A solid opening credits sequence is a must-have for any sci-fi/fantasy series. Series like Game of Thrones and The Expanse combine stunning visuals with sweeping music to set the appropriately epic mood, all of which serves to help viewers enter into the fictional settings. And before them, the various Star Trek series have always excelled at this, thanks to their iconic themes and evocative shots of outer space, which prepare viewers for another cosmic adventure.
And then there’s The Rings of Power. Yes, the credits have the requisitely gorgeous theme music, courtesy of Howard Shore. But the visuals consist primarily of grains of sand forming one abstract shape or pattern after another. They do occasionally look vaguely Tolkien-ish, such as the trees at the 0:25 mark, while others do resemble the sort of runes you might find in Middle-earth. Overall, though, The Rings of Power’s credits seem to lack the sort of epic-ness that one sees in, say, Game of Thrones’ credits, with their overview of Westeros’ vast geography and the numerous kingdoms all vying in the titular game.
But as Alexander King reveals in this insightful Twitter thread, The Rings of Power’s opening credits are, in fact, a surprisingly clever — and deeply meaningful — Tolkien deep cut.
The shapes seen in the credits are actually Chladni figures, which are named after Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni, a 19th century German physicist and musician who discovered a method for revealing how rigid surfaces vibrate. He would cover a metal plate in a light layer of sand and then run a violin bow across its edge. Different areas of the metal plate would vibrate differently, with the sand flowing along the edges of these areas and forming strange, even organic-looking shapes and patterns.
So what does this have to do with Tolkien? As King points out, “In Tolkien’s legendarium, the creator god Ilúvatar sort of creates the world out of music. The beauty of these figures is just a physical manifestation of the harmony of the ‘Music of the Ainur’?” (King is referring here to the Ainulindalë, the creation account of Middle-earth, in which Ilúvatar composes a great symphony of music alongside his first creations, the immortal beings known as the Ainur. Ilúvatar then reveals that their symphony has created the universe, known as Eä, as well as Arda, the world that contains Middle-earth.)
In other words, the opening credits of The Rings of Power hearken back to the very creation of Middle-earth and its eventual corruption (as indicated by the dark, serpentine flow that appears at the 0:54 mark).
The opening credits were produced by Plains of Yonder, who’ve shared some behind-the-scenes info that confirms King’s observations:
We set out to portray a universe both primordial and timeless. Taking inspiration from J.R.R Tolkien’s Ainur, immortal angelic beings that sing such beautiful music that the world is created from their very sound, we conceived of a main title sequence “built from the world of sound.”
Cymatics is a natural phenomenon that makes sound visible to the eye. Vibrations of fine particles on a flat surface display striking symmetrical patterns that reflect audio frequencies. Cymatics are understood by physicists and mathematicians, but to us mere mortals, they are nothing short of magic.
The sequence conjures an ancient and invisible power, struggling to be seen. Symbols form, flow, push, and disappear as quickly as they came. The unknowable realms of sound create fleeting visions of conflict and harmony that move in lockstep with Howard Shores’ opening title score.
All in all, it’s a fascinating detail that makes me appreciate The Rings of Power just a little bit more. And it’s evidence that maybe — just maybe — the series gets Tolkien a little better than its critics might realize.