"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

The Elves were the first to awake on Arda after its creation, so they are also the first ones who had the chance to make music. Linden suggests that their first music (probably vocal) was inspired by the water, “wherein, it is oft repeated, there lives an echo of the music of the Ainur” (Linden, 79). He suggests that the Elves mimicked the flow of the water figuratively in their music, with rising and falling monophonic lines, either in unison or not sung by more than one singer at all. But if music is really as present in Arda as we may assume, there is a strong likelihood of the water actually making the true music of the Ainur audible. With the First Music being the epitome of polyphony, even as a mere echo it should still retain a good amount of what makes it special. The Elves are the Children of Ilúvatar and the immediate offspring of his thought; so even after subtracting the possible influence of the “interpretation” in the process of transforming the First Music into the physical world (see 2.2), they would still be powerfully linked to His thought and most likely have a deep subconscious understanding of the world. Add to this their curiosity and intelligence, which are again and again mentioned by Tolkien, and it should not stress logic too much to imagine this very first physical music as far more than just a monophonic imitation of gurgling water. Language will not have developed yet at that point, but we can be sure that the first Elves will have tried to imitate the multi-layered polyphony they heard in the water. We can dispute how successful they were at first to imitate this highly polyphonic music, but they most certainly tried!

Linden poses the question about the time when Elves began to use musical instruments. As he rightly states, the highest form of Elvish music was to be found in Aman, so the question arises whether or not instruments were only used after the split of the Eldar by those who journeyed to Aman, or also by the Avari, who remained behind. If they started to use instruments before the split, their tuning systems and their general music theory would be based on common roots. (Linden, 80). We have no way of knowing the answer to this question, so we will concentrate on Amanyan music because it is the style directly related to and influenced by the music of the Ainur: The Calaquendi6 in Aman had the unique chance to learn directly from the Valar, and were probably instructed in music by them. With their understanding of the workings of the First Music gained from “listening to the water”, they were able to extend their knowledge of this music, and possibly even further develop it to a form that more resembled the original music of the Ainur. This most enlightened form of course could not be compared to the First Music in either perfection or musical workmanship, but nevertheless, gifted as the Children of Ilúvatar were, the Valar-influenced form(s) must have been quite a progress from the original Elven music. Linden quotes a passage from the Book of Lost Tales 1, where the Teleri are explicitly mentioned singing to the accompaniment of the harp. He also mentions that before the gates of Valmar, “the Elves launch into a song ‘in unison’ “ (Linden, 82), so monophonic music certainly is present at that time, but probably in a way where performances are usually either accompanied by instruments or are homophonic/polyphonic.

On the other hand, the Elves that did not go to Aman, the Sindar, did not meet the Valar and did not have the chance to learn from them. Linden asserts that their style must have developed differently from the music of the Calaquendi:
But whereas it is easy to picture the Noldor writing treatises and studies on music theory, the Sindar would probably have adopted a more free and expressive idiom. [. . .] melody would be the most important element; and perhaps the rules concerning counterpoint would be unrestrictive enough that certain dissonances and rhythmic differences would be tolerated among the various parts. [. . .] for example, tension could be created through the use of dissonance.
Linden, 83
If we apply the theory of “reverse development” to the two forms of Elven music, we get the following picture: The music of the Calaquendi was directly influenced by the Valar. Depending on how well they were able to understand what they were taught, Amanyan music will have been very similar in style to the First Music, employing extremely intricate polyphony with equal status of all voices, in a very rigid tonal system with equally rigid rules. Mild dissonances would be allowed, but the music would never stray too far from the tonal centre.

Sindarin music, however, developed in a completely different way: The musicians over the years most likely continued to study the music they heard in the world, starting with the music of the water, and improved their understanding of it. Instead of being told the rules like the Calaquendi, they needed to understand them themselves. This, along with the missing controlling instance of the Valar – which the Elves in Aman had access to, as the Valar presumably told them when something did not conform to the rules – the Sindar had the chance to extend the musical framework. They probably did not have complete equality of all voices; while still highly polyphonic, their music most likely had some form of leading voice, if only so that their best singers and instrumentalists could show what they were capable off. Not without reason, the minstrel Daeron is quoted by Linden as being called the mightiest of the great three minstrels (Linden, 83) – and he was a Sindar!

When the Noldor then returned to Middle-earth, the two musical cultures met and Noldorin music was forced to change due to different circumstances. Linden discusses the possible implications in detail, but for our task at hand we can do with a short summary: Both cultures learned from each other and exchanged their views on music theory. As Linden puts it:
Perhaps Maglor [A Noldorin minstrel] had to write a new treatise on melody and harmony to take into account the Sindarin practices he observed. And possibly allowance was made for new chromaticisms in his music. Daeron, for his part, would have found Maglor’s approach a little too formalistic, but he may have come to a better understanding of the foundations of his own musical system [. . .].
Linden, 84
We may therefore assume, that – at least for the open-minded Elvish minstrels – a major shift took place to a common musical language. Over time music continued to develop, possibly influenced by ideas of other cultures the Elves encountered. While the individual styles will have continued to be played, minstrels learned to compose in other styles, too, leading to a diverse palette of Elvish music. The Elven songs featured in The Lord of the Rings all talk of former times and are presumably very old. While we can assume that the texts underwent slight changes over the centuries, these art songs will still represent the musical styles of Noldorin and Sindarin minstrels. If we add to this that after the fall of Beleriand the Elves began to gradually go from Middle-earth until at the time when The Lord of the Rings is set in the Third Age only the major dwellings of Rivendell and Lothlórien are still preserving the Elvish culture, we can safely assume that their music has not changed much since the First Age. At the most there would have been some influence again from other races – the biggest stylistic influence possibly being songs that Bilbo taught the Elves while staying at Rivendell. A curious people such as them would be hard-pressed to pass up the opportunity to hear a Hobbit bath song.