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Howard Shore’s Music in J.R.R.

Tolkien’s Primary and Secondary Worlds

In a personal letter, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a stringent self-assessment on his musical


I have little musical knowledge. Though I come of a musical family, owing to

defects of education and opportunity as an orphan, such music as was in me was
submerged (until I married a musician), or transformed into linguistic terms.
Music gives me great pleasure and sometimes inspiration, but I remain in the
position in reverse of one who likes to read or hear poetry but knows little of its
technique or tradition, or of linguistic structure.1

Despite his admitted lacuna, music gave him enough inspiration to compose and included no

fewer than 51 songs in The Lord of the Rings, a staggering amount of “music” to appear in a

novel. And it also seems evident he wished music to play a significant role in his tales. He also

wrote, in a letter to publisher Milton Waldman around 1951, how he “would draw some of the

great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles

should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding

paint and music and drama...”2 Perhaps most striking of all is music’s function in the creation

tale in The Silmarillion, the Ainulindalë: The Music of the Ainur. The One, Ilúvatar, uses music

as the first and primary means to communicate to his creation, the fifteen Holy Ones, the Valar.3

Despite having no notated music of Tolkien’s to accompany his writings, it appears to

figure largely in Middle-earth, an example of what he termed the Secondary World, in ways

similar to how it figures in our world, what Tolkien termed the Primary World. Music’s potential

as a tool of investigation into Tolkienian fantasy itself seems to be relatively underexplored. I

proffer music can focus, clarify, and expand our understanding of Middle-earth and its

inhabitants if we compartmentalize how it can functions in both our world and Tolkien’s Middle-

earth. Music also can contribute meaningfully to the plausibility and realness of fantasy, a key

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Wilmington, MA: Mariner Books, 2000), 350
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Wilmington, MA: Mariner Books, 2000), 145.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1998), 15.

concept in Tolkien’s philosophy. According to literary scholar Paul Kocher, we can enter into a

Tolkienian world if it is familiar but not too familiar, strange but not too strange, and when we

recognize in the characters a good deal of ourselves.4 Perhaps music is one of those elements we

can recognize in both Tolkien’s world and our own, something with the ability to pass fluidly

between Primary and Secondary Worlds while still retaining its intelligibility to our senses.

Certainly the music in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy suggests as much and presents a

fascinating case as to how music interacts with us and with the beings of Middle-earth.

The mere notion of Primary and Secondary Worlds can complicate our perception of

Middle-earth when applied to watching the film. Casual fans and scholarly viewers alike can

watch Peter Jackson’s trilogy from the perspective of the Primary World. In fact, I would hazard

a guess it is the normative mode for the majority of viewers. But what happens if we attempt to

enter into the Secondary World and watch the film? Some interesting parallels—and perhaps

paradoxes—may arise. I argue framing the nature and representative music of two races of

Middle-earth, Hobbits and Elves, through the lenses of Primary and Secondary Worlds produces

conflicting but kaleidoscopic possibilities of understanding each race.

After parsing Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” for the contexts of Primary and

Secondary Worlds, I apply them to construct parallels between Hobbits and Elves and

demonstrate how music can either reinforce or problematize them. Within the Primary World,

for example, Hobbits are familiar, while Elves are unfamiliar. Put another way, Hobbits can

appear as the most relatable and ordinary to us, and Elves as the most magical and supernatural.

Film-music composer Howard Shore reinforces this parallel in the film score (non-diegetic or

underscoring music) by adopting techniques that have acquired similar associations throughout
Kocher, 1–2. See also Patricia Meyer Spacks, “Power and Meaning in The Lord of the Rings,” in Understanding
the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, edited by Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs (New York:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), 65. She maintains a serious reading of the book inevitably creates a detailed,
plausible world (Middle-earth) that appeals to us because its problems and crises often parallel those of ours.

Western music history. Hobbits receive diatonic tonality for their themes, which bears the

associativity of naturalness and normativity; Elves receive chromatic accompaniments in their

music, specific applications of which have been associated with the otherworldly since the

nineteenth century.5 Conversely, examination from the perspective and conditions of the

Secondary World—that is, Middle-earth itself—the familiar-unfamiliar binary becomes inverted.

Elves now are familiar, the Hobbits unfamiliar and extraordinary. Against the backdrop of

Secondary World considerations, Shore’s music for and of Hobbits and Elves (this time diegetic

or source music) problematizes this parallel. The music Hobbits and Elves sing, play, and dance

to consists of diatonic tonality and modality, respectively. And the associations for these systems

of pitch and harmonic organization do not align with the Secondary World understanding of the


An ostensible cognitive dissonance arises between reinforcement and problematization,

which invites us to reconceptualize how much might function in Middle-earth. The diegetic

music interacts with characters and the fantasy itself in such a way that it compels us to rethink

the associations we can ascribe to the characterizations of Hobbits and Elves. This article, then,

serves as a think piece about music’s potential placement within Tolkien’s Primary and

Secondary Worlds against the backdrop of his writings, secondary scholarship, and the film and

music of Peter Jackson’s trilogy. All these media, however, would not be possible without the

groundbreaking essay Tolkien wrote in the midst of his publishing The Hobbit and writing The

Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien’s Faërie

The parallels I draw from musical evidence, Hobbits as familiar and Elves unfamiliar, forms part of my
forthcoming article “Scoring the Familiar and Unfamiliar in Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings,” in Journal of
Music and the Moving Image, especially with regard to the historical associativity of tonality, chromaticism, and
modality in penultimate section of this article, “The Music of the Films.”

In 1939, Tolkien delivered a lecture that eventually became the 1947 essay “On Fairy

Stories,” which his son Christopher later edited for a final version. The essay summarizes

Tolkien’s philosophy on what makes a successful fantasy story, which has presented literary

scholars with some challenges due to its conversational and oftentimes circuitous descriptions.

For many, the heart of the essay lies in understanding the concept of Faërie, which Tolkien

scholar Verlyn Flieger describes as “a word and an idea that embraced many meanings. It [is] at

once a literary construct, an imaginal exercise, a make believe world, a place to go to, and an

altered state of being—a series of ideas easier to picture than to explain, very like the spelling of

the word.”6 Readers of the essay may receive this multi-faceted impression if they try in vain to

find a succinct, direct definition of the term.

A comprehensive analysis of “On Fairy Stories” lies well beyond the scope of this article,

but a brief explanation of key points will help us along the road of Faërie, what Tolkien calls the

Perilous Realm. Historian and literary critic Edmund Fuller describes Faërie as “the realm or

world of enchantment whether viewed as remote and separated in time and place or

superimposed upon our own, for Faërie is wherever and whenever the enchantment is operable,

when men have entered or fallen under it.” 7 As Tolkien writes, Faërie can contain many of the

creatures found in Middle-earth: dwarves, trolls, giants, dragons, and so forth; but it also has

recognizable elements to our world, including human beings, seas, the sun and moon, the sky

and the earth.8 Faërie consequently has elements of what we may regard as magical or

fantastical, but it also has a strong relationship to the ordinary and the everyday, which Tolkien

“When is a Fairy Story a Faërie Story? Smith of Wootton Major,” in Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R.
Tolkien (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2012), 67.
Edmund Fuller, “The Lord of the Hobbits: J.R.R. Tolkien,” in Understanding The Lord of the Rings, 17.
J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1966), 38.

identifies as an “inner consistency of reality” and recalls the “strange but not too strange”

comment of Paul Kocher.9

A successful fantasy story, which combines elements of the fantastical and the ordinary,

renders the author a “sub-creator,” a famous term of Tolkien’s. “Sub-creation” itself is another

word for Secondary World, which, in turn, depends on the inner consistency of reality if it is to

sustain our engagement and willing suspension of disbelief from our world, the Primary World.

An author’s artistic communication of the Secondary World, if consistent, obliges readers to

practice “Secondary Belief,” or the acceptance of the Secondary World. As Tolkien writes,

readers explore the Secondary World and relate what is true: “it accords with the laws of that

world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises,

the spell is broken; the magic or rather art, has failed.”10 The practice of Secondary Belief,

therefore is delicate but potent and requires much on the part of both author and readers.11 And

the paragon of Secondary Worlds is Middle-earth itself.

In addition, Tolkien mentions two criteria for conceptualizing Faërie, the concept of time

and of communication. The two topics figure so crucially into Tolkien’s worldview on fantasy

that several books have been written on each.12 According to Tolkien, authentic fairy-stories can

have a “mythical or total (unanalyzable) effect” that cannot be explained and which opens “a

door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our

own time, outside Time itself, maybe.”13 Flieger has written possibly the definitive text on

Ibid., 68.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 60. An excellent, concise article on interpreting Tolkien’s essay appears also in
Understanding the Lord of the Rings; c.f. R.J. Reilly, “Tolkien and the Fairy Story,” 93–105.
Tolkien expounds for the rest of the essay on dissecting how the relationship between the two parties results in a
successful story, which does not apply to this present essay.
Verlyn Flieger, Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien; Interrupted Music: The Making of Tolkien’s
Mythology (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2005); Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century;
and The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin
Co., 2003).
Ibid., 56.

Tolkien and time, which, he argues, is bound to an escapist or regressive-modernist themes in the

author’s life.14 Tolkien’s preoccupation with time, especially the past, can account for how the

Third Age, the age of the events of The Lord of the Rings, can “satisfy a primordial desire to

explore time, for ‘antiquity has an appeal in itself,’” according to R.J. Reilly.15 Such a framework

rooted in the past can account for several themes in The Lord of the Rings: the overt nostalgia in

the Lothlórien chapters, the sorrow of the Elves, and the existence of ancient characters including

Tom Bombadil or Treebeard, to name a few. To a similar end, Tolkien’s understanding of “fairy-

story” also prioritizes the ability to commune with other living things, which is the closest thing

to magic in Faërie, according to the author.16 Tolkien’s lifelong fascination with language and

philology helped facilitate the plausibility of Middle-earth, since he created no fewer than

fourteen languages for the various races. The desire of those in Faërie to speak to other living

can explain, for instance, the Elves being able to communicate with nature, talking trees (the

Ents), Gandalf’s ability to speak with the Eagles, and so forth.17

Fans of Tolkenian fantasy, then, have a choice: to enter into the story from the

perspective of the Primary or Secondary Worlds. In other words, we can read or watch The Lord

of the Rings within our everyday experience or under enchantment, respectively within the

Primary or Secondary Worlds. If the latter, then we agree to the conditions Tolkien provided in

his essay about suspending disbelief and commanding Secondary Belief, which requires

accepting the “inner consistency of reality” of Middle-earth. The following sections offer ways

we can understand Hobbits and Elves from each perspective. Taken together, both perspectives

reveal each race as richly complex, multi-faceted, resistant to hard-and-fast categorization, and

Verlyn Flieger, A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faërie,” (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press,
“Tolkien and the Fairy-Story,” in Understanding the Lord of the Rings, 94–95.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 41–43.
Reilly, 94–95.

even strangely paradoxical. Examination against the backdrops of Primary and Secondary worlds

ultimately can enable us to consider how music can interacts with and problematize Hobbits and


The Primary World

Familiarity: The Hobbits

Within our world, the Primary World, Hobbits can represent the familiar, the race to

which we all can relate more easily than any other in Middle-earth. For example, Tolkien focuses

the prologue of The Lord of the Rings on the history, culture, and genealogies of Hobbits. The

opening words of the novel moreover read: “This tale is largely concerned with Hobbits . . .”

which orients readers to them as central to the epic story. Yet Tolkien describes them as

unobtrusive, quiet, and quite different from the Elves and Dwarves.18 They are not so serious as

other races, as they prioritize smoking pipe weed, brewing and drinking ale, eating several times

a day, and love, above all else, the ability to cultivate things that grow.19 I argue we can relate to

Hobbits more easily than we can to Tolkien’s humans. Men of Middle-earth, for example, have

been known to dabble in magic; the race and descendants of Númenor can live at least thrice our

average lifespans; and, above all, the World of Men in The Lord of the Rings is almost wholly

preoccupied with war.20 Moreover, all other races in the novel receive checkered exposition;

some details of the race of Men, for example, surface only in the appendices. Not so for the

Hobbits, as Tolkien reserves the prologue and a number of opening chapters exclusively for


J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Houghton and Mifflin Co., 1994), 1. See Paul
Kocher’s chapter “The Free Peoples of Middle Earth,” in Master of Middle Earth, 79–127.
Ibid., 1–2.
Tolkien, The Two Towers, 656. Faramir puts it best: “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer
who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the
warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend [. . .] and I would have her loved for her memory, her
ancestry, her beauty, and her present wisdom.”

This almost singular focus on Hobbit life invites us to relish their culture and the Shire,

its beauty and idyllic setting, as perhaps unique in all Middle-earth. It certainly is the only time

when characters and readers alike need not worry about the crushing anxiety and danger of

Frodo’s quest. Tolkien furthermore characterizes Hobbits in close relation to his readers,

describing them as “relatives of ours; far nearer to us than Elves, or even than Dwarves.”21 The

incorporation of personal pronouns like “ours” and “us” enables readers to connect with Hobbits

on a level perhaps more intimate than any other race. Tolkien enables readers to identify with the

point of view of Hobbits throughout the story.

Peter Jackson’s cinematic translation of The Fellowship of the Ring focuses, like Tolkien,

on the agency and importance of Hobbits and the Shire, especially within the extended version of

the film.22 After the prologue, the camera pans over a map of Middle-Earth, and the narration

begins: “Concerning Hobbits,” by Bilbo Baggins, the one who discovered the Ring of Power 60

years prior to the events of The Lord of the Rings. He describes the cares, concerns, and qualities

of his people:

Hobbits have been living and farming in the four Farthings of the Shire for many
hundreds of years, quite content to ignore and be ignored by the world of the Big
Folk. Middle-Earth, after all, being full of strange creatures beyond count,
Hobbits must seem of little importance being neither renowned as great warriors
nor counted among the very wise [. . .] In fact, it has been remarked by some that
Hobbits only real passion is for food. A rather unfair observation, as we have also
developed a keen interest in the brewing of ales and the smoking of pipe weed.
But where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet and good tilled earth, for all
Hobbits share a love for things that grow. And, yes, no doubt to others, our ways
seem quaint, but today of all days, it is brought home to me: it is no bad thing to
celebrate a simple life.23

Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 2.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson (2001, Special Extended DVD
Edition, 4 discs, New Line Home Entertainment, 2002), DVD; The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, directed by
Peter Jackson (2002, Special Extended DVD Edition, 4 discs, New Line Home Entertainment, 2003), DVD; The
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, directed by Peter Jackson (2003, Special Extended DVD Edition, 4 discs,
New Line Home Entertainment, 2004), DVD.
The Fellowship of the Ring, DVD Disc 1, “Concerning Hobbits,” 8:50–10:18.

Bilbo’s narration drives home the point of the ordinary, familiar lives of Hobbits. Author

Patrick Curry reinforces the “simple life” of Hobbits as point of contact with the familiar within

the framework of radical nostalgia. Curry notes a strong sense of community informs the socio-

cultural and political life of Hobbits, which he describes as a decentralized parish or municipal

democracy.24 Tom Shippey echoes this sentiment by revealing the historical influences that

shaped Tolkien’s creating the Hobbits, which lie in Edwardian, bourgeoisie England.25 The

governance and lifestyle of Hobbits can parallel more readily a twentieth- and twenty first-

century Euro-American style of governance than, say, the feudalism of Elves, Men, and

Dwarves. Literary, cinematic, and scholarly excerpts—all elements derived from the Primary or

“real” World—strongly evince the familiarity of the Hobbits.

Unfamiliarity: Elves

Conversely, any beings who possess the abilities of the Elves likely would appear to our

Primary World sensibilities as unfamiliar, even magical. Perhaps the most otherworldly features

of Elves are their immortality; they are the eldest of all races in Middle-earth and age extremely

slowly. They therefore preserve the beauty of their youth but carry with them, as Tolkien writes,

“the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful.”26 In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo

and Sam leave the Shire to begin the quest to destroy the One Ring and first encounter Galdor’s

company of Elves on their way to Mithlond, the Grey Havens, to depart Middle-earth. Tolkien

writes how “the hobbits could see the starlight glimmering on their hair and in their eyes. They

bore no lights, yet as they walked a shimmer, like the light of the moon above the rim of the hills

before it rises, seemed to fall about their feet.”27 Sam and Frodo regard the Elves as beings

Partick Curry, Defending Middle-earth. Tolkien: Myth and Modernity (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Co.,
2004), 17.
Shippey, 8–9, 11.
Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 221.
Ibid., 78.

awesome to behold, whose language sounds like a dream. The two main communities of Elves

during the events of The Lord of the Rings are those of Rivendell and Lothlórien, and both

represent two sides of the same Elvish coin. On the one hand, Rivendell functions as a

cosmopolitan hub for travelers and friends of Elves. It is a place of study and fellowship under

the dominion of Elrond Half-elven. Lothlórien, on the other hand, is all but hidden from the rest

of the world. Only the Elves who live there roam freely within its borders, unless Lord Celeborn

and Lady Galadriel deem otherwise. Tolkien’s words on Lothlórien manifest the unfamiliarity of

Elves most effectively:

As soon as he [Frodo] set foot upon the far bank of Silverlode a strange feeling
had come upon him, and it deepened as he walked on into the Naith: it seemed to
him that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and
was now walking in a world that was no more. In Rivendell there was memory of
ancient things; in Lórien the ancient things still lived on in the waking world. Evil
had been seen and heard there, sorrow had been known; the Elves feared and
distrusted the world outside: wolves were howling on the wood’s borders: but on
the land of Lórien no shadow lay [. . .]

The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile
still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window
that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had
no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as
if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and
ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold
and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at
that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful.
In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or
sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the
land of Lórien there was no stain.28

Several instances in the film also betray an unfamiliar, mystical presence of the Elves.

The extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring DVD recounts the scene where Frodo and

Sam see the Elves journeying to the Grey Havens, as in the book. Sam is preparing a meal, and

Frodo hears a-cappella music in the distance. He exclaims, “Sam! Wood Elves!” Both eagerly

Ibid., 340–341.

follow the singing voices and see figures so strongly reflecting the light of the moon and stars

that they appear almost ghostly.29 We also capture a glimpse of the power of the Elves when

Frodo and Arwen escape the Ringwraiths at the Fords of Bruinen. Arwen casts a spell on the

waters, whose tides quickly rise followed by rapid currents and violent waves taking the shape of

horses.30 Perhaps the moment Elves seem most unfamiliar is when the Fellowship enters

Lothlórien.31 These Elves at first appear as lofty and remote, as if their concerns transcend human

or Hobbit comprehension. Cate Blanchett’s performance of Galadriel portrayal is perhaps the

most unnerving, as she suggests an unreadability and ominous nature. Only after she refuses

Frodo’s offering of the One Ring that she and the Lothlórien Elves become warmer.

In contrast to his discussion of Hobbits, Patrick Curry likens Elves to literary genres and

figures far removed in history. He describes the scene in the book where the Elf Glorfindel aids

Frodo in the crossing of the Fords of Bruinen (the cinematic portrayal has Arwen instead).

Frodo’s sight, now veiled in shadow due to his wound from the Ringwraiths cursed blade,

registers Glorfindel as a figure of almost pure light; all other beings in Frodo’s sight, including

the Hobbits, fall under shadow. Curry concludes that the Elves belong more to the mythological

literature of the Primary World.32 Similarly, Tom Shippey compares Elves to both ancient Greek

and Biblical imagery, notably that of angels.33 The observations of Curry and Shippey

mythologize, maybe even divinize Elves and push them further to the periphery of familiarity.

Literary, cinematic, and scholarly evidence remove Elves from the collective memory of the

Primary World, consequently providing strong evidence for the unfamiliarity of the Elves.

The Secondaray World

The Fellowship of the Ring, DVD Disc 1, “The Passing of the Elves,” 45:00–45:53.
Ibid., “Flight to the Ford,” 1:22:05–1:23:20.
Ibid., DVD Disc 2, “Lothlórien,” “Caras Galadhon,” and “Mirror of Galadriel,” 44:08–1:00:15.
Curry, 124–125.
Shippey, 34–35, 260.

The discussion thus far has investigated Hobbits and Elves insofar as literary, cinematic,

and scholarly excerpts of The Lord of the Rings supplied information on each. Since the novel

focuses so heavily on the importance of Hobbits, and since the events of the novel comprise a

small fraction of the history of Middle-earth, the identification of Hobbits as familiar makes

sense. Yet when perceived against the backdrop of Tolkien’s Secondary World, the larger history

of Middle-earth, the correlation between Hobbits and familiarity and Elves and unfamiliarity

turns on its ear. The results produce an inverse, familiar Elves and unfamiliar Hobbits, the

explanation for which requires deeper exploration into the Secondary World itself, Middle-earth.

Unfamiliarity: Hobbits

The case of the Hobbits is difficult to decipher, for they receive no explicit creation story,

nor does Tolkien expound on their fate. In all The Silmarillion, for example, Tolkien describes

the creation of or shows in action most of the species we encounter in The Lord of the Rings:

Elves, Men, Dwarves, Ents, and even Eagles.34 Hobbits are conspicuously absent. The only kind

of origin story they receive occurs in the prologue of The Lord of the Rings. With regard to the

fate of Hobbits, Tolkien also remains silent. Of course, Hobbits do not live forever like Elves and

thus are not bound to the earth. But where do they go when they die? In the absence of

conclusive evidence, I suggest they meet a fate similar to that of Men, which I discuss below.

Recalling the discussion of Hobbits as familiar, Tolkien writes how they are “relatives of ours;

far nearer to us than Elves, or even than Dwarves,” which can put them in far closer proximity to

Men than any other race of Middle-earth.35 Most importantly, however, Tolkien intimates an

even closer kinship between Men and Hobbits, which can suggest their sharing Ilúvatar’s gift of

leaving the world after death. In a letter of 8 January 1971, Tolkien called his Hobbits a

The Silmarillion, 41–42 for Elves and Men; 43–44 for Dwarves; 46 for Ents; and 40 for Eagles.
The Fellowship of the Ring, 2.

“diminutive branch of the human race.”36 In this regard, Hobbits, then, also may be free from the

confines of the world, that is, supernatural and therefore unfamiliar within the Secondary World.

There perhaps is no better evidence to the unfamiliarity of Hobbits within the Secondary

World than The Lord of the Rings text itself. Many times Hobbits encounter people and races

previously unaware of their existence. In writing about the interaction of time on myth and

history in The Lord of the Rings, author Lionel Basney posits an almost formulaic approach to

Tolkien’s writing whenever a particular race initially meets Hobbits, which begins with

a challenge to credulity and skepticism. The hobbits seem literally a myth come to life, to
living fact. The general pattern of this repeated incarnation is as follows: an individual
character, often on his home ground and thus confident of his ability to judge rightly,
suddenly recognizes that reality of which he had known only in legend now faces him in
broad daylight, or is attested to by authority he cannot gainsay. The character’s response
is normally a blend of surprise, assent, and wonder. For the reality he confronts does not
thereby lose its mythical fascination. Rather the myth merges with experience, or into
experience, its wonder intact, but having gained empirical solidity.37

The novel reveals seven instances that can fit Basney’s formula to varying degrees:38

1. Gandalf speaking to Frodo about Sauron: “‘To tell you the truth,’ replied Gandalf, ‘I
believe that hitherto—hitherto, mark you—he [Sauron] has entirely overlooked the
existence of hobbits. You should be thankful. But your safety has passed. He does not
need you—he has many more useful servants—but he won’t forget you again.’” (FOTR,

2. Boromir on first seeing the Hobbits at the Council of Elrond: “He gazed at Frodo and
Bilbo in sudden wonder.” (FOTR, 234)

3. When the Elf Haldir speaks to the Fellowship beyond the river Nimrodel: “‘We had not
heard of – hobbits, of halflings, for many a long year, and did not know that any yet
dwelt in Middle-earth. You do not look evil! And since you come with and Elf of our
kindred, we are willing to befriend you, as Elrond asked; though it is not our custom to
lead strangers through our land.’” (FOTR, 334)

4. Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas speaking with Éomer and the Rohirrim: “‘Hobbits?’ said
Eomer. ‘And what may they be? It is a strange name.’ ‘A strange name for a strange
folk,’ said Gimli. ‘But these were very dear to us. It seems that you have heard in Rohan
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 406.
Lionel Basney, “Myth, History, and Time in The Lord of the Rings,” in Understanding the Lord of the Rings, 188.
For ease of the following seven references, I abbreviate the titles of the books: FOTR for Fellowship of the Ring,
TTT for The Two Towers, and ROTK for Return of the King.

of the words that troubled Minas Tirith. They spoke of the Halfling. These hobbits are
Halflings.’ ‘Halflings!’ laughed the Rider that stood beside Eomer. ‘Halflings! But they
are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in
legends or on the green earth in the daylight?’” (TTT, 424)

5. Treebeard upon discovering Merry and Pippin in Fangorn Forest: “‘Hrum, Hoom,’
murmured the voice, a deep voice like a very deep woodwind instrument. ‘Very odd
indeed! Do not be hasty, that is my motto. But if I had seen you before, before I heard
your voices – I liked them: nice little voices; they reminded me of something I cannot
remember – if I had seen you before I heard you, I should have just trodden on you,
taking you for little Orcs, and found my mistake afterwards. Very odd you are, indeed.
Root and twig, very odd! . . . What are you, I wonder? I cannot place you. You do not
come in the old lists that I learned when I was young.’” (TTT, 452-53)

6. When Faramir and four Gondorians meet Frodo and Sam in Ithilien: “At once four men
came striding through the fern from different directions. Since flight and hiding were no
longer possible, Frodo and Sam sprang to their feet, putting back to back and whipping
out their small swords. If they were astonished at what they saw, their captors were even
more astonished . . . ‘We have not found what we sought,’ said one. ‘But what have we
found?’ ‘Not Orcs,’ said another, releasing the hilt of his sword, which he had seized
when he saw the glitter of Sting in Frodo’s hand. ‘Elves?’ said a third, doubtfully. ‘Nay!
Not Elves,’ said the fourth . . .” (TTT, 642–43)

7. Beregond son of Baranor upon meeting Pippin in Minas Tirith: “‘As for my part, I would
learn of you also. For never before have we seen a halfling in this land and though we
have heard rumor of them, little is said of them in any tale that we know.’” (ROTK, 744)

The majority of characters in the preceding examples are astounded that these little

creatures actually exist and are not the stuff of tales and legends. Tom Shippey echoes this notion

by regarding the Hobbits as anachronistic in all Middle-earth, betrayed by their bourgeois nature

against the backdrop of the ancient world.39 He writes, “On the surface at least – the issue is

explored all the way through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – they [Hobbits] do not fit at

all into Middle-earth, the world of dwarves and elves, wizards and dragons, trolls and goblins,

Beorn and Smaug and Gollum.”40 While Hobbits can be familiar to us on the one hand, ample

evidence suggests their unfamiliarity on the other.

Familiarity: Elves

Author of the Century, 6.
Ibid., 11.

Recalling the first section’s definition of Faërie as “enchantment,” Edmund Fuller

demonstrates that a “fairy” is one who dwells in that realm, “the people of Faërie, the agents of

its natural spells, the masters of its enchantments. A better name than fairy for such a being is an

Elf . . .” More importantly, he writes, enchantment is not something the Elves use or summon;

rather, it is “the total natural mode of their being in action.”41 Fuller’s description is key because,

once we enter into Faërie, the Elves are the familiar and natural race. Tolkien himself reinforces

the point in his essay, as well as in his fantasy narratives. In contrast to the evidence of Elves as

unfamiliar in the previous section, Tolkien dispels the notion of Elves possessing supernatural

qualities within the realm of Faërie:

Supernatural is a dangerous and difficult word in any of its senses, looser or

stricter. But to fairies [Elves] it can hardly be applied, unless super is taken
merely as a superlative prefix. For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies,
supernatural (and often of diminutive stature); whereas they are natural, far more
natural than he. Such is their doom.42

The naturalness of the Elves connotes their attachment to the earth, to nature. They are bound to

and never leave it because of their immortality. Tolkien echoes the idea, albeit more poetically,

in The Silmarillion. Elves remain in Middle-earth until the end of days, “and their love of the

Earth and all the world is more single and more poignant therefore, and as the years lengthen

ever more sorrowful. For the Elves die not till the world dies, unless they are slain or waste in

grief . . .”43

Men, according to Tolkien, are the supernatural beings within Faërie, the Secondary

World. In addition to the above excerpt from “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien carefully distinguishes

the fates of both Elves and Men after their creation and awakening in The Silmarillion. Ilúvatar


“Lord of the Hobbits: J.R.R. Tolkien,” 17–18.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 34.
Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 42.

Behold I love the Earth, which shall be a mansion for the Quendi [Elves] and the
Atani [Men]! But the Quendi shall be conceive and bring forth more beauty than
all my Children; and they shall have the greater bliss in this world. But to the
Atani I will give a new gift.’ Therefore he willed that the hearts of Men should
seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein . . .44

Later in the Silmarillion, Tolkien explains death is the fate of Men but also Ilúvatar’s gift to

them. In contrast to Elves, Men receive a desire to leave the confines of the world and travel to

an unknown place after death.45 Such a desire and fate, according to theologian Kevin Aldrich,

accounts for the “super”-naturalness of Men.46 The evidence in Tolkien’s letters, The

Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings, and in scholarship can render the Elves as familiar and the

Hobbits about as unfamiliar as one can get in the Secondary World of Middle-earth.

The Music of the Films

A brief note on the musical examples included below: I examine music relating to both

Hobbits and Elves written for Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. With regard to investigation within

the Primary and Secondary Worlds, I include both non-diegetic and diegetic examples. On the

one hand, non-diegetic music, Howard Shore’s orchestral underscoring, does not directly interact

with Middle-earth per se; rather, it comments on and characterizes it from a cinematic point of

view. The characters cannot hear nor partake in the underscoring. So the non-diegetic music need

not reflect what Hobbits or Elves might consider music authentic to them in their (Secondary)

world, but it can reflect how we in the Primary World regard them. For that reason, I categorize

the non-diegetic music within the realm of the Primary World. On the other hand, the diegetic or

source music of the film, also composed by Howard Shore, presumably functions as authentic

and particular to the various races. We as audience members tacitly accept what we hear, the

Elves singing or the music to which Hobbits dance, as “their” music and modes of cultural
Ibid., 41.
Ibid., 42.
“A Sense of Time in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings,” in Tolkien: A Celebration, Edited by Joseph Pearce (San
Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1999), 96.

expression. Therefore, I analyze diegetic excerpts from the perspective of the Secondary World.

The diegetic music enters into the fabric of Middle-earth and thus can be a part of Tolkien’s



With regard to the non-diegetic music of the Hobbits, Howard Shore uses simple,

diatonic tonality, exemplified in the leitmotif “The Shire.”47 The majority of Western art or

“classical” music from 1600–1900 is governed by the rules of tonality, as is a large amount of

pop, rock, and folk genres. Also known as the major-minor system, the term tonality, according

to music theorist Brian Hyer, “most often refers to the orientation of melodies and harmonies

towards a referential (or tonic) pitch class. In the broadest possible sense, however, it refers to

systematic arrangements of pitch phenomena and relations between them.”48 The tonic thus

represents the aural home base for listeners, which we consciously or subconsciously recognize

as “where the music is supposed to go” at the end of phrases, sections, or entire pieces. The

majority of tonal music presupposes the incorporation of a major or minor scale, which is a

specific kind of scale consisting of seven notes (or pitches) arranged in such an order so as to

orient our ears towards the referential pitch, the tonic.49 The tonic of the scale usually serves as

the basis for identifying what “key” or tonal center a piece is in, which explains why pieces often

bear titles like “Sonata in A major,” “Symphony in D Minor,” and “String Quartet in Bb Major.”

The Fellowship of the Ring, DVD Disc One. “The Shire,” 11:28–12:00.
Brian Hyer. "Tonality." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed August 19,
2017, http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lion.hsc.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/28102.
The Western tradition uses the octave as the musical interval to contain scales, e.g. seven for the major/minor and
twelve for the chromatic. The division of the octave into pitches spaced equally apart would yield twelve notes, the
chromatic scale. The distance between these twelve notes is called a semitone, which is the smallest distance
between two notes in traditional Western music notation. As an exercise, pick any note on the piano (e.g. “F”) and
count in ascending direction twelve semitones by combining all the consecutive black and white keys. The final note
would be another F an octave higher. The pitch organization for a major scale is a bit more complicated for its
asymmetrical layout. The combination of two semitones yields a whole tone (counting the notes on the piano by
skipping over the immediately adjacent one). If we label whole tones as W and semitones as H (for half), the pattern
for a major scale would read W-W-H-W-W-W-H.

While composers often deviate from these seven pitches within their works, a piece in diatonic

tonality implies a general confinement to the seven pitches of the designated major or minor


A diatonic tonal underscoring ideally suits the music of the Hobbits upon considering its

associativity. We as listeners may regard diatonic tonality as familiar for neigh-ubiquitous

presence in several music repertories. We thus have been conditioned to listen to tonality with a

set of expectations even though we may not be able to articulate what or why that is. Also,

tonality itself bears associations of familiarity in Western music history. It resulted from

Enlightenment aesthetics of logic, order, and goodness and was codified as the system of

organizing music in the eighteenth century. Musicologist Brian K. Etter describes tonality by the

end of the 1700s as “normative” and “familiar.” He states how practitioners understood tonality

to possess objective metaphysical properties and functioned as both representation and

expression of goodness and natural order.51 By the time Romanticism emerged in the early

1800s, tonality was not so much a practice as it was a set of expectations to be met as a piece of

music unfolded. In addition, musicologist Richard Norton accounts for the strong (aural)

gravitational pull of tonal music, suggesting tonality itself manifests the metaphysical property of

teleology.52 Tonality, he writes, paralleled metaphysical thought of the Enlightenment so closely

that it became the expected, an assumed musical procedure.

Such associativity fits all too well with our Primary World view on the Hobbits as

familiar. Howard Shore scores “The Shire” theme to suit the bucolic nature of the Hobbits by

Some examples of diatonic tonal pieces include Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major, Beethoven’s Für Elise, “Let It
Be” by the Beatles, the Star Wars main theme by John Williams, and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon &
From Classicism to Modernism: Western Musical Culture and the Metaphysics of Order (Burlington, VT:
Ashgate, 2001), 19, 47–49.
Richard Norton, Tonality in Western Culture: A Critical and Historical Perspective (University Park and London:
The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1984), 210.

including solo recorder or tin whistle and fiddle playing over a warm string choir. With regard to

the harmony, Shore bases “The Shire” on the pitches of a major scale (D major). The vast

majority of pitches used in this piece correspond to those comprising the scale, rendering it both

diatonic and tonal. The melody and supporting harmonies (chords) all orient our ears to the tonic

of the major scale (D), which helps our recognizing the theme itself as home base. Within “The

Shire”—and its several variations throughout the film—Shore generally keeps within this

framework. The diatonic tonality of “The Shire” thus can connote a high degree of predictability

in our aural expectations of where the music will go and how it will resolve. In other words, the

music of the Hobbits suggests familiarity and can parallel Tolkien’s description and Jackson’s

cinematic translation of the race from the perspective of the Primary World.

Not much changes upon examining the diegetic or source music of the Hobbits. Take two

examples: the celebration music during Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday in Fellowship of the Ring,

titled “Flaming Red Hair;”53 and the drinking song Merry and Pippin sing during Rohan’s victory

celebration from the battle of Helm’s Deep in Return of the King, called “The Green Dragon.”54

Both songs are appropriately lively with a quick tempo and have a rustic quality due to their

instrumentation: both have fiddle accompaniment, but the former is more lushly orchestrated

with flute, a drone, and an array of percussion. In addition, Shore casts both pieces in diatonic

tonality, save for a few fleeting moments of chromaticism in “Flaming Red Hair.” The diegetic

music of the Hobbits retains the associativity of familiarity we might expect in the Primary

World but now within the Secondary world, but more to come on that below.


“A Long Expected Party,” The Fellowship of the Ring Disc One, 19:57–21:40.
Return of the King, DVD Disc 1, “Return to Edoras,” 21:44–22:14.

Returning to the Primary World to investigate the non-diegetic music for the Elves, it

may be unsurprising that Shore adopted a high degree of chromaticism to musically approximate

the fantastical, unfamiliar characteristics of Tolkien’s immortal beings. Whereas diatonic music

denotes adherence to the seven pitches of a major or minor scale, chromaticism means the use of

pitches outside said scale.55 A dead giveaway of its presence when looking at a musical score are

the numerous sharp (#) and flat (b) symbols attached to specific notes. Instead of restricting the

music to seven pitches, chromaticism opens the door to twelve.56 Depending on the amount used,

chromaticism can serve to obviate the sense of aural expectation and predictability common

within diatonic tonality. It also can heighten the expressive quality of the music. Since the

Romantic era, chromaticism has often marked emotional expression.57

Take, for example, the music of Rivendell. When Frodo awakens after recovering from

his wound from the Ringwraiths, he walks onto the vista and takes in for the first time the

autumnal beauty of Rivendell. The realm is nestled in the fertile valley of the Misty Mountains

amid several cascades.58 The place looks and feels magical—unfamiliar but breathtaking.

Howard Shore scores this moment with strings, bells, treble choir, and a sweeping cello melody.

The supporting harmony alternates between two chords ostensibly unrelated to each other, which

creates a seesawing effect. If we were to examine the chords under the framework of diatonic

tonality, neither of the chords fit into the same diatonic scale or key. Diatonicism no longer

allows us to understand the relationship between the two oscillating chords of the Rivendell

Dunsby, Jonathan and Arnold Whittall . "chromaticism." The Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford Music
Online. Oxford University Press, accessed August 21, 2017, http://0-
See note 39.
Some examples of chromatic music across genres include the Tristan und Isolde prelude by Wagner, the finale to
Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony, “Princes of the Universe” by Queen (well, a lot of Queen’s music), the
guitar bridge in “Flyin’ High Again” by Ozzie Osbourne, “Blow Up the Outside” by Soundgarden, and Emperor
Palpatine’s leitmotif from Star Wars by John Williams
The Fellowship of the Ring, DVD Disc 1, “Rivendell,” 1:26:38–1:27:18.

theme. Shore uses a different harmonic framework altogether, one that can accommodate

chromaticism. Like the image of Rivendell, the aural sensation created by the music often is that

of wonder. Very similar effects occur when listening to the music of the Elves: Aníron,

Lothlórien/Calas Galadhon, and Farewell to Lórien.59 This list is by no means exhaustive but


The way Shore associates chromaticism with the seemingly magical Elves is rooted

deeply in a nineteenth-century compositional practice. Romantics were enamored of fantastical

programs, which coincided with the increased experimentation of chromaticism in Western

music. In the 1820s composers like Beethoven and Schubert adopted a specific chromatic

technique as a function of inwardness, according to musicologist Richard Taruskin.60

Inwardness, he continues, resulted in an aura of “natural supernaturalism,” which privileged

transcendent experience.61 Specific uses of chromaticism seemed to channel this desire among

Romantics and produced sounds much like the ones discussed in the Rivendell cue.62 The

relationships between chords facilitated by chromaticism consequently appealed more and more

to composers precisely because they did not fit into the diatonic-tonal framework, according to

theorist Richard Cohn.63 They sounded too fantastical to be “Enlightened,” as it were.

Ibid., “The Sword That Was Broken” 1:35:17–1:35:51; DVD Disc 2, “Caras Galadhon,” 47:41–48:05; DVD Disc
2, “Farewell to Lórien,” 1:03:40–1:04:36.
Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol. III (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) 69.
For readers versed in music theory, the use of chromaticism willy-nilly, of course, is far too general to suggest the
inwardness about which Taruskin writes or of the framework Shore adopts for scoring the Elves. Rather, the
technique involves juxtaposing triads whose roots are separated by thirds, most often at the major third, but minor-
third relations do occur in Shore’s evocation of the fantastical.
Ibid., 73.
The Rivendell que juxtaposes F-major and A-Major triads, the distance between F and A being a major third.
There is no shortage among theoretical discussions with regard to chords related by thirds, also known as mediant
progressions, in scholarly literature: c.f. Richard Cohn, Audacious Euphonies (NY: Oxford University Press, 2012);
William Kindermann and Harald Krebs, eds., The Second Practice of Nineteenth-Century Tonality (Lincoln and
London: University of Nebraska Press, 1996); David Kopp Chromatic Transformations in Nineteenth-Century
Music (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Taruskin, “Chernomor to Kashchei:
Harmonic Sorcery; Or, Stravinsky's "Angle,"” Journal of the American Musicological Society (Vol. 38, No. 1:
Spring, 1985), 72–142;
Audacious Euphonies, 3–5.

By about 1850, composers had perceived and began to systematically differentiate

diatonicism from chromaticism in representation al or program music. Music theorist Anthony

Pople describes the process as the “convention that exotic and magical personages, events and

scenarios should be associated with ‘chromatic’ music [. . .] and the sphere of human beings and

their actions should be associated with diatonic music.”64 In other words, the human = diatonic,

and the fantastical = chromatic. This bifurcation occurs most regularly in the music of Rimsky-

Korsakov, Liszt, and Wagner. Take, for example, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 2,

“Antar.” The title comes from an Arabian legend wherein the eponymous character, a human

warrior-poet, enters a mythical land of fairies and nymphs. Upon listening to the opening of

Rimsky-Kosakov’s musical translation of the legend, the opening two minutes or so of the first

movement focus on Antar’s surroundings. He finds himself in a fantasy world, and the

harmonies emanating from the orchestra sound accordingly unfamiliar and spooky. Conversely,

Antar’s theme is the ray of light occurring around the two-minute mark and ushers in a different

sound world through its tonal properties.65

Film music inherited the semantic tradition of differentiating diatonicism from

chromaticism to oppose human and fantastical themes. Moreover, there has been no shortage of

scholarship in tracing the relationship between high Romantic representational music and film

music, thanks in particular to Wagner’s development of the leitmotif and his towering influence

on early film-music composers.66 And Shore is no exception. In the compendium The Music of
Anthony Pople, in “Styles and Languages Around the Turn of the Century,” The Cambridge History of
Nineteenth-Century Music, Jim Samson. Ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 617.
Maes, Francis, tr. Pomerans, Arnold J. and Erica Pomerans, A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to
Babi Yar (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002), 82.
There are several theoretical works on how film music has coopted these extended chromatic techniques. See in
particular Richard Cohn, Audacious Euphonies; Frank Lehman, Hollywood Harmony: Musical Wonder and the
Sound of Cinema (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming); and Scott Murphy,
“Transformational Theory and the Analysis of Film Music,” in David Neumeyer, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Film
Music Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 471–499. With regard to film music’s relationship to and
inheritance of Wagner, see Matthew Bribitzer-Stull, Understanding the Leitmotif: From Wagner to Hollywood Film
Music (London: Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Jeongwon Joe and Sander L. Gilman, eds., Wagner and

the Lord of the Rings Films: A Comprehensive Account of Howard Shore's Scores, music

journalist Doug Adams connects Shore to Wagner, and thus a context for the former’s use of

extended chromaticism, by stating although

Shore had looked to Italian opera to inform the emotional tone of this work, the
leitmotif approach was more closely associated with German opera—most
famously, the works of Richard Wagner. ‘It evolved out of the writing,’ explains
the composer. ‘I was imagining and creating music; then, only after I had written
a few hours, I could see what was evolving in the writing. Most themes began
based on an emotional emphasis. I wanted the audience to feel.’67

Shore’s non-diegetic music then can tap into nineteenth-century century traditions of delineating

the natural and supernatural through musical syntax, in this case the unfamiliar Elves from the

familiar Hobbits by way of chromaticism and diatonicism, respectively.

Such a comparison from the “real” Primary World perspective changes when examining

the music of the Elves within the Secondary World, however. Although both non-diegetic and

diegetic music examples of the Elves suggest a luminescent, ethereal quality, the pitch content

and associativity diverge. The first diegetic example occurs when Frodo and Sam reach the

outskirts of the Shire and hear the a-cappella singing of Wood Elves sojourning to the Grey

Havens. The next time we hear source music of the Elves within the Secondary World is when

the Fellowship reaches Lothlórien, and they listen to Elves perform a lament for Gandalf’s death

in a call-and-response fashion (antiphonal or two-part counterpoint).68 Although the musical

texture of the latter examples is a bit more complex than the former, Shore casts both diegetic

examples in a musical vocabulary similar to the major and minor scales used in tonality.69

Cinema (Bloomington, ID: Indiana University Press, 2010).

(Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Music Publishers, 2011), 7.
Fellowship of the Ring, DVD Disc 2, “Caras Galadhon,” 51:29–53:20.
For those interested in the music-theory terminology, the music in the Wood Elves scene is in Bb Aeolian with
frequent modal mixtures between Bb-minor and Bb major triads, which gives the piece an exotic, shimmering
character. The “Lament for Gandalf” is in D Phrygian, whose flatted-second scale degree often suggests sadness and

The music of the Elves’ source music is modal. Also known as the church or

ecclesiastical modes, they comprise the classification and pitch content of Gregorian chant

beginning in the eighth or ninth century and apply to the vast majority of Medieval and

Renaissance music.70 Modal scales have seven pitches like the major and minor scales of

tonality; however, the order of those pitches differ and thus produce different effects and

expectations among listeners. As their so-called names suggest, the church modes can connote a

distant, unremembered past of a thousand years ago.71 When used melodically and harmonically,

the modes also lack the sense of predictability and familiarity associated with tonality while not

sounding drastically different. The use of modes in both scenes thus can present either a

departure from familiarity, taken from the perspective of tonality, or a step towards familiarity,

taken from the perspective of chromaticism. Neither excerpts of music, however, suggest the

Elves as unfamiliar in comparison to the associativity of their underscoring.

Concluding Thoughts: Music in Primary and Secondary Worlds

The music of the films surely problematizes the familiar-unfamiliar observations drawn

from the Primary and Secondary World perspectives. There is no one definitive answer to

explain how or why, but assessing the music’s role invites a dialectic conversation. One possible

assessment is the music successfully facilitates our perception of the Hobbits familiar and Elves

as unfamiliar in both non-diegetic and diegetic examples. This assessment seems to gel easily

with the cinematic experience, as we learn about the races through the filter of Peter Jackson’s

Harold S. Powers, et al. "Mode." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 28
Aug. 2017. <http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lion.hsc.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/43718pg1>.
Several sources exist on the associativity of modes with an ancient past. With regard to the Western art-music
tradition, see Karl Dahlhaus Nineteenth-Century Music, J. Bradford Robinson, trans. (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1989), 310; James Garratt, Palestrina and the German Romantic Imagination: Interpreting
Historicism in Nineteenth-Century Music (England: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 9–35; Katherine Bergson,
Decadent Enchantments: The Revival of Gregorian Chant at Solesmes (Berkeley, CA: University of California
Press, 1998); John Butt, “Choral Music,” in The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music, Jim Samson. Ed.,
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 213–236, and “Choral Culture and the Regeneration of the Organ.”
In The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music, 522–543.

interpretation coupled with Howard Shore’s music. The film is a sort of translation of Tolkien’s

text, and our engagement with it is filtered through Jackson and Shore. In this regard, Howard

Shore provides music for exactly what we might expect, which is helping us connect to Hobbits

by using “familiar” diatonic tonality for non-diegetic and diegetic cues alike. The Elves,

conversely, can seem magical due to either the “unfamiliar” chromatic underscoring or remote

due to the distant, “pastness” of the church modes in their diegetic music. In effect, Shore’s

music generally supports a Primary World perspective.

On the other hand, the music can be restrictive precisely because we are forced to enter

the story through Peter Jackson’s vision and Howard Shore’s music. No other options are

available to us within the film. Moreover, Shore ostensibly does not consider the music from a

Secondary World perspective, which would render Hobbits as unfamiliar. Since we have no

music history of Middle-earth, there is less on which to compare the associations and practices of

Western music to what constitutes “authentic” music of Middle-earth, only heresay. The question

posed then is purely for readers of this article to ponder: if Hobbits sang and danced to chromatic

or modal music, then could or could it not work? I believe, depending on the skill of the

composer, it could sound appropriate and compelling as if it were always meant to sound that

way. Yet it might sacrifice the rustic, bucolic, and simplistic “feel” of the Hobbits and Shire,

given the differences in associativity between tonal and non-tonal music of the Primary World.

Nevertheless, the properties of Faërie can problematize our perspectives on what we see and

hear in the Secondary World.

Yet if the music can restrict our perception and understanding of each race, then it also

can manifest or even expand them. Music can allow us to regard both races as both familiar and

unfamiliar, if I may proffer the beginnings of a theory on the nature of music in the Secondary

World. On the one hand, a Secondary World view can free itself from any Primary World

traditions, in this case of diatonic tonal music’s associations with the familiar and normativity.

Take for example, the diegetic examples of Elves, Men, and of Dwarves: The Wood Elves

passing through the Shire and “Gandalf’s Lament” in Lothlórien in Fellowship of the Ring;

Eowyn’s lament sung during Théodred’s funeral in The Two Towers and Aragorn’s coronation

song in Return of the King;72 even the Dwarves singing “The Misty Mountains” in The Hobbit:

An Unexpected Journey.73 Three races sing independently of each other—all their music is

modal. Perhaps modality is the musical lingua franca of Middle-earth, which would fit quite well

into a world whereupon the past so often is invoked, remembered, preserved, and, in some cases,

still present (Lothlórien). Perhaps tonality, then, is the unfamiliar music and particular only to


In this scenario, the Primary World’s (non-diegetic) musical language associated with

familiarity and unfamiliarity is diatonic tonality and chromaticism, respectively. Conversely, the

Secondary World’s (diegetic) musical language associated with familiarity and unfamiliarity is

modality and diatonic tonality, respectively. Just as Primary and Secondary world perspectives

facilitate almost opposing familiar-unfamiliar characteristics of Hobbits and Elves, they now can

enable an inverse understanding on the associativity of musical systems. In any case, Howard

Shore invites us to situate and possibly project ourselves into the space of Hobbits and Elves

through music. His differentiation between systems of musical harmony becomes all the more

palatable when featured against the backdrop of the narrations, depictions, environments, and

customs of Hobbits and Elves from both Primary and Secondary world perspectives.

The Two Towers, DVD Disc 1, “The Funeral of Théodred,” 1:24:58–1:25:54; Return of the King, DVD Disc 2,
“The Return of the King,” 1:36:33–1:37:10.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson (2012, Blu-Ray DVD Edition, New Line Home
Entertainment, 2013), Chapter 7, 36:54–38:24.