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Composer Bear McCreary Writes About Parallel Themes in ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’

Here’s something interesting to share. We have an interview coming soon with composer Bear McCreary for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Watch out for that on the site in the coming days, but in the meantime, we have McCreary in his own words. Below, you’ll see him write about the parallel musical themes he crafted for the show. It’s a good read, and stay tuned for our interview with him very soon!

Give this a read:


In the summer of 2021, I began scoring The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. In my original creative video conference with the showrunners discussing the premiere episode, I had one crucial question. “Where is Sauron?” That was the tightly guarded secret of the season finale, but the producers recognized my need for a complete understanding of the entire story.  They sent me the script to the final episode, “Alloyed.” My jaw dropped to read this episode, one packed with tension, drama, and revelation. I knew then, even before I had written a note of music, that I would need to tailor certain musical themes specifically for the shocking twist. 

I began this massive project by generating seventeen musical themes to be incorporated into the tapestry of the score. Each of these would support the branching narrative arcs for the major characters, and their cultures. My chief priority was to ensure that each theme was musically distinct from all the others so that each evoked its own emotional signature for the audience. To achieve this, I focused on three musical traits: musical colors, narrative intent, and musical intervals. 

Musical Colors: If a theme were performed by a signature instrumental or vocal sound, and that sound did not appear anywhere else in the score, the theme’s sound would stand apart. 

Narrative Intent: I wanted to be clear on the narrative intention for every theme. Each character’s theme should tell the listener how that character fits (or not) into their respective society.

Musical Intervals: I strove to create a unique interval between each theme’s first and second note, so listeners would be able to identify that theme in only two notes. 

In my second The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power blog entry, “Themes of Middle-earth,” I explored these traits and this creative process in detail, as well as the lengths I went to keep those themes differentiated. But, when I published that blog entry in late September, I could not be altogether forthcoming with my readers. I knew crucial story information that the audience did not yet. Now that “Alloyed,” the season finale has streamed, I can tell the truth of my process. In fact, I spent a massive amount of creative energy to ensure that two particular themes echoed one another. I needed to craft music that would reflect the link between the Halbrand Theme and the Sauron Theme. In the finale, these characters are revealed to be one and the same.

With this twist coming late in the season, their entanglement had to be a subtle musical thread that tied them together. Ideally, this thread would function subliminally for the majority of the audience – and then feel inevitable and obvious by the end. In short, these two themes needed to portray a secret relationship. 

I wanted to forge a musical connection between Halbrand and Sauron that would resonate on a purely emotional level for millions of viewers around the world. If it were too obvious, the music would spoil the dramatic surprise that had been so carefully crafted by the showrunners. However, if the musical link between Halbrand and Sauron were too subtle, it would be lost on the audience entirely. Forging this connection was not an intellectual exercise in music theory, but a crucial narrative device to guide the audience through the story. An inspiring undertaking, yes, but also terrifying.

As I first sketched the various themes, I worked on Halbrand’s and Sauron’s simultaneously. I felt they should share no more than each theme’s first five notes. (These introductory notes are the ones the audience hears most often and would resonate.) My goal was to craft two phrases that would share signature qualities, without being too obviously connected. This proved to be a tremendous challenge. 

I could not use the same musical colors. Instrumentation would make it far too obvious. For example, if both Halbrand’s Theme and Sauron’s Theme featured a nyckelharpa and Hardanger fiddle duet, their link would be instantly clear.

Nor could I make any connection between these themes in narrative intent. These two characters are presented with completely opposite moral codes. Halbrand is introduced is coded as a hesitant hero with a guilty conscience, but a hero nonetheless. But Sauron is known to the audience as pure evil. I had to separate their themes’ musical intents. For example, if Halbrand’s music seared with evil, or if Sauron’s music offered noble warmth, their relationship would again be obvious.

Musical intervals were the one remaining musical trait with which to tie these themes together. Here, there was great potential:  a way to connect these themes so that the vast majority of the audience would feel it emotionally, but miss it intellectually. And so, the first phrases of both the Halbrand Theme and the Sauron Theme share the same intervals, inversed and reversed. They are palindromes.

A musical palindrome is the same as a visual one (like the word “racecar”), an idea that is the same whether read forwards or backwards. The Halbrand Theme is the Sauron Theme played backwards, and The Sauron Theme is the Halbrand Theme played backwards!

Writing a palindromic theme is a huge challenge. I challenged myself to craft both themes simultaneously, generating a single phrase that worked both forwards and backwards, yet communicated a different emotion with each direction.

Reversing melodies is a lot like reversing a recording of someone’s speech: the tone is similar, but all the meaning is instantly lost, resulting in a disturbingly familiar disfigurement. Every time I stumbled upon a fantastic Sauron Theme, I played it backwards and tried to find a Halbrand Theme, only to find the whole ended up a jumbled mess. After many weeks of trial and error, after being plagued with self-doubt and lost sleep, I finally landed upon a series of five notes that worked. 

The Sauron Theme conveys sinister malevolence, and is most often heard in low male choir vocals singing in Tolkien’s invented language of Black Speech. The first five notes look like this. 

The Halbrand Theme conveys hesitant heroism, and is most often heard in rustic Nordic folk instruments, the nyckelharpa and Hardanger fiddle. The first five notes of Halbrand’s theme look like this.

At a cursory glance or listen, they may not seem related. (This is, of course, by design!) However, their themes are closely linked through musical contour, that is, the direction their melodies take. Instead of reading musical notation, look at them just as visual contour.

Furthermore, each theme can be divided in half at its center, resulting in the left and right sides being inverted reflections of one another. This inverted symmetry means that the themes are also related across a horizontal axis. The Halbrand Theme is the Sauron Theme played upside down, and The Sauron Theme is the Halbrand Theme played upside down!

While this might seem a mere intellectual undertaking, I feared this musical connection would still be obvious to the point of spoiling the season finale’s revelation. If the two themes are playing the same notes dozens of times over, just in a slightly different order, might this not clue in even to the casual viewer? Thus, I masked my trail with two subtle tweaks to Halbrand’s Theme to further differentiate it from Sauron’s Theme. Think of these changes as warps in a mirror that slightly alter its reflection. 

I changed one note in Halbrand’s Theme, lowering it by a half step. This creates a majestic major third in a place where Sauron has a sinister minor third. I also tweaked the timing of the fourth note, giving Halbrand a little folksy rhythm where Sauron’s plays in a steady, ominous, marching rhythm.

These are small differences, but substantial enough to throw most people off the trail. Still, this musical palindrome idea created one distinct trait for Halbrand that was unavoidable, one that I feared would tip people off: the lack of melodic leaps. 

For all the main protagonists in The Rings of Power, I composed melodies that contain big leaps between notes, or large intervals. These reaching phrases always sound satisfying when performed by vibrato-laden orchestral strings, by full-voiced singers, or by punchy brass fanfares. (The first few notes of themes for Galadriel, The Stranger, Nori, or Bronwyn and Arondir are perfect examples. Sing them aloud and their upward ascending motion practically inspires you to throw your arms up in the air.)

In contrast, Sauron’s Theme is tight, constrained, and circular. In this regard, his melody is small. His introductory phrase is built from intervals of a minor third or smaller, and the leaps pivot around, forming a circle (or perhaps a ‘ring’) around a central point. Sauron’s melody suggests a mighty musical power held within a confined space – a fitting sonic analogy for a Ring of Power. 

Because Halbrand’s Theme is simply an inversion of Sauron’s, his introductory phrase is similarly restrained, and ring-shaped. Therefore, it does not leap beautifully like the themes for all the other protagonists in the show. To offset this clue, I allowed the Sauron Theme and Halbrand Theme to diverge after their first five notes. After the first five notes, Halbrand’s Theme evolves into a “B Section” that actually does contain more traditionally heroic leaps. This “B Section” allows the music to portray Halbrand as more regal when necessary. Halbrand’s heroic “B Theme” is heard in several significant sequences, notably in “Udûn” when he bonds with Galadriel in the aftermath of the battle, and again in “The Eye,” as the Southlanders rally around him as he departs camp – scenes that develop and expand upon his character.

My goal was not to create a musical connection that was utterly impossible to find, but to make one that would initially elude, yet eventually reward, the average viewer. Once The Rings of Power aired, I watched social media carefully. For the first six episodes, very few fans commented on any musical connection between Halbrand and Sauron. But, in the two weeks leading up to the finale, fans and press started looking deeper. I began to see more and more theories drawing parallels between these two musical themes.

I composed seventeen individual themes for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Each was intended to stand alone. Yet, two of them were secretly entangled, two sides to the same dramatic coin, always reflecting one another.

Bear McCreary

October, 2022


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Janelle Guthrie
Janelle Guthrie
23 days ago

Very interesting and nicely crafted. Are you familiar with some of Pierre Boulez’ late works? He wrote themes for characters in his tone poems but did not “entangle” then to the extent you have here. Instead, Boulez used a type of theory called hexachordal combinatoriality to assign rows from all 12 tones (using a matrix) but he used only 6 tones at a time and ran them forward and backward. This is hard to explain without an example, but I’m thinking particularly of “Lament of a Lizard in Love.” It’s really a fun exercise but creates amazing music at the same time. Congratulations!



Written by Steven Prusakowski

Steven Prusakowski has been a cinephile as far back as he can remember, literally. At the age of ten, while other kids his age were sleeping, he was up into the late hours of the night watching the Oscars. Since then, his passion for film, television, and awards has only grown. For over a decade he has reviewed and written about entertainment through publications including Awards Circuit and Screen Radar. He has conducted interviews with some of the best in the business - learning more about them, their projects and their crafts. He is a graduate of the RIT film program. You can find him on Twitter and Letterboxd as @FilmSnork – we don’t know why the name, but he seems to be sticking to it.

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