"I feel as if I was inside a song"The Presence of Music in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Songs and Poems set to Music

The Presence of Music in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Songs and Poems set to Music

So what does the music from Middle-earth actually sound like? Tolkien has given us a number of clues and, in some rare cases, even literal descriptions of instruments. Detailed descriptions of how music was performed are most prevalent in The Hobbit, most likely because it adds to the feeling of the book as a travel novel as well as manages to draw its target audience emotionally nearer to the story – The Hobbit being a children’s novel, after all. Nevertheless there are plenty of cues in The Lord of the Rings, too, which will allow us to construct a pretty clear picture of how Middle-earth music most likely sounds.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of music, namely vocal music and instrumental music. The line between the two is not fixed – many a song mentioned is most certainly sung without accompaniment, which but does not exclude the likelihood of there being an accompaniment if the instruments and players are at hand. Furthermore, we may differentiate between on the one hand art music, which means music that is created over a period of time as a work of art and has a clear development and on the other hand spontaneously created music, the latter very likely covering a large part of the musical creations of the evil creatures in Tolkien’s fiction. Their music, meant for encouragement in war, possibly not even recognized as music in the sense of songs with or without instrumental accompaniment or as solely instrumental pieces, most likely consists of rather primitive chants, shouts and sounds produced by other means than the voice and does not serve any higher function as art. Nevertheless we need to take it into account if we want to get a picture of the musical phenomena presented in Tolkien’s works. In an universe created by music, with music mentioned all the way – even the Orcs are repeatedly mentioned singing some kinds of songs – Vaughan Williams’ observation of the non-existent distinction between articulating something in a speaking voice or by means of a song in folk music, as described by Martin, holds even more true for Middle-earth:
to this day a country singer will speak of ‘telling’ you a song, not of singing it. Indeed the folk singer [. . .] seems unable to dissociate words and tune [. . .]
Martin, 134
5 The way music is presented in Middle-earth suggests the validity of this observation in an even more pronounced form: The process of passing on historical information as well as legends seems to be largely orally via music. When the Hobbits ask Aragorn to “tell them a story”, he proceeds to sing them a song of Beren and Lúthien and only after finishing his song, actually tells them the background. He also mentions that what he just sang is “just but a rough echo” of the original Elvish setting (LotR, 191-193). The poem, sung in Westron and re-translated by Tolkien into English from the Red Book, is very well crafted and does not at all appear like a “rough echo”, so we can assume that the original version sung by the Elves somehow managed to bring the background information across, too. Otherwise it would be really hard to imagine in which way it could be superior to the Westron version by Aragorn. On a similar note, it is also interesting to note that Galadriel chooses to relay her messages to Aragorn and Legolas in verse, not simply as spoken prose. (LotR, 503).

Bilbo (and subsequently Frodo and Sam) are about the only characters ever to write those songs and the back story down, which led to the Red Book of Westmarch (see 3.1). It is likely that this way of communicating information through songs is a remnant of the creation of the world through music, which in turn suggests that this mode of passing on stories is shared by most sentient species – which leads us right back to the Orcs and similar creatures. While they apparently do not have art music, they do sing songs. This, as well as their spontaneously created instrumental music, or soundscapes, used in battles, mixed with war chants shows their adherence to the music-centred world of Arda. In the following section we will therefore have a look at the kinds of music of the various races before analysing a number of pieces.