J.R.R. Tolkien fans know the magic of Middle-earth is in the details.
No one is more familiar with those details than Utah composer Chance Thomas, who grew up in Oklahoma City.
Since 1998, Thomas has composed scores for 10 computer and video games (three unreleased) based on Tolkien's “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
“Tolkien had spent a lot of time thinking about the way his world sounded,” Thomas said in a recent phone interview. “He spends a lot of ink describing musical instruments the various races use, the songs that were sung, the various emotions that were conjured up by the music and the lyrics.
“I wanted to become expert on how music in Middle-earth is supposed to sound based on the literature and intelligent inferences I could make based on that information. Thus began a multiyear project of pulling out, understanding and collating every sound and musical note.”
He collected his notes in his “Tolkien Music Sound Guide” and has used them as the basis of his scores ever since.
His scores are featured in several video game titles, including a few that borrow their names directly from Tolkien. They include “The Hobbit,” “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers,” “War of the Ring” and three “Lord of the Rings Online” games. The most recent, subtitled “Riders of Rohan,” was released last year to acclaim from critics and gamers.
The Rohan soundtrack is available on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify.
Thomas' connection to gaming began in 1996. Several years earlier, Thomas had graduated from Brigham Young University in Utah; he and his wife became paid entertainers on cruise ships sailing through the Caribbean.
By the early 1990s, though, Thomas was back on dry land. He opened a music production company in Salt Lake City. Then a friend told him that Sierra Online, then a big player in the computer gaming industry, had an opening for a composer.
At first he wasn't interested. He hadn't paid attention to the increasing sophistication of video games, which had come a long way since Pac-Man. When he played some recent games with his friend, though, he was impressed.
He applied for the Sierra job, auditioned and was hired to compose music for “Quest for Glory 5,” the latest in a series of popular games combining the action and role playing genres. Things went well, and in 1998, he was given the task of composing music for a proposed massive multiplayer game called “J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth.”
That's when Thomas began compiling his Tolkien sound guide.
Although that game was ill-fated (within a year Sierra underwent a massive reorganization), it brought Thomas into the Tolkien fold. As years passed, more titles went into development, and some made their way into production.
In 2003, Thomas was charged with developing themes for all the major races in Tolkien's world: humans, dwarves, hobbits, elves and the beastly forces of Sauron.
He also signed on with Vivendi-Universal Games as the company's Tolkien franchise music director.
Those themes recur in subsequent games, much as elements of movie soundtracks are carried over into sequels.
Interestingly, Thomas prefers not to compose at the piano.
“The best music comes together in the workshop of my mind first,” he said. “I'll imagine myself in a situation, for example if I'm being asked to compose for a steamy, tropical, beautiful alien world. I'll go there in my imagination. What does it feel like to be there? When I imagine it vividly enough, I start to hear music coming together.”
Thomas is justifiably proud of his Tolkien scores, although he knows he isn't the most famous Tolkien composer out there. More people are familiar with the work of Howard Shore, who won three Oscars for his scores for Peter Jackson's “Lord of the Rings” films.
Their music has much in common.
When he teaches master classes at colleges and universities, Thomas said, he shows students an image from a Tolkien video game, then asks them what the music for that image should sound like. The students call out suggestions, and he writes them on a whiteboard.
“Then I'll say, ‘Something like this?'” he said. “I push a button and my music starts playing, and 99 percent of the time it sounds like the things they said on the whiteboard.
“The conclusion we inevitably come to is that music is a language and that dramatic music for ... digital entertainment is a pretty well-developed language. It's not surprising when you listen to how I scored The Shire before the ‘Lord of the Rings' films ever came out, and you listen to Shore's version, they're different flavors of The Shire, but they're both recognizable. ... We're both experienced communicators in the field of dramatic music.
“As you listen to them (the scores), you can easily envision the ‘Lord of the Rings' universe because of the way it makes you feel and fires up your imagination.”
Thomas' work is far from over. The latest “Lord of the Rings Online” game takes Tolkien's saga as far as Rohan, but there are many miles to go — and many more games to produce — before Tolkien's heroes make their way to Mordor for the final battle.
Thomas is in no hurry.
“I'm a casual gamer,” he said. “The most fun I have is when I'm working on a game.”