The tin whistle that introduces the idyllic Shire, the Hardanger fiddle that sweeps over the plains of Rohan, the swelling strings that herald the lighting of Gondor’s beacons—these are just a few of the sounds that are instantly recognizable to fans of Howard Shore’s beloved music from the Lord of the Rings. Since the 2001 premiere of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in Peter Jackson’s adaptations of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, Shore has won three Grammy Awards and three Academy Awards for his work on these scores—a nearly four-year undertaking that resulted in 11 hours of music for symphony orchestra and chorus. To this day, live performances of Shore’s music draw enthusiastic audiences around the world.
At Shore’s invitation, Doug Adams—a Chicago-based author and musicologist—observed, documented, analyzed, and eventually illuminated the composer’s work in a 400-page book titled The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films (Alfred Music). Published in 2010 after nearly a decade of research, the beautifully illustrated volume includes detailed descriptions of the 90-plus musical themes that Shore composed for the films, narrative analysis that walks the reader through all three scores, translations of choral texts, behind-the-scenes perspectives on Shore’s creative process, and a CD featuring never-before-released music.
With the 20th anniversary of the trilogy’s final film, The Return of the King, approaching in December 2023, I spoke with Adams about the enduring appeal of these scores and his experiences collaborating with Shore. A sought-after expert on this music, Adams has traveled the U.S. and Europe for speaking engagements at “live to projection” concerts, which feature an orchestra, chorus, and soloists performing the score while the film is screened onstage. When ensembles were on hiatus during the early months of the pandemic, Adams participated in a series of music commentaries on the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit films, which were livestreamed on the popular fan site TheOneRing.net.
As he recounted during our conversation, Adams began writing for the magazine Film Score Monthly as an undergraduate music major, and his first interview with Shore was about the 1997 movie Cop Land. “With the Chicago temperament and the Toronto temperament, we were on the same page—very polite and apologizing to each other throughout the entire interview,” said Adams of his instant rapport with the Canadian composer. The interviews with Shore kept coming, and “we got on very friendly terms. He’d call sometimes and get my parents on the phone. It was like he was Uncle Howard.”
In May 2001, shortly after the news broke that Shore was the composer for the Lord of the Rings films, he asked Adams if he would want to be involved in some way. “I was dreaming very small but still very excited,” Adams recalled. Months went by, and in October, an unexpected package from Abbey Road Studios arrived at his home—the score for The Fellowship of the Ring with a card that read, “For your ears only.”
Adams was “entranced” as soon as he listened. Shore had been a surprising choice for these films, since he was known not for fantasy epics but for working with directors such as David Cronenberg, Martin Scorsese, and Tim Burton. “If you think of the composers that people were predicting would get it, we all kind of pictured this late Romantic—late 1800s, early 1900s—type of sound, and what Howard had done was something so different,” he said. “It was incredibly compelling.”
Soon after, Adams began to visit Shore’s studio in New York, where he met the music production team, studied the scores, and recorded commentary with the composer. In 2003, he attended the recording sessions for The Return of the King. By this time, “we had so much information, it was kind of like, ‘Well, it has to be a book,’” he recalled. After several more years of research, writing, and experimentation with different formats, The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films finally came to fruition.
In a book as meticulous and ambitious in scope as the scores themselves, perhaps the most impressive element is the way Adams balances accessibility with in-depth analysis, appealing to readers with or without prior musical knowledge. “You can talk about abstract music stuff and it’s interesting to musicians, but as soon as you tie it to a character or an event, it’s storytelling, and people understand it,” he explained. “It engages your attention to want to figure out the technicalities of it.”
There are countless details to dig into, for those who are so inclined. Shore structured the Lord of the Rings scores around dozens of leitmotifs, which are recurring musical devices that each represent a certain element of the story—in this case, Middle-earth’s cultures, locations, characters, and even objects (the One Ring has four distinct themes). Throughout the trilogy, these leitmotifs develop, expand, and overlap as the hobbits encounter new friends and foes on their perilous quest.
“I think there was a bit of freedom in the knowledge that Tolkien properties tend to have an evergreen quality to them,” said Adams. “People come back and keep looking at them, so to keep writing something as musically complex as the stories are literarily complex—I think [Shore] felt freedom that way.”
The composer also incorporated Tolkien’s invented languages into the scores through passages for full chorus and vocal soloists. The film’s cowriters, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, along with David Salo—an expert on Tolkien languages—collaborated to create lyrics that feature the Elvish languages of Sindarin and Quenya, the Dwarves’ Khuzdul, Old English and Adûnaic from the race of men, and Sauron’s Black Speech. Adams’s book includes translations for all the lyrics, which are a mix of verbatim Tolkien texts, adaptations, and original works inspired by his writing style.
“I think [Shore] knew from the outset that he wanted a choral element in these scores,” Adams explained. “The filmmakers knew that in adapting these stories, you’d have to cut out some of the prose; some of it isn’t really deliverable as lines. For the real Tolkien die-hards who are going to look under the hood of everything, it was a way to get that back into the films.”
The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films: A Comprehensive Account of Howard Shore’s Scores by Doug Adams
Alfred Music, book and CD, 401 pp., $59.95
Reflecting on the abiding popularity of Tolkien’s books, Jackson’s films, and Shore’s music, Adams noted that they combine masterful world-building with poignant storytelling. “The Lord of the Rings is always appealing to the next generation, but the generations that have held it before never quite give it up. It’s an interesting mirror because as we continue to get older, that story is exactly where it was,” he said. “Fables are like that. They feel like they should be a young person’s story, and maybe on the surface they are, but then you get into it and there’s a lot of truth in it that we understand as adults. Howard got all of that into the music.”
For Adams, his memories of working on The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films will always be intertwined with his own journey through early adulthood—traveling to new places, meeting his wife, buying a home, and “having Howard around as an incredible mentor to take me into the world of music.”
“The Lord of the Rings is, in a lot of ways, a story of growing up, and it was very much that time in my life too,” he said. “As this project grew up and went out into the world, so did I.”