The Hobbit: A Musical Journey

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Like his music for The Lord of the Rings films, Howard Shore’s score for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey makes extensive use of the technique of leitmotif (see my earlier post on this topic), which essentially assigns a theme to various characters, places, and objects.

Also like the Rings films, most of these leitmotifs are based on the Aeolian mode, a common scale in Medieval and Renaissance music that is essentially a minor scale with no raised notes. This gives the music an ancient sound appropriate for the Medieval-like age of Middle-earth.

The score forges links with the Rings films by returning to some familiar leitmotifs, most obviously that of the Hobbits, heard with the main title and often with Bilbo, but also that of the ring, which is heard a couple of times in Bilbo’s interactions with Gollum. But of course there are many new leitmotifs as well, a few of which I outline below in a film music analysis.

“Erebor”

000015---Hobbit-01-(Thorin)

This is one of the earliest new leitmotifs in the film and is associated with Erebor, the mountain home of the dwarves that was lost to the dragon Smaug. It is also one of the most recognizable because it is based on a short one-bar rhythm. The minor/Aeolian mode of the motif suggests the sense of loss associated with Erebor while the slow rising line from A to E suggests the long struggle it will take to win it back. Listen to it here:

“Thorin”

000015---Hobbit-02-(Durin's-Folk)

This leitmotif indicates Thorin, king of the dwarves known as “Durin’s folk”. We hear it less frequently than Thorin’s motif but it is nevertheless important as it appears once it becomes clear that Thorin is their king. Notice again the use of dotted rhythms and a general rising contour to the line, suggesting the military strength of this group. Different, though, is the fact that the line always seems to return to the note E, as though it is an obstacle that needs to be overcome, much as Thorin and his people are attempting to overcome Smaug the dragon to win back their home.

“Trolls”

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Once again we have a leitmotif that uses a dotted rhythm, this time to suggest the brute strength of these powerful creatures. But in this case, their “bad guy” status is made clear by the use of a semitone dissonance at the end of the phrase. Listen to it here:

“Misty Mountains” / “The Expedition”

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The first time this leitmotif is heard, it is a diegetic song (meaning it is heard by the characters in the film) sung by the dwarves. Thereafter it signifies the camaraderie of the 14-member expedition of Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and his dwarves. It has clear resemblances to the “Fellowship” motif in the Rings films, such as its relatively long tonic note near its start, its dotted rhythm, its mainly stepwise rising-falling contour, and even the short-short-long rhythm in its third and seventh bars.

Here’s the “Misty Mountain” version:

And here’s the “Expedition” version (from 2:21):

“Azog the Defiler” / “Evil”

This is the leitmotif associated with Thorin’s arch-enemy, the albino orc called “Azog the Defiler”, as well as other evil creatures such as the giant spiders and the mysterious necromancer. Its dark sound is primarily due to its low register – it usually appears in the low, growling register of the bass trombones. The fact that the motif descends and includes a chromatically distorted note at its end (and sometimes on its third note as well) also add to its demonic character.

Hear the theme at the start of this track:

8 thoughts on “The Hobbit: A Musical Journey”

  1. Unfortunately Howard Shore did not present his cue from Balin’s Tomb, but he did have the same idea in mind for his “Erebor” leitmotif. In ‘Balin’s Tomb” the notes “A, C, and B” represent the wonder and fall of the dwarves.

    In “A Journey in the Dark” at 2:41 and “Balin’s Tomb” at 0:37 in the complete recordings, you can hear an almost exact quotation of the first three notes of Thorin’s leitmotif. I could see where Howard Shore based this theme harmonically, melodically and rhythmically. I am really looking forward to the rest of trilogy.

    1. I had a listen and must say I can hear the resemblance. The excerpts you mention are even in the same key as “Thorin” (A minor)! That closely follows Wagner’s practice of leitmotifs as he often kept statements in the same key in his Ring cycle. The “Sword” motive, for example, nearly always appears in the key of C major as a sign of something pure and noble.

  2. Hi Mark,

    I just wanted to say that I am following your blog for a while now and find it all very interesting! I hope you find the time to continue this work, it would be much appreciated!

    You have partly inspired me to analyse some film music on my own, please have a look at:

    http://paulwendlandt.blogspot.de/2014/07/howard-shore-dead-ringers-main-titles.html

    I was investigating the Main Title sequence in Howard Shore’s score for ‘Dead Ringers’

    -Paul

    1. Film Score Junkie

      Hi Paul. Yes, work on the blog has been slow of late, but I intend to pick the pace back up now. Wow, great work on your own blog! It’s always nice to know how my blog has impacted others. Very cool. 🙂

  3. Hi, in the first Hobbit film Shore used the Nazgul theme from the LotR in a situation that baffled me, I was just wondering if you could provide any insight. It was when Thorin Oakenshield was walking along the horizontal tree trunk towards the white orc. To my knowledge, there were no Nazgul in the scene and Thorin does not go on to become a ringwraith, this confused me.
    Cheers!

    1. Hi Marika. My guess is that the Ringwraiths theme in this climactic scene foreshadows the second film’s reveal that Azog is conspiring with Sauron, who is disguised as the Necromancer. Perhaps there is a parallel being drawn between the Ringwraiths relationship to Sauron, and that of Azog to Sauron – both are in the latter’s service. And the use of a “bad guy’s” theme for this moment may suggest that Azog is in control in this assault from Thorin. (Put another way, we don’t hear the heroes’ Misty Mountain theme until the team returns to successfully fight off Azog and his band.) All this is a little abstract, to be sure. But if we are to believe in a consistency in Shore’s and the filmmaking team’s application of the themes, this is probably the most plausible explanation.

      1. Thanks for your reply!
        In the LotR the connections weren’t nearly as abstract as that, and Sauron had his own thematic material. Also, it was a triumphant moment focusing on Thorin confidantly striding down the trunk of the tree. Not a pre/post battle long distance shot for contemplative foreshadowing.
        Shore was very consistent in the LotR in not only themes but how they are presented and manipulated. And I did believe in his consistency, heck that was the only reason I went to see The Hobbit, but after what I can only assume was a bout of lazy cut and pasting that threw my uni essays praising his consistency to the wind, I was sorely disapointed.

  4. Hey. Great Website I love it.

    I have a question : is there some place that i can learn these music characteristics like a theme that is Dark or Mystic or Happy. (I understand the Major Minor feelings) and are these Tonal music ? or Modal and Atonal ?

    I’m a classical composer myself but in classic we don’t have these feelings or I don’t know about them.

    This is Spectral and Minimal music combined and orchestrated if i’m correct.

    My goal is to achieve high places in Classical and Film music but I don’t know where to read about Film music.

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