G minor and B minor, chords that can pivot elegantly across the shared D natural in both. This harmonic progression creates a heightened sense of mystery, drama, and even danger, but the melody weaves across their chords’ common tones, tying them together like laces in a shoe.

The Stranger’s Theme also pushes the score further into French impressionist colors. The Stranger’s scenes are often supported with trilling strings filling out impressionistic harmonies, gently arpeggiating harp, and fluttering woodwind solos, inspired by Debussy and Ravel. In one particularly memorable moment, a flute solo flickers to brilliant life after Nori and Poppy have moved The Stranger to a safe location, and the solo returns later when he magically surrounds himself with a constellation of fireflies. 

All of these musical attributes – the gamelan color, the major seventh leap, the chromatic mediant harmony, the impressionist colors – combine to make The Stranger’s Theme one of the most memorable in the entire score. This theme actually marked the first music of the series ever released to the public, because I featured it in the title reveal trailer that debuted nine months before the launch of the series. It was also teased briefly in the climactic shots of the first episode.


Perhaps the most striking sequence in “Adrift” is Elrond’s entrance into the Dwarven city of Khazad-dûm. In Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the Dwarven city is portrayed  as the gloomy Mines of Moria. But in The Rings of Power this location is vibrant and alive, filled with light and life. This moment introduces a new anthemic theme, and a new cultural language for the score.

First, the score offers a march-like ostinato in the low strings and low woodwinds, energized by thudding taiko drums, and punctuated by the reverberant clang of metal beaters striking anvils to evoke pickaxes against stone. This is the Khazad-dûm Ostinato.

The relentless energy in this mechanical ostinato tells the listener that this city is a capital of industry, and the Dwarves are at the height of their power. Supported by trombones, the choral tenors and basses then enter singing an anthemic melody, our Khazad-dûm Theme.

The men sing in Khuzdul, Tolkien’s language for the Dwarves, and one of five Tolkienian fictional languages sung in the score for The Rings of Power. The text of their song underscores their pride in their homeland.

Gabilgathol muzupta azan
Mêshard baruk khazad
Gabilgathol muzupta azan
Kibil zâram-u dahaqh
Gabilân imâgru â uzbad-u baraz khuzdul bark
Gabilgathol muzupta azan
Khuzdul kibil zâram-u dahaqh

Great fortress, never dark
Promise, axe of the Dwarves
Great fortress, never dark
Silver pool of centuries
Great river, that lord of red Dwarvish axe
Great fortress, never dark
Dwarvish silver pool of centuries

During his career, Tolkien created large vocabularies for two Elven languages, Quenya and Sindarin. For vocal passages in these languages, I was able to write music with wide-ranging lyrics. For other languages, however, Tolkien left a relatively short lexicon of established words, including the Dwarven language of Khuzdul, The Númenórean language of Adûnaic, and Sauron’s language of Black Speech. Fortunately, I feel that choral and vocal music does not need a lengthy, complex text to be emotionally effective. When writing cues for The Rings of Power in these more limited languages, I found poetic ways of using words from Tolkien’s lexicon to impactful dramatic effect.

With a score as musically diverse as The Rings of Power, inevitably, some themes will emerge from my brain more fully-formed than others. The Khazad-dûm Theme was perhaps my most direct path from inspiration to final recording. Most of the time, scoring a visual medium involves a healthy process of drafting and revision. But my first demo for this scene never went through any subsequent changes. Occasionally, a musical idea clicks into place on the first try. (Or maybe I’m just a Dwarf in spirit!)

After jaw-dropping first glimpses of Khazad-dûm, Elrond is escorted into a chamber where he must face Prince Durin IV in the Rite of Sigin-tarâg, a contest of strength. These scenes tease out statements of the Elrond Theme with strands of a new theme, one that comes to the forefront after Elrond loses the contest. Later, as Elrond and Durin ride the lift upward, the true source of Durin’s ire becomes clear – he is upset that Elrond had disappeared from his life for over twenty years. At this revelation, the orchestral celli clearly define his melody that had been hinted at during the competition, the Durin Theme.

Durin takes Elrond to meet his wife Disa. Here, the score kicks into a jaunty oom-pah accompaniment built from a Renaissance instrument called a viola da gamba (provided by the brilliant Malachai Bandy), combined with hammered dulcimer and acoustic 12-string guitars, all before Eric Byers’ cello and Paul Cartwright’s fiddle provide an upbeat performance of Durin’s Theme.

This cue is among the most light-hearted of the score, representing the lively side of Dwarven culture. However, this scene is flanked on either side by truly emotional statements of Durin’s Theme.

Prince Durin, like the Elf, Galadriel and the Harfoot, Nori, is an outlier character, someone who doesn’t quite fit into their respective society.  Each of these character themes acknowledges their cultural heritage by sharing iconic musical traits, but each also branch off into unique variations, setting them apart from their peers. So too does the wide emotional range in Prince Durin’s theme tell us there is more to him than his peers. Prince Durin’s Theme can be jovial and comedic, and pivot instantly to moods more somber and nostalgic. The combination of comedy and emotional depth in Durin’s Theme helps the audience understand his connection with Elrond, one that will lead Prince Durin into inevitable conflict with his father, King Durin III. This musical range is only possible thanks to the brilliantly dynamic performance brought to the character by Owain Arthur.

Towards the end of the episode, King Durin III is introduced, played with stoic gravity by Peter Mullan (a brilliant actor with a long and storied career, who burned a place into my memory with only a handful of lines in Braveheart, most notably “I’m not dying for these bastards!”). In this enigmatic scene, as King Durin descends the stairs to meet with his son, low-voiced bassoons, trombones, and celli offer a regal, stern rendition of his iconic Khazad-dûm melody. This shot makes clear that, though the Khazad-dûm Theme represents the broader culture, it will also connect with King Durin personally, as the head of state.

King and Prince walk toward a mysterious wooden chest, open it and a strange blue aura lights their faces.  The Dwarves are indeed hiding something from Elrond.

The musical reflection of this cryptic moment is highlighted with ethereal strings, choral voices, and a distinct chord progression that echoes “Where the Shadows Lie,” music that was teased through the first episode and featured in its end credits. The true narrative significance of this enigmatic theme has yet to be made clear. (Clever fans on social media, I noticed, began piecing together the various musical clues even as early as this episode’s streaming.)


The last new theme introduced in “Adrift” isn’t technically a new theme at all. After leaping from the boat taking her to the blessed realm, Galadriel finds herself adrift at sea, and is mercifully rescued by a group of humans on a makeshift raft, who have themselves barely escaped calamity. Here, she meets a man named Halbrand, and a subtle Hardanger fiddle sneaks into the score playing The Halbrand Theme.

If this theme sounds familiar, that is because it has already been heard, several times over, in the previous episode, as the Southlands Theme. Here, with Halbrand, it is given new depth. Before the episode ends, we will learn that he is a Southlander, one who escaped calamity. I wanted to make sure that audiences linked his character with this place.

With other outlier characters, such as Galadriel, Elrond, Durin, and Nori, I strove to write a separate theme, distinct from their cultural theme. However, in the case of Halbrand, I chose not to, instead allowing his personal theme and the theme for his culture to be one and the same. This shared theme implies he is a ‘head of state’ character, like King Durin, or Sadoc Burrows, supporting the revelation that Halbrand might be descended from a line of kings. This story thread will be teased in this episode, and made clear in the next. (There is another reason I shared Halbrand’s Theme with the Southlands Theme, and I will explore this much more in a later blog.)

The ragged band of survivors is attacked by a sea serpent, referred to by one as “The Worm.” This challenging sequence was my first full-length action scene in the show, and I spent the better part of a week on it, crafting a furious 3/4 horror ostinato, driven by snap pizzicatos in the strings, searing brass, blasting choral clusters, and ripping woodwinds. My favorite moments in the sequence were when Halbrand struggles to separate his half of the raft, and then the climactic moments when Galadriel swims away, both of which supported the action and also felt like the classic, old school Hollywood adventure scores I grew up with.

I was exhausted when I was done writing this sequence, which only added up to about two minutes of action. However, I had set the template for my desired level of complexity and layering in action cues for The Rings of Power, and my fate had been sealed. This was by no means the largest action scene in the show. Quite the contrary. I knew that in the next episode, I faced a lengthy battle with Orcs and that in episode six I would score a battle spanning the majority of the episode. Given how much energy I just expended scoring the worm sequence, I was nervous about how I could sustain my creative, mental, and physical energy over the next six months. Still, now was not the time to look ahead. For now, I refocused my energy into finishing “Adrit.”

After the sea serpent attack, Galadriel and Halbrand alone survive, clinging to a pitiful raft. Galadriel is intrigued by his revelation that he was chased from his homeland by her sworn enemies, the Orcs. The musical connection between Halbrand and the Southlands is made explicitly clear later in the episode, in the moment when Galadriel asks him if he will tell her where the enemy is. When at last, he responds, “The Southlands,” this shared musical theme for his character, his land, and his people, bursts on to the soundtrack. As they did with the Southlands Theme, Erik Rydvall’s nyckelharpa and Olav Luksengård Mjelva’s Hardanger fiddle bring their signature sound to the Halbrand Theme.

In one of the episode’s most memorable moments, Galadriel and Halbrand are caught in a terrible storm in the Sundering Seas. Galadriel, knocked unconscious, falls into the sea. As she sinks to a watery grave, soprano Sladja Raicevic sings a haunting rendition of Galadriel’s Theme. When Halbrand dives in to rescue her, the Southlands Theme resonates. The instrumentation sits atop a lush new harmonic chord progression, with strings and regal brass. Thus, musically, the audience senses bravery and nobility beneath Halbrand’s rough exterior. This richer variation will evolve as the audience learns more about the people of The Southlands, and Halbrand himself.


In addition to establishing new thematic material, the score to “Adrift” also develops and expands other themes previously introduced in the first episode.

Bronwyn and Arondir follow the trail of destruction in the village of Hordern to mysterious underground tunnels. Before Arondir plunges in to discover the source of this threat, he and Bronwyn share a brief moment of connection during which an elegant English horn solo quotes their romantic Bronwyn and Arondir Theme.

From there, they separate and each confronts darkness. Arondir plunges into foreboding tunnels to face what awaits him there. Bronwyn and her son, Theo, confront a hideous orc in their home. For both sequences, I further explored my favorite toolbox of modern horror orchestral textures, including dissonant choir drones, glissing strings, muted brass, and fluttering overblown woodwinds. These sequences also feature a variety of strange bone flutes and shells, teasing the introduction of yet another musical theme – one for the evil Orcs.

The presence of evil is further underlined in “Adrift” with prominent quotations of the Sauron Theme. First, a furious rendition underscores Bronwyn’s panicked run to Waldreg’s nearby tavern in the village of Tirharad. Later, the Sauron theme returns to support Theo’s chilling discovery that the mysterious sword hilt he found has magical bloodthirst. Amid this awful mayhem, as dozens of peasants flee to the watchtower of Ostirith, low choir singers belt out the Sauron Theme melody, providing a soundscape of impending doom.

Even after two hours of dense, intense storytelling, The Rings of Power has yet to introduce two major musical cultures. Both were teased in the score to “Adrift,” notably in the enigmatic final moments of the episode, where exotic new instruments highlight a mysterious figure looming over Galadriel and Halbrand on their raft. New themes, for the Orcs, and for the High Men of Númenor, will be showcased in the next episode.

Bear McCreary



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