Howard Shore: From epic ‘Lord of the Rings’ score to quietly haunting ‘Spotlight’ music

You may know Howard Shore for his “Lord of the Rings” score – epic, sweeping music created with a symphony orchestra and a huge choir.

His latest project is a very different composing endeavor: “Spotlight,” which features piano-driven chamber music. Just a small group of 10 or so musicians – compare that to the 200-plus musicians in “The Lord of the Rings” (a 96-piece symphony orchestra, 8 to 10 instrumental soloists, a 60-voice adult choir and a 50-voice children choir).

“Spotlight,” a frontrunner this awards season, puts onto film the story of the reporters at the Boston Globe who exposed a massive cover-up of sexually abusive Catholic priests.

The film is a riveting but understated telling of the true story. It doesn”t over-dramatize these events – the horror of what these priests did to children and the risk the reporters took by investigating this story speaks for itself in this controlled account of the Spotlight team at the Globe in 2001. That tone was largely set by Shore”s subtle, often quietly haunting score, one that never seeks to direct audiences” emotions with swells of brass and big string sections.

The composer chose to have the piano stand out in much of “Spotlight” because the instrument “has a very intimate quality to it,” Shore told HitFix. “It”s also a very elegant, graceful and an honest instrument in ways that its black and white nature relates to this type of investigative newspaper journalism.” He also used electric keyboard and a Hammond organ.

Instead of writing music inspired by the reporters or other characters, Shore identified themes and motifs in the script: Pressure of the Church, Deference and Complicity, Investigative Reporting, Legacy Journalism, City on the Hill, Pain and Anguish, and The Children. Some of those thematic ideas became track titles on the soundtrack release.

Photo credit: Open Road Films

Shore began working on the score very early in the making of “Spotlight,” before production even started, working with the script and conversations with director Tom McCarthy as his guide. 

“I was also doing research, reading a lot about the impact of the uncovering of the story in Boston. Once I did the research, I worked on themes and motifs for a while away from the film and then I started applying the music into the film in terms of scoring,” said Shore, whose composing credits also include “Hugo,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “The Aviator.”

Much of the film is about how the Globe story rocks the city of Boston and its large Irish-Catholic population, so Shore made sure to allude to Boston”s roots in parts of the score with a bit of Celtic sound, using bodhrán (an Irish frame drum), accordion and fiddle.

As for the rest of those instruments in the score”s chamber music group, there”s harp, electric bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and two French horns.

Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega

Some of the film”s most emotional moments – including Mark Ruffalo”s Globe reporter”s big blowup – didn”t feature any music. Shore said that the question of when to let his score fall silent is one “that I”m always aware of and I”m always asking.” The balance of music and no music in “Spotlight” was largely about pacing for Shore.

“I was always leading to the moment where you see [Michael Keaton”s character] Robbie at the end of the film, where he goes back into the Spotlight office, the phones are ringing and he realizes that the story is out,” Shore said. “So I”m gauging and judging the use of music, the size of it, the pacing of it in the story and how to arrive at this conclusion.”

The Academy Award nominations will be announced next Thursday, January 14. We”ll find out then whether Shore will pick up an Oscar nomination for the “Spotlight” score.