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Lord of the Music: A Brief History of Musical Storytelling

For literature enthusiasts and film enthusiasts alike, there is one story with which everyone is more or less familiar: The Lord of the Rings.  It’s a tale of good versus evil that has withstood the test of time and remains one of the leading fantasy stories in fiction to date. J.R.R. Tolkien uses successful literary devices to bring his characters and story world to life, and Howard Shore utilizes musical techniques to expand on these ideas.


Leitmotifs, or recurring musical themes that represent specific objects, characters, or situations, connect a longer work of music by creating a sense of familiarity and inevitability. They often appear in relation to a specific story element and transform over the course of the work.

– Yours truly

Early forms of musicals and plays likewise operated according to certain structural rules in terms of musicality. To understand the context and usage of today’s film scores, it’s important to know the beginnings of musical storytelling, the most notable of which is opera.

This precursor to modern film uses word-painting and other techniques to convey certain ideas and emotions. While much of the other varieties of descriptive concert music rely almost solely on the music to tell a story or convey an emotion, opera uses stage, lighting, actors, choreography, costuming, etc. in partnership with music to tell a coherent story. Without the visuals, descriptive music tended to be left to interpretation.

The specificity brought by the combination of music and visuals in opera gained popularity for its uniquely immersive quality. It’s easy to see how opera is one of film music’s direct ancestors: they both rely on music and visual qualities that build upon each other.

The most notable opera as it relates to The Lord of the Rings comes in the form of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, a four-opera cycle that bears a striking resemblance to Tolkien’s epic fantasy.

Look at this beautiful art of Der Ring des Nibelungen, from Renegade Tribune

In Wagner’s tale, the ring is a cursed treasure that brings terrible misfortune to all who possess it (sound familiar?). Throughout the events of The Ring Cycle, the ring is passed from hand to hand with direct consequences to its bearers.

To further expand on this generational curse, Wagner builds leitmotifs that connect to certain recurring places and characters, which reflect the ring’s ability to impact many victims. Leitmotifs, or recurring musical themes that represent specific objects, characters, or situations, connect a longer work of music by creating a sense of familiarity and inevitability. They often appear in relation to a specific story element and transform over the course of the work.

One of Wagner’s most highly-praised methods for connecting music to story is his use of leitmotifs and the thematic transformation thereof (Hickman 51). Thematic transformation is important to the development of a leitmotif and what it represents. As leitmotifs change, each variation reflects how a character or place changes over the course of the story, each aspect mirroring the other. Such an effective tool of storytelling has carried over to modern film music, making Wagner a notable predecessor of the film score.

Good looking dude called Richard Wagner, by Opera de Montreal
Love this pic by Jakob Owens, over on Unsplash






Howard Shore expands on Tolkien’s story by using musical techniques similar to Wagner’s to highlight Tolkien’s masterful literary tools. With the help of leitmotifs and thematic transformation, as well as visuals, Wagner transformed the genre of opera and created a tool for future musical epic storytellers like Howard Shore.

Music in Film

Operatic music became the ancestor of another venue for musical storytelling: the silent film.

As moving pictures were invented and became a prominent source of entertainment, visual methods of conveying important story developments included music to fill in these gaps, creating non-visual additions. Early silent film projects used small venues with predominantly piano instrumentation, gradually widening to percussion, strings, and sometimes vocals (Hickman 69).

The musical accompaniment would often signify the mood of the story, but silent film music also served another non-musical role: early projectors were noisy and broke the illusion of reality (Hickman 70). Even in film’s infancy, music was often used to mask reality and create a fully-immersive story world, even while the machines necessary for the conveying of that story world presented a distraction that broke the suspension of disbelief. The role of music to help fix this problem and suspend disbelief evolved with film as time passed, even after projectors were replaced with modern film.

Diegetic and Nondiegetic Music

In early film, the music itself became more varied than silent film and included two different categories of music that still exist today: diegetic and nondiegetic. Diegetic refers to music that exists within the story world itself, while nondiegetic includes music that exists outside of the story world.

Diegetic music refers to music that exists within the story world; nondiegetic music refers to music that exists outside the story world.


An example of diegetic music would be a song that a character sings or plays on an instrument that other characters can hear, such as a performer singing to a responsive audience.


Contrastingly, nondiegetic music exists outside of the story. Characters are not aware of the music accompanying their story, but it is a crucial aspect of the telling of the story itself. An example of nondiegetic music includes orchestration used for ambience or to set a certain mood within the scene, much like the infamous “Jaws” theme. Diegetic music directly interacts with the characters and story, while nondiegetic music comments on events that are taking place.

In many ways, diegetic and nondiegetic music became stand-ins for literary devices that appeared on the page but could not appear in the same capacity onscreen. One of the most influential examples of diegetic music comes in the form of The Lord of the Rings’ Elvish songs. These songs are usually direct quotes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s manuscripts, appearing in the film trilogy for authenticity in what was revealed to be a growing trend of modern-day film-making: book-to-screen adaptations.

From Book to Screen

While the leap from book to film is tedious and many literary devices don’t directly translate to the big screen, leitmotifs allow thematic change in an adaptation; each theme reflects how a character or place might change over the course of the story, each aspect mirroring the other.

Similarly, the musicality of these adaptations mirrors the devices such as character development, narration, and plot advancement. These are all devices that Howard Shore employs in his score. While character development can be shown and commented on in a book through choice-word descriptions, a film must only show the development, or the intention will feel heavy-handed. Music became the stand-in for literary devices, translating traits and emotion without the ability to say it outright.

Music helps to round out characters in a satisfying way that an audience can understand. Voiceover narration is an overused trope in the film industry, but this form of exposition stems from the attempt to make up for an inability to outright tell the audience what is happening.

Similar to character, music also establishes mood and adds another layer to the visual aspects. Plot advancement is perhaps the easiest narrative device to show on the big screen, but even it can become muddled if done improperly. Plot elements can easily feel contrived. While character development, narration, and plot advancement are difficult to employ in film adaptations, music acts as a bridge between book and film, filling the gaps between methods of storytelling.

In Shore’s Hands

Armed with the knowledge of both literary tools and musical devices, we can see that The Lord of the Rings film trilogy offers much more than simple diegetic interludes. The film trilogy creates an immersive experience and presents a careful combination of sound from film composer Howard Shore and the visual storytelling of director Peter Jackson, both of whom build from the accomplishments of their predecessors. As Jackson builds the visual world from actors, set designs, and editing, Shore uses leitmotifs, among other techniques, in The Lord of the Rings to expand on Tolkien’s story by connecting to tools of narrative and language. In preparation for the folk song interludes in the films,

Shore spent years learning the various languages that sprang from Tolkien’s imagination and found himself immersed in and connected to the story that Tolkien brought to life. In an interview, Shore said, “Music is essentially an emotional language, so you want to feel something from the relationships and build music based on those feelings.”

Music is essentially an emotional language, so you want to feel something from the relationships and build music based on those feelings.

– Howard Shore

Thus, Shore began his own journey, determined to convey the heart, soul, and meaning on the screen that Tolkien had captured on the page.


Previously: Elements of Storytelling

Next time: Examples of Nondiegetic Music

* All references will be provided in the last installment of this blog series. *
Photo by Vlah Dumitru on Unsplash