AUTHOR: Aeriel Holman

ACTIVITY: Online Winter Course, Music. Discussion Post Option 5: How do composers, especially film composers, use scales to set a mood and emphasize the visual drama?

Approx. Words: 795

DATE: December 2012 (created)

NOTES: I have decided to start posting some of my essay-like answers from some of my online classes. I worked hard on a lot of them, and liked the way they came out. Since my creativity falters in the face of a ton of work I have been doing, I thought it might be good to post some of my academic writings too.

Misty Mountains: Peter Jackson's The Hobbit

Film, and film's success, has much to do with the way music is used to enhance, suggest, or underscore several themes for the viewers. This is why composers and scales are crucial to drama. Scales, such as major and minor, have a natural mood that sounds cheery or somber. The best example of how music influences films drama is composer Howard Shore, who worked on Peter Jackson's adaptations of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

After a decade of waiting, Peter Jackson released the first of a trilogy of films just last December. The Hobbit: Unexpected Journey has skyrocketed box-office showings, and fans are currently raving about the movie—but most of all, its music. Any Tolkien fan will tell you a huge part of his works are not only based in linguistics, but in the way music flows into stories. Music is always essential to plot and mood. In fact it is "the organizing principal behind all creation" (Day, p.20). Both Howard Shore and Peter Jackson must be aware, because the most popular trailer/teaser for the movie is epic shots of rolling New Zealand landscape and characters brilliantly accented by a rendition of Tolkien's "Misty Mountains Cold."

For those who are unaware, this movie is based on Tolkien's book, The Hobbit or There and Back Again. It is the story of a small creature known as a hobbit who goes on an adventure to take back gold in an abandoned dwarf kingdom from a dragon. Although, known as a children's book, Tolkien has been acclaimed of launching the current stereotype of adventure-fantasy with this novel and the follow-up story of The Lord of the Ring's trilogy. While Tolkien was loath to admit it, the story was told in an easy, pointed manner, with simple structures in sentences and character development—thus labeling it under children's reading. Still, the main theme of the story is much darker and this presentation carries on in the lyrics of the songs penned in the novel.

"Misty Mountains Cold," is in poem-like format, and tells of gold in a dragon's hoard that was made by the dwarf characters in the story. It emphasizes the beauty of their craftsmanship and the evils of the dreaded monster that stole from them. In the book, the song's originally ten stanzas long, each with four lines (ch.1). Howard Shore chose to only use two stanzas of lyrics in the movie—stanzas 5 and 7—as well as omitting the musical instruments the dwarf characters play (fiddles, flutes, viols, drums, clarinets, and one harp played by the king character; ch.1). These instruments were substituted for deep-throated humming by the cast and harmonizing, most notably beginning on the line "to find our long forgotten gold" of the first chorus and then the rest of second chorus. The ascribed melody is used throughout the rest of the film to remind the audience of the perils of the adventure, and create an adequate mood. It is a sobering and somber piece of work.

Howard Shore's extensive use of this particular song and his envisioned melody is actually crucial to the entire plot of Tolkien's Hobbit. It is made quite clear that this tune "woke up" the adventurer in the main character, and delighted his mind with tales of dragons, and images of finely crafted jewelry, weapons, and halls of a lost kingdom (ch.1). Choosing to draw on "Misty Mountains Cold" reflects not only the atmosphere of the adapted tale, but reminds listeners of the high fantasy elements. The same melody in orchestra also captures that classic "epic" feel for the moviegoers during the rest of the film.

In relation, a quote from the textbook at the beginning of Chapter 5, "The composer… joins Heaven and Earth with threads of sound. –Alan Hovaness" (p.26) has a ground for reality for this particular composer. If one had to describe the scale, it is easy to claim Howard Shore used the minor scale predominantly. In the orchestra pieces, the deep, hollow sound of horn instruments could be heard, with a countermelody of high string notes. It leaves the listener in a state of suspense, torn between images of ancient, kingly sounds and the bright, quick action on battlefields. It is slow and steady. The tune itself lingers afterwards. It is especially haunting for the version sung by the cast. "Misty Mountains Cold" has so much texture—first starting a harmony of deep hums, and then breaking as the king character bass vocals begin the lyrics. It is simple, conjunct, with natural waves. There is something universal and archaic in Howard Shore's adapted music, clearly reaching out to the audience. It is a grantee that few people will depart the theater without unknowingly humming the main theme.


ColliderVideos. "THE HOBBIT TRAILER HD." watch?v=G0k3kHtyoqc. Youtube. 20 Dec, 2011. Web. 3 Jan, 2013.

Day, David. The World of Tolkien. New York: Octopus Publishing Group Limited, 2003. Print.

Forney, Kristine, and Machlis, Joseph. The Enjoyment of Music. 11. Shorter. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 2011. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit or There and Back Again. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 1993. iPhone File.