I am studying this passage from LOTR.

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The viola, cello, and bass here alternate between chords in F minor and E minor.

How would I write the lower 3 parts with Roman numerals? They don't share notes, so I'm confused how I would interpret this. This isn't atonal is it?

  • Can you please cite the measure where each chord is?
    – user50691
    May 24 '18 at 22:07
  • 3
    @ggcg sure, out of the 4 measures he uploaded, they are in measures 1-4...
    – Some_Guy
    May 24 '18 at 23:08
  • That is a rather hostile response. What I meant was F- in 1 and 3, E- in 2 and 4 etc.
    – user50691
    May 24 '18 at 23:54
  • Trying to understand why the bass has F# in bar 2, but Gb in bar 4.
    – Tim
    May 25 '18 at 6:39
  • @Tim Isn't it because of the 'rule' in writing chromatic scales to use sharps ascending and flats descending?
    – Tim H
    May 25 '18 at 12:28

When you get confused by the notes, stop looking. Listen. If you forget the chords and listen and understand how the harmonic tension is working, I think you'll agree the passage overall doesn't feel like it comes to a conclusion, like a full cadence. But there is a sense of tension and then relaxation. To me it sounds like a half cadence with an unusual flavor of Phrygian motion. There is a long tradition of monkeying around with the inner notes in Phrygian cadences, the most notable version being the French, Italian, and German augmented 6th chords, all of which serve the same (pre-dominant) function.

With these thoughts on the functions of the chords, let's look at the notes. If this is a Phrygian sort of motion, then the passage is in the key of A minor, with F chord acting as a chromaticized VI and the E chord being a v. To confirm this, I sat down at a piano and played the passage and inserted an A minor chord at the end, to see if it "sounds right." I think it does.

The F chord is a little odd because it contains an Ab, making the chord minor. You'd think this would make it sound pretty weird, and it does have a spooky sound to it, but it still works because Ab is enharmonic with G#, and G# is in the scale for A minor (harmonic or melodic). So adding the Ab does not take it out of key.

Also, the E chord is unusual in that it is dominant function but minor. This is what gives the passage a sort of sad and uncertain release.

And finally, there is a false relation between the A natural in the melody and the A flat in the harmony, which heightens the tension and mystery of the first chord.

If I had to write this in Roman numeral notation, it'd be either

bvi v (traditional notation)


vib3 v (Aldwell & Schacter)


vi*  v (pragmatic shorthand that expresses the function)

P.S. I love this passage; it's one of my favorite leitmotifs in the film. Reminds me a little of the overture to Tristan and Isolde, and is even in the same key, coincidentally.

P.P.S. Maybe you noticed but this arrangement contains parallel fifths. Rules are meant to be broken, yo.

  • This is a thoughtful answer, but I'd question the idea that a phrygian motion implies a key of a minor. It's perfectly possible (especially in the context of film music) to write "phrygianly" with the tonic chord. bvii > i ; bvii, I ; bII > I are both perfectly workable gestures in a film music context, and I'd argue here that the pitch centre is in fact E in this motif (so you would have simply bii* > I)
    – Some_Guy
    May 24 '18 at 23:26
  • @Some_Guy Well to be fair I think ambiguity is part of the composer's intention. I'm open to the idea that the F is Neopolitan instead of Phrygian, or maybe it shows up as both at various times in the film. But let me ask you this. If you play the passage and tack on an A minor on the end, you hear the A minor as a subdominant function? And if you then switch to E, do you feel the progression has come to a rest? I am curious if your ear tells you something different.
    – John Wu
    May 24 '18 at 23:51
  • yes I do very much feel this, so strongly that I can't imagine hearing it any other way to be honest! If you play the chords and the melody on a piano or guitar or something, do you really hear it pull to A minor, or is that just your "theory head" speaking? Also curious, it's possible we just hear it differently!
    – Some_Guy
    May 25 '18 at 4:14
  • Fair enough. I don’t doubt you. But maybe I’ll use this as an excuse to watch the movie again, and listen to discern whether that phrase is ever used to end a musical period. I still hear it as more of a comma, but I love that it could go either way.
    – John Wu
    May 25 '18 at 4:40
  • found a clip of the passage in context. The tonal centre shifts constantly, good luck analysing that with roman numerals! youtu.be/nbLRDozffOc?t=116 first Fm > em then Abm > gm with the same melody only transposed down a semitone, then it lands on Ebm and modulates back up to Em. And if you keep listening past that the chords go all over the place constantly establishing and disestablishing tonal centres. I like it.
    – Some_Guy
    May 25 '18 at 15:29

Not to detract from the excellent answer from @John_Wu, but i would posit this additional analysis.

First, to answer the substantive question, the passage is tonal. Next, to answer your secondary question: i'm not going to propose any functional harmonic analysis.

To my ear there is a clear harmonic tendency to the Emin7 chord. Also, to my admittedly eccentric ear, the top C in bars 1 & 3 have a very strong tendency to resolve to the B in bars 2 & 4. So far, we are in agreement, however i would posit that we're actually in an E modal space rather than A. Rather than ♭vi → v7, consider the Fmin a chromatic upper neighbour to the Emin7. Further, consider the parallel 5ths between melody & bass: this weakens the harmonic motion, leaving my ear with the impression that the Fmin chord is an embellishment over an aurally implied E. [added:] Now in that light, the melody itself moves to emphasise the E centre with, again to my ear, C sounding dissonant against the preceding B rather than consonant in the Fmin embellishing harmony in the lower voices. As has been pointed out in other posts & comments, the melody eschews Fmin — viz the A♭/A♮ cross relation. On its own the melody implies to me Emin.

Does this line of reasoning then imply the following?

    ♭ii →  i7 → ♭ii →  i7
(i)  -  -  -  -  -  -  -

Equally this analysis of the chromatic upper neighbour would apply with the ♭vi → v7 movement over the implied v, but as a said earlier i hear the modal centre as E rather than A.

Also, John Wu's comparison with Tristan & Isolde is apposite, especially in light of Shore's later work for the LoTR films.

  • whether the bII is minor or major is a little complicated though because of the false relation in the melody, I think that's why john went for the asterisk in the end. Other than that minor nitpick I agree with this analysis completely :)
    – Some_Guy
    May 25 '18 at 3:04
  • if anything the Ab in the f minor almost acts as an unresolved tension to an implied F major chord that never comes (mirroring the same tension from the b to the c in the melody). That might be stretching it too far though!!
    – Some_Guy
    May 25 '18 at 3:06

The piece can be described using chord names. It's tonal.

It may not be functional, in the sense that everything's in the same scale and can be described as a string of (completed or frustrated) perfect cadences. But it doesn't have to be. Lots of (tonal) music isn't.

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