"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

Of all the music in Tolkien’s works, Hobbit music is by far the one kind of music where we can find a good number of references in the books itself. From the mere description of Hobbiton in the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring, one cannot help to picture the Shire as very much resembling a 19th century English countryside. In fact, Tolkien himself in his letters confirmed the Shire to be based on rural England:
the Shire ... is in fact more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee
Bratman, 142
8 As greatly varied the different interpretations of how the music of Middle-earth may have sounded are, as common is the way in which Hobbit music is portrayed: It always is more or less in an Irish folk style, on occasion mixed with some untypical instruments, as we shall see. As Tolkien explains in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, Hobbits are very easy-going people and not overly concerned with big politics. They are not very eager to study any history, apart from the genealogy of their families and usually do not travel very far, if at all. We are told that the Hobbits originally had extensive contact with Men, Dwarves and Elves and even used Westron exclusively as their language despite originally having their own language, but that after moving to the Shire “passed once more out of the history” (LotR, 4). The fact that most Hobbits never travelled far and seldom dealt extensively with other races (mixed settlements like Bree were few and far between) probably led to their music mirroring their simple lifestyle. We can assume that indeed Hobbit music sounds very much like traditional Irish folk. There have been exceptions of Hobbits knowing songs and music from other cultures (Bilbo and Frodo come to mind, obviously), but for sure the average Hobbit would be far more interested in a drinking song than in an Elven hymn. Indeed Peregrin Took himself confirms this indirectly when asked by Denethor so sing him a song:
[. . .] we have no songs fit for great halls and evil times, lord. We seldom sing of anything more terrible than wind and rain. And most of my songs are about things that make us laugh; or about food and drink, of course.
LotR, 806
This quote also tells us that sometimes Hobbits do sing about more evil things than wind and rain, but no such songs are known to us. Also we cannot determine if Pippin with “my songs” means just songs he knows, or songs he composed himself. If the latter, that would suggest that there are professional musicians in Hobbit society, since Peregrin is still quite young and would not have referred to his own compositions if he merely saw it as a pastime.

The topics of Hobbit songs have been summarised eloquently by Murray Smith:
[. . .] the songs and poems of Hobbit origin that readers come across mostly deal with themes of food, drink, bath and bed, overlapping with comedy and with bestiary lore. The more sophisticated ones, sung by Hobbits who had travelled and had connections with Elves and men, also include stories of those other peoples, as well as about travelling.
Smith, 198
Smith's mention of "bestiary lore" refers to Sam’s Oliphaunt rhyme, see 4.1.13.

As for their style, it was melody-driven, with catchy phrases, most likely quite rhythmic, at least for traveling songs and very cheerful all in all. Even the sadder songs would still have an optimistic element in them – but for the average Hobbit, no sad song would ever find the way into his repertoire. Here we encounter the very problem that Steven Linden felt the need to address with his theory of “reverse development”: How can it be that music that was played thousands of years ago can sound just like a particular kind of modern music? Indeed the notion of "reverse development" can also be applied to Hobbit music. If all music is ultimately based on the Music of the Ainur with its perfect polyphony, it is likely that elements of that music are also to be found in Hobbit music. Tolkien writes in the Prologue of The Lord of the Rings that at least the Fallowhides - one of the three tribes of Hobbits - had "more skill in language and song" (LotR, 3), so there definitely are skilled Hobbit musicians and there seems to be a general inclination to see making music as a worthwhile activity. While there is probably no true polyphony in any Hobbit music, there is nothing that speaks against having multiple homophonic lines. One remnant of the polyphonic style of the First Music in Hobbit songs could therefore be multiple melodic lines in close harmony, very similar to what is today to be found in Bluegrass music. Close harmony voicing, probably based on modal harmony not restricted to only major/minor, would not require any special musical education, but only knowledge of the principal melody, the "lead", as it is called in this style.

Hobbit music with its catchy, memorable tunes is perfectly suited for this kind of performing style. It likely (just as today's folk music) mainly employs easy to grasp harmonic progressions immediately memorable on the first pass, allowing any singer to join in at the second chorus at the latest. As long as the singer knows the chord progression, with this kind of harmony singing it is almost impossible to hit a wrong note. Considering that drinking seems to be a major part of what a Hobbit would call a perfect day, such a musical style would also comply with the need to still be able to perform after a number of pints of ale. With an instrumentation resembling Irish music and closed "bluegrass" harmony based on a modal system, Hobbit music perfectly fits into the music-centred world of Arda.