"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

As outlined previously, the Elves learned how to make music from the Valar. Steimel lists the instruments played by the Elves after they split:
The Vanyar played congregated harps, the Noldor viols and instruments; and the Teleri played pipes blended with their voices (LT1 143-4).
Steimel, 94
The latter, as Steimel notes, proves that those Elves played together in ensembles, which should not be surprising considering the origin of their music from highest polyphony.

To get a clear picture of how Elvish music sounded and in which way it might be reproduced today, it is important to know the instruments important to the Elves. There is a diverse range of instruments mentioned that are attributed to learned musicians: Steimel refers to the three greatest minstrels from the Book of Lost Tales 1, Tinfang Warble, Maglor and Daeron. Tinfang Warble plays the flute and Daeron is described as a “piper”, too. So both play wind instruments, with Daeron said to having accompanied Lúthien when she sang or danced. So wind instruments were considered learned and fitting to the courts of kings and their players were renowned and had a high standing in society. This is in contrast to medieval society, where the “pipers” were the lowest rank of musicians.

Maglor plays the harp and accompanies himself when singing. The harp seems to be a very important instrument for the Elves. Norbert Maier, an instrument builder himself, has looked into the significance of this instrument in Middle-earth: He refers to Tolkien’s deep knowledge and connection to Old English epics, particularly Beowulf, where the harp is mentioned several times and to the changes in meaning of the word “harp” over the years. (Maier, 110). While there are no detailed descriptions of any Middle-earth harps, there is nothing that suggests that they are not roughly comparable to modern folk harps. Maier raises an interesting point: When people in Middle-earth were reading of the use of harps some thousands of years back, the image that formed in their head was of the harp they knew. It would therefore entirely be possible that in earlier times those harps were ever so slightly different from their form at the end of the Third Age just like a modern instrument in our time may have differences from older instruments. (Maier, 111).

Another valid question is that of whether those harps were diatonic, used pedals or levers to lower or raise the pitch of strings like the modern concert harp, or maybe even were chromatic. Fully chromatic harps are hard to play: Glissandi are complicated because the player needs to remember which strings to skip, which is practically impossible to do at very high speeds. Likewise, chromatic harps require many strings making the instruments hard to transport. With the complicated mechanics, pedal or lever harps are unlikely to be used in Middle-earth; regardless, because they only came into use in the 17th century, their presence in Middle-earth would therefore constitute an anachronism similar to the clarinet. No glissandi are ever mentioned in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, so we cannot ascertain if any were played at all. It is likely that harps in Middle-earth were confined to a single key and did not allow changing keys, let alone chromatic playing. At least with smaller travel harps it would be possible for a player to possess more than one instrument in different keys to counter this. Of course retuning the harp before playing is also possible.

Finally, there are mentions of trumpets and horns during battle. These are supposedly used for signals and employed primarily because of their volume. Any other instrument simply would have been too quiet to be audible over the noise on the battlefield. No use of any is mentioned in orchestras, so it is likely that they were not considered musical instruments in Elvish society, but instead were only regarded as communication devices.

As for how the instruments were used, we can draw some conclusions from the description of Daeron: If he accompanied Lúthien on the harp when she sang, the harp was probably widely and customarily used for the purpose of accompaniment. This would make sense, as the player can strum chords as well as play short fills during melody breaks. When used as a solo instrument, a harpist can play melodies and chords with both hands very fast, so soloist performances are easily imaginable, making the harp an instrument suitable for all styles of music and in all situations. We know that the Elves played several harps together, because in the Book of Lost Tales we read that the Noldoli “made much music, for the multitude of their harps and viols was very sweet” (LT1, 137) and, later, that “the throbbing of their congregated harps beat the air most sweetly” (LT1, 158). Judging from the description (“multitude”), the number of harps played at the same time was rather large. Maybe their playing style was such that one or two players always played the lead while the rest provided rhythmic and harmonic backing; after a number of bars then other players would take over. Unless they strictly played in unison or from some form of sheet music, there is no other way imaginable how they could have played well together with so many players playing the same instrument. Not only is it necessary to play the right harmony, but also not to accidentally get in the way of other players, creating a muddy sound. From the quotes we can also gather that Elven harps had a quite short sustained tone or were muted with the hand rather quickly – again with so many instruments otherwise the sound would have become quite muddy.

We have already touched on the subject of probable musical differences between the Elves that went to Valinor and those who remained in Middle-earth and the likely fusion of the two styles after the first returned. Maier notes the likely presence of two different strands of harps, too. The Elves who had remained in Middle-earth continued their musical tradition; Maier takes Haldir’s words “our hands are more often upon the bowstring than upon the harp” (LotR, 348) as representative of this group. Their harps would have largely remained the same, but probably were influenced by Dwarven designs because chances are high that Elves had contact with Dwarves.

The Elves who went to Valinor would have had the chance there to learn directly from the Valar, probably influencing their craftsmanship. Maier names the harps of Galadriel and Elrond as examples of this line (Maier, 119) and suggests their similarity to a “special harp construction of the 17th century with three parallel rows of strings. These instruments were sometimes even larger them two meters and had approximately 80 to 100 strings” (Maier, 120). Such an instrument would indeed have been magnificent and fitting to an Elven king. Furthermore it would sufficiently explain the special sound of Elvish harps, if only those had three rows of strings, but not the harps played by other cultures.

The flutes are used for melodies, suggesting the presence of purely instrumental music. Players like Tinfang Warble would not have gone to the length of learning to play as well as they could, only to end up only accompanying someone else, so they played solo without doubt. As for the “viols” of the Noldor, we can take these for the presence of general bowed instruments. We know nothing about how exactly those instruments were built or how they sounded, but it proves that Elvish orchestras had bowed instruments in their sonic palette. For today’s “Elvish” music this basically means that bowed strings are indeed acceptable in performances as a replacement of the instruments used by the Elves, contrary to brass instruments, which do not seem to have been used at all for this purpose. Woodwinds obviously are fine, too, but there is no mention of any percussion in the text. It is hard to believe that Elves did not even know any drums or other percussive instruments, but they do not seem to have played any at all. Maybe they did not because percussive instruments were considered to be instruments of the dark forces; after all, Orcs and other cultures allied with the enemy are reported to having used them.