Projecting Tolkien’s Musical Worlds

Projecting Tolkien's Musical Worlds: A Study of Musical Affect in Howard Shore's Soundtrack to _Lord of the Rings). Matthew Young. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2007. ISBN 978-3836424967. Softcover. 92pp. $54.00.

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Reviewed by Jason Fisher

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 28.1/2 (#107/108) (2009): 175–79.]

Projecting Tolkien’s Musical Worlds began as Matthew Young’s master’s thesis in music theory at Bowling Green State University. He earned that degree, and the Bowling Green School of Music’s award for Best Thesis of the Year, in 2007; he is now a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. I said that his book began as a thesis, but I should perhaps add that it has also ended as one. Young has taken no opportunity to update or expand what is, after all, quite a short monograph. Moreover, apart from the difference in title pages, the book as published by VDM Verlag Dr. Müller is identical to the original master’s thesis, right down to its typographical and grammatical errors, margins, fonts, layout, page numbers — and the peculiar and conspicuous omission of the definite article in the title. It even opens with the same abstract, identifying Young’s thesis advisor. Quite literally, this is Young’s thesis published without a single change that I could find — other than the addition of a publisher and a hefty price tag!

The book is arranged in five chapters. The first establishes the importance of film music as a subject for scholarly inquiry; the second examines the music and culture of Middle-earth (anchored in the text, not the Peter Jackson film adaptations); the third discusses Howard Shore’s score in more detail, focusing on several important musical motifs — “the primary themes of each culture presented in Jackson’s film” (9); the fourth discusses the role of the audience, exploring the same set of musical leitmotivs as well as alterations in those themes over the course of the films; and the fifth offers conclusions and suggestions for further study. The intended audience, according to the book’s blurb, is any combination of Tolkien fans, musicians and musicologists, and film enthusiasts. But I would say that the subject matter is a bit more technical than is likely to appeal to the casual fan — of either Tolkien, music, or film. The ability to read music (at least passably) is a prerequisite, as there are some fifty musical transcriptions salted through the book. Young indicates that all transcriptions were made according to his own ear because the scores were not available to him (8). But if the scores were indeed unavailable then, they have certainly become available since the original thesis. It is a shame Young didn’t take the time to update his transcriptions for this book; however, the ones I examined appear to be very accurate. Moreover, they agree for the most part with others I have seen in the literature (for example, Bernanke).[1]

At the heart of the analysis Young undertakes is the concept of the “museme,” a kind of musical phoneme, meant to represent the smallest musical element conveying a distinct affective meaning. The term was invented by music semiologist, Charles Seeger, and popularized by Philip Tagg (Tagg 1). Tagg has applied a museme-centered approach that he calls “musematic analysis” to television music, but Young argues that the same methodology can be productively used in the analysis of film scores and that Shore’s — more than ten hours of music — represents particularly fertile ground. The idea is to explore the affective content of each museme by comparing it with other musemes of similar “sociomusical connotations” (iii). To put it another way, “Shore’s score does more than occupy Jackson’s screen,” it “reflects music and culture as described by Tolkien, and the themes correlate appropriately to other music which reflect [sic] similar cultures” (iv). This is a key point, because Young could easily have limited his analysis to the relationship between film score(s) and film(s). To his great credit, he has attempted something more ambitious: to identify connections between Shore’s music and Tolkien’s text itself. And for the most part, I find his arguments convincing (if selective). It may be going a little too far to say that “[a]ll the novel’s installments include descriptions of instruments used in the different lands” (8), yet Young does find evidence to tie Shore’s score to Tolkien’s own words, as opposed to (or in addition to) Peter Jackson’s filmic interpretation of them.

But before I assess the strength of Young’s “musematic analysis,” let’s get some of the book’s problems out of the way. In addition to grammatical slips, spelling errors, and other problems that should have been corrected by an editor (had there been one), Young makes a fair number of factual errors and oversights. Without belaboring the point, let me give one or two examples of each. Young presumes to suppose “what the music of Middle-earth may have sounded like in Tolkien’s mind” (9), but he makes no reference in his book to Tolkien’s own recordings of songs and poems from The Lord of the Rings, nor to their setting in music by Donald Swann, with Tolkien’s participation, as The Road Goes Ever On. I’m not sure it would have added a great deal had he done so — Tolkien was, after all, no musician (Tolkien 350, et passim) — however, it seems a pity not to even mention the musical examples Tolkien himself left behind, poor though they are, nor the considerably finer adaptations of Swann.

Somewhat more troubling is Young’s misconceptions about just what it is Tolkien scholars do. “Tolkien’s descriptions of the cultures of Middle-earth,” he writes, “are so exhaustive that several scholars have dedicated their careers to studying the historical interrelations of the lands, as well as to creating chronological successions of events and genealogical trees of the bloodlines the inhabitants” (11). Fannish though this sounds, Young footnotes the comment with (apparently) his idea of three such scholars. Unfortunately, in one of those references, he not only misspells the scholar’s name, but much worse, he says the essay in question was published in Tolkien Studies in 2006; it was not, and in fact, the essay is still unpublished. That is careless research at best. Indeed, other than here in this curious footnote with its three examples plucked at random, Young makes absolutely no reference to any existing Tolkien scholarship, let alone to scholarship on the representation and significance of music of Middle-earth.

Of errors and oversights within the scope of The Lord of the Rings itself, there are a number. Young’s synopsis of the novel is idiosyncratic at best and mistaken at several points. Young says the Ring is “lost for nearly a thousand years” (12) after the death of Isildur; in fact, it is more than twice that. He calls Sméagol and Déagol “cousins” (ibid.), evidently picking this up from Robert Foster, whom he quotes constantly; in fact, Tolkien calls calls Déagol a friend, and in a letter (not yet published by the time of Foster’s Guide), “evidently a relative” (Tolkien 292). Young says we catch a “a glimpse to what the music of the Shire could have sounded like” (16) in Tolkien’s musical description, “now squeaking high, now purring low, / now sawing in the middle.” Yes, we do, if Shire music were played by a cat! The Springle-ring might afford a better glimpse: energetic, up-tempo music for dancing.

Despite these mistakes, Young’s basic thesis is a good one. He means to show both that Shore’s score is rooted in Tolkien’s textual descriptions as much as it is in Jackson’s visual ones, and that the various leitmotivs Shore develops convey a carefully controlled musical affect to the audience. More succinctly, the sound track “serves as a narrator” (8). To make his point, Young discusses a handful of the dozens of themes Shore composed — the Shire theme, the Rohan and Gondor themes, the Rivendell and Lóthlorien themes, the Isengard and Mordor themes, and of course the theme of the Ring itself. For the purposes of this review, I will limit my comments to the Shire theme, one of the most often repeated in the film trilogy and certainly the dominant theme of The Fellowship of the Ring, but Young has many things of interest to say about the other leitmotivs as well.

The author often notices things most movie-goers will not, except perhaps subliminally. For example, Young observes that a flute carries the melodic line of the Shire theme (normally played on the violin) whenever that theme is associated with Frodo; for Bilbo, on the other hand, a “more playful fiddle solo” is incorporated into the theme (25-7). Young goes on to argue convincingly that the choice of a Celtic style of melody and instrumentation suits the Hobbits, from what little Tolkien has written about their music. He compares the Shire motive with the lines Frodo sings in Bree, “now squeaking high, now purring low, / now sawing in the middle,” noting that “[n]ot only does Shore’s theme feature a solo fiddle filled with ‘squeaky’ grace notes, but the contour of the melody line moves from high to low” (27). Notwithstanding that grace notes need not necessary be “squeaky,” the observation is a good one: the musical equivalent to a “close reading” of the text.

In Chapter IV, Young demonstrates how alterations of the Shire theme over the course of the films alter audience perception. He gives three major examples: (1) The theme is ennobled by the substitution of a French horn for the violin when Sam observes that with one more step, he will be the furthest away from the Shire he has ever been. It represents the first step, literal and figurative, in the transformative maturation of the hobbits as they travel into a larger world. (2) In Rivendell, when Frodo announces that he will take the Ring, we hear another version of the Shire theme, this time modulated into a minor mode. This creates a somber, bittersweet effect, embodying sacrifice and the progressive loss of innocence. (3) Finally, on the shoulders of Mount Doom, when Frodo says he has no longer any memory of the Shire, we hear a markedly transformed, but still very faintly recognizable version of the Shire theme, voiced by the flute that has previously been associated with Frodo. Here, even in the music, contact with the Shire has almost been lost — almost, but not quite.

There is much in Projecting Tolkien’s Musical Worlds that is new and insightful, particularly for those with a special interest in music. This makes it all the more unfortunate that the author did not take the opportunity afforded by publication to a larger audience to revise, expand, and in some cases correct mistakes in his thesis. Its scope is well suited for a master’s thesis, but rather too thin for a book. For its length, the price makes it impossible for me to recommend the purchase of Young’s book, but your local library isn’t likely to have it either. According to Worldcat, there is only one library copy in the world: in the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek. This is ironic, considering that Matthew Young is an American graduate student. Those interested in reading the original thesis, take note that it may be found online at the OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center (see the Works Consulted).

Works Consulted

Bernanke, Judith. “Howard Shore’s Ring Cycle: The Film Score and Operatic Strategy.” Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings. Ed. Harriet Elaine Margolis, Sean Cubitt, Barry King, and Thierry Jutel. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008. 176-84.

Foster, Robert. The Complete Guide to Middle-earth. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.

Tagg, Philip. “Musical Meanings, Classical and Popular: The Case of Anguish.” [2004] <>. 24 August 2009.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

Young, Matthew David. “Projecting Tolkien’s Musical Worlds: A Study of Musical Affect in Howard Shore’s Soundtrack to Lord of the Rings.” MA thesis, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, May, 2007. <>. 24 August 2009.


1. Bernanke’s transcription of the Ring theme appears to be slightly closer to Shore’s original than Young’s (Bernanke 179; Young 35); however, Young’s transcription of the Isengard theme is closer than Bernanke’s (Young 34; Bernanke 182). The most common disagreement between them is on the keys of particular themes.

Projecting Tolkien's Musical Worlds: A Study of Musical Affect in Howard Shore's Soundtrack to _Lord of the Rings). Matthew Young. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2007. ISBN 978-3836424967. Softcover. 92pp. $54.00.


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