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.
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:
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.
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”
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: