Sound surrounds us, yet is invisible to the naked eye. But with a suitable substance and a little bit of acoustics, you can bring sight to sound in the form of spectacular patterns — and that’s precisely what the creators of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power did in the stunning title sequence of the prequel series.
According to a blog post by Plains of Yonder, the directors of the title sequence, Mark Bashore and Katrina Crawford, had an ambitious goal: visualize harmony and conflict in Tolkien’s world based on the Ainur, immortal creatures that “sing such beautiful music that the world is created from their very sound.”
So, they turned to the science of acoustics to create a title sequence “built from the world of sound.” But just what are these striking symmetrical patterns in The Rings of Power’s title sequence, and how did the creators use sound to make them? After stumbling upon a Twitter thread by game designer Alex King on the topic, we got some expert help to learn more about how science helped bring the title sequence of this fantasy series to life. Let’s dive in.
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What are the patterns in The Rings of Power?
The opening credits of The Rings of Power feature the vibrating movement of fine particles like stones and grains of sand, which form circular shapes, curved lines, and even two opposing trees — perhaps a reference to Middle Earth’s Two Trees of Valinor from Lord of the Rings mythology.
According to John McGowan, a lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University who has conducted research on interactive sound visualization, we can likely describe these movements in the title sequence as “Chladni patterns.”
Ernst Chladni was an eighteenth-century German musician and physicist who experimented with making sound waves visible in striking patterns. He would place the powder on a metal plate and then draw his violin bow along the edge of the plate’s surface, creating an acoustical vibration that caused the powdery particles to move along the plate and form strange shapes, henceforth known as Chladni patterns. Violin makers still use Chladni’s principles and diagrams to create better-sounding violins. Physicists and acoustics experts call these metal plates “Chladni plates.”
“Ernst Chladni was one of a number of people who experimented with different-shaped visualizing media over the years to create these patterns,” McGowan tells Inverse.
How do you visualize sound?
Chladni may have paved the first stepping stone, but Swiss scientist Hans Jenny was the one who crossed the pond in the 1900s and truly developed the field of cymatics — a scientific field that studies the visualization of sound.
You can even try making your own cymatics patterns at home using a speaker and some salt. According to McGowan, people have also created unusual cymatic patterns from violin and guitar bodies.
“What we see in cymatics is a visual representation of a sound wave in a visualizing media like sand or salt,” McGowan says.
In physics and acoustics, there are properties known as “nodes” and “antinodes.” When you set off an acoustical vibration at a certain frequency, fine particles will move across a metal plate away from vibrating sound waves (the anti-nodes) and collect in places where there is no movement (the nodes), forming unique patterns.
Still confused? We’ll let McGowan explain by comparing a guitar string to sound waves:
If you think of a guitar string that vibrates (as an analogue of a sound wave), the fixed end of the string doesn't move at the bridge or the nut — that's the node. The vibrating part of the string that oscillates is the anti-node.
Essentially, these symmetrical patterns are “a visual depiction of those nodes and anti-nodes oscillating on the surface of the plate,” McGowan adds.
At low frequencies, sound waves have pretty long wavelengths and appear more like a sphere or “sound bubble,” so the visual lines we see in these patterns don’t depict the full sound wave.
“Think of the visible lines as being a cross-section of that sound bubble — a bit like cutting through an orange and seeing a 2D version of a 3D phenomenon,” McGowan says.
A Chladni plate demonstration from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
By changing the frequency of the vibrating sound, you can create different patterns. Here’s how that works.
Any sound has a fundamental frequency and harmonics frequencies — the latter are multiples of the former. A sound with a fundamental frequency of 100 Hertz (100Hz) will have subsequent harmonics frequencies at 200Hz, 300Hz, and so on.
“So, when a tone/note is played on a Chladni plate, the action of the violin bow causes higher harmonic frequencies to be played on the plate,” McGowan explains.
The higher-harmonic frequencies rearrange the image that forms in the particles, because the plate’s vibrating edges — caused by the violin bow — now create “higher frequencies with a smaller waveform and more complex combined symmetry,” McGowan says.
Cymatics experts will use audio devices — like tone generators — to help create specific patterns from the sound. These tone-generated patterns typically take longer to change from one pattern to the next “because the tone has to reach the next harmonic that matches the size of the plate itself,” McGowan explains.
“In general, the patterns created on square plates are quite predictable, however, if you visualize sound in different shaped spaces, you'll get different results,” McGowan adds.
How were the patterns in The Rings of Power made?
McGowan was not involved in the making of the credits, but he has expertise in particle animations and developed audio visualization therapeutic tools for people on the autism spectrum. In the title sequence, we cannot see the edges of any plates — which we would normally see on square Chladni metal plates. The type and size of the plate used will also affect the pattern.
“Wavelength and frequency are related, so depending on the size of the plate, only certain frequencies will be clearly visualized on them,” McGowan says.
Since the patterns are partially dependent on the plate, we know a four-sided square plate will generate four-sided symmetrical patterns — and we can see some of these in the opening credits.
“So the four edges of the plates vibrate to create a fundamental tone — the base frequency — and you might notice that all of the patterns there are of a four-sided symmetrical nature,” McGowan explains.
But if the particles are scattered on a round vibrating plate, different patterns will form.
“However, if you look at round plates, the vibrating edge creates different patterns because it has one vibrating edge where the patterns created are mainly based on internal reflections and refractions from that circular shape,” McGowan adds.
Ultimately, it’s likely a combination of real-life cymatics and CGI made The Ring of Power’s title credits possible. We’ve moved far beyond the days when Chladni needed a violin bow to generate his mesmerizing patterns.
“I suspect that the creators used filmed sequences of actual vibrating plates of different shapes, and then created a CGI animated version of that with their own designs merged into the ones taken from reality,” McGowan concludes.
Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is streaming now on Amazon Prime.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on September 20 to clarify that Anthony Vitagliano did not lead the team behind the animation.