The first note played in the Lord of the Rings score has an ancient history

“Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.”

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring opens with a monologue. Galadriel, the Elven queen, details the history of Middle-earth, the dangers of mythmaking, and the things that should not have been forgotten, but were.

The film also begins with a sound.

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.

Just before a choir sings “Footsteps of Doom” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional language of Sindarin, and Cate Blanchett launches into her narration, viewers hear an ominous drone. The dissonant rumble comes from a monochord, played by the late multi-instrumentalist and composer Sonia Slany. In the first measure of Howard Shore’s score, this obscure instrument sets the emotional tone for the trilogy, and the literal tone for the nearly 11 hours of music that follow.

For thousands of years, the monochord has been used for tuning, science, and healing. And like the One Ring, it represents bygone knowledge from our distant past that’s almost, but not quite, lost. The age and history of the instrument make it a fit to open Peter Jackson’s Fellowship, but the first scene nearly looked — and sounded — very different.

“The prologue sequence proved a rather tough nut to crack,” says musicologist Doug Adams, author of The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films, who was chosen by Shore to document the creation of the soundtrack. Early on, the filmmakers developed a number of different openings for which Shore composed original music. Adams describes one opening that threw viewers into the story right away with no narration, accompanied by a more traditional composition (akin to the first track of the condensed soundtrack released in 2001 alongside Fellowship). Another iteration, which can be heard on The Rarities Archive, a companion CD to Adams’s book, prominently featured the “Realm of Gondor” theme when the armies of men and elves first marched against Mordor. In fact, the leitmotif was originally intended to “be all over the place” in Fellowship, but was reworked into the main theme of Return of the King.

When the filmmakers eventually settled on the narrated introduction viewers have come to know and love, multiple actors were considered to voice the prologue. Adams recalls Ian McKellen and Elijah Wood taking stabs at the monologue, and at least a consideration of Christopher Lee reading the text as Saruman. Blanchett eventually took center stage as Galadriel, and with her, new music.

Shore’s overarching aim was to create a score that sounded like it “was discovered, rather than written,” says Adams, and the first track was pivotal in writing that sonic narrative. Although he signed on to score The Lord of the Rings movies in part because of his own personal relationship to the story (the composer was in the jazz-rock fusion band Lighthouse in the ’60s and ’70s and read The Lord of the Rings on the tour bus), he was also drawn to the project because of the unique completeness of Peter Jackson and his collaborators’ translation of Tolkien’s world. The fully realized cultures, languages, and lore spurred Shore’s desire to craft a soundtrack that not only “commented on the story,” but also felt diegetic, Adams says — “like music that the characters could have heard in their own world,” reflecting different eras, regions, and cultures of Middle-earth.

To achieve the “element of antiquity,” Shore sought out ancient sounds and instruments from around the world, including the Indian sarangi, the Iranian ney, the hurdy-gurdy, and the monochord. Their sounds can be heard most prominently in scenes set at Lothlórien, while the Rivendell Elves were accompanied by a more conventional orchestral arrangement of arpeggiated figures, low strings, and chimes. Shore deviated from Western instrumentation to reflect the mysteriousness of the Woodland Elves — one of the oldest cultures of Middle-earth. “Rivendell is about learning and knowledge, but this is different,” Shore is quoted as saying in The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films. “The Lothlórien music stretches into sustained, arrhythmic shapes that sound neither dangerous nor comforting, but create a sense of unanswered anticipation.” When Galadriel was chosen to narrate the prologue, the accompaniment changed to weave in the music of Lothlórien, including her signature sound: the monochord.

Shore was particularly drawn to the instrument for its age. Monochord literally means “one string,” and as Dr. Rich Walter, Curator at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) points out, the noise made by a vibrating string is “about as ancient a musical sound as we have” aside from the thumping of a drum. Formally invented around 300 BCE with origins extending into prehistory, the monochord classically consisted of one wire stretched out across a hollow wooden body. The original version was used as an experimental device to study tuning and harmonic principles, not for music-making. While it’s not exactly clear who developed the monochord, evidence suggests the Greek mathematician Euclid designed it. However, Pythagorus often gets the credit for reinventing the instrument to explore the relationship between ratios of string length and musical intervals. From his studies, he developed mystical concepts like music of the spheres — the hypothesis that the planets in our solar system all emit their own unique celestial hum based on their orbit — as well as core tenets of music theory. The monochord was later employed in the mid-medieval period by Guido of Arezzo, the Italian monk and music scholar who invented modern staff notation.

Woodcut showing Pythagoras with bells, a glass harmonica, a monochord, and organ pipes, from Theorica musicae by Franchino Gaffurio, 1492

Woodcut showing Pythagoras with bells, a glass harmonica, a monochord, and organ pipes, from Theorica musicae by Franchino Gaffurio, 1492
Image: Public Domain

Countless other philosophers and mathematicians made use of the apparatus in attempts to uncover truths about the cosmos, numbers, and sound. Dr. William O’Hara, Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Gettysburg College, tells Polygon that “the monochord represents a kind of origin story for Western music.” Much like Galadriel’s introduction to Middle-earth, the time period in which alchemists relied on the monochord to uncover mysteries about the universe was a prologue to modern music theory and the invention of instruments like the harpsichord. O’Hara remarks that the iconic device has taken on a mythic status among contemporary musicians and scholars, who view the monochord as a symbol of perfect sound and “ancient, lost musical knowledge.”

Today, the traditional, one-stringed instrument is used mostly for demonstration purposes. “Contemporary monochordists,” says O’Hara, “almost universally use many-stringed instruments” like the 50-stringed monochord played by Slany for Howard’s Lord of the Rings score. The resulting sound of the many-stringed version, with strings all tuned to the same pitch (which Walter comments could be more accurately described as a “polychord”), is what Adams describes in his book as a “faint metallic slithering” similar to the noise made by the Indian tanpura, which can also be heard in the Rings trilogy. When you play a few strings on the monochord, O’Hara explains, the rest move too, in a phenomenon called “sympathetic vibration.” But due to natural human error, subtle differences from wire to wire create resonant oscillations, forming a unique sonic landscape. Whether caused by gongs, bells, or strings, two or more sounds that are almost, but not exactly identical are “more vibrant, more exciting, and more alive, than if they were exactly the same,” muses Walter. “That’s when some weird stuff happens.”

Sonia Slany standing by her monochord

Sonia Slany standing by her monochord
Photo: Courtesy of Paul Clarvis

Finding a player for such an uncommon instrument was never a certainty for The Lord of the Rings production, and although Shore wanted it, the monochord was marked “optional” in the score. Orchestra contractor Isobel Griffiths was responsible for finding musicians for the unusual instruments Shore hoped to use, and Slany was already on her radar for her principal instrument, the violin. Slany also played the monochord in both musical and therapeutic settings, and ended up being the perfect fit. According to Paul Clarvis, Slany’s husband and an accomplished musician himself, she had read J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous trilogy years prior to lending her monochord to the films’ soundtrack and felt the story “evoked a very calm sound world.” Adams attests that Slany, who passed away in January after a long illness, “was a real blessing” for the movies.

In 2000, The Independent spoke with Slany about her monochord, a sound-bed variation developed by German Swiss music therapist Dr. Joachim Marz in the 1980s. At the time of the interview, the instrument, consisting of a seven foot by four foot wooden table with a barrel-shaped belly underneath, lined by 50 wires, was one of only four such monochords in England. To use O’Hara’s words, it looks like something “straight out of Middle-earth.” Clarvis explains that Slany commissioned the instrument to be built after studying sound therapy in her early 20s. In therapy sessions, a person would lie on the wooden board, absorbing the sound bath, while she plucked and strummed the strings below. In recording sessions for The Fellowship of the Rings’ opening track, a microphone took the person’s place as Slany played F natural and C natural.

Andrew Barclay, the principal percussionist for the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), who has been in the ensemble for over 25 years and performed for the Rings recordings, remembers that Slany, along with the other musicians who played unusual instruments, typically recorded separately from the main orchestra. This was because of booth space, but also for audio separation. Instruments like the monochord can be unpredictable — they may not produce the sound composers expect, or they may be hard to hear over the rest of the orchestra. Barclay says Rings was and remains LPO’s “biggest undertaking” by far, taking several years to complete, with countless niche instruments included.

Although Slany didn’t use her monochord all that frequently for soundtrack recordings, chances are you’ve heard her violin playing before. Clarvis shared an extract from her funeral service detailing her career highlights: She toured and recorded with bands like the Cranberries, Bjork, and Radiohead. Her solos can be heard on the last few James Bond films and in The Hunger Games trilogy. She even played alongside the London Symphony Orchestra during the 2012 London Olympic Games. However, like many violinists, Clarvis says, “she had a complicated relationship with her instrument.” But “not so with the monochord,” which was personal and dear to her.

Her kinship with the instrument is apparent in the opening thunder of Fellowship’s soundtrack. The monochord appears easy to play — with all the strings tuned to one or two notes, there are no chords to worry about, and they can simply be improvisationally strummed to create a hypnotic wash of noise. But as Walter wisely says, “​​there’s no such thing as an instrument so simple that it can’t be played really, really well.” Slany played the monochord really, really well. And its droning and mystique successfully set the emotional pace for a film about forgotten history, above all else. In the monochord’s hazy humming, Shore found a sound to evoke things that were, things that are, and things that have not yet come to pass in the land of Middle-earth.