"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

With the music of Men similar to and dominated by Elvish music, it is only logical that the similarities extend to the use of instruments. Steimel refers to the Unfinished Tales when writing
the Edain are said to have preferred the harp for accompanying their songs. In Númenor, it was the men’s part to play the instruments, while the women sang.
Steimel, 95
Here we learn that the harp is an important instrument for the Men, too. While most of the instruments mentioned in The Lord of the Rings are horns (the most important one being Boromir’s silver-lined horn), those seem to mainly be used for signalling in battle, not as musical instruments. This goes in line with the musical traditions of the Elves. Steimel mentions the use of trumpets in Gondor for announcing the comings and goings of important persons or even soldiers, with those trumpet signals bearing meaning as signal calls. (Steimel, 98).

The Rohirrim very well could be an exception to the rule of using horns mainly for signals: They by far are the culture that is most mentioned using horns, with sometimes miraculous effects and properties. The Horn of Helm strikes such fear into the Orcish hordes that “Many of the Orcs cast themselves on their faces and covered their ears with their claws.” (LotR, 540), caused by the wondrous echo of the horn, which does not grow fainter, but instead louder. The horn is blown by men – in the plural – which suggests that it is a huge, stationary instrument. We can assume that it is of Dwarven origin, because the horn given to Merry Brandybuck by the Rohirrim is of Dwarvish making, as are the instruments used at Bilbo’s birthday party. By being so large and having magical properties, just like the Merry’s horn of the Mark, and with horns in general having such a high standing in Rohan society, they may very well have developed their own musical style for it – Linden suggests such a development, but calls it “utterly fanciful” (Linden, 88).

It does not appear so fanciful if one thinks of how much the Rohirrim rely on their horns in battle. We do not get any background information, but Théoden insists on Helm’s Horn being blown when riding into battle, with profound effects. Similarly, horns are frequently used to encourage the Rohirrim – it is their counterpart to war cries or the Orc’s clapping of their shields. The powerful magic of those instruments – again probably Dwarvish – will have come at a price. That the Rohirrim chose to have someone build magical horns, but not for example magical shields, proves their affinity to these instruments. Besides, on horseback an easily portable horn is much less a burden than a huge shield. As a highly mobile people, portability would have been an important aspect of the selection of instruments for performance. With the horns always close at hand it is only natural that they began using them as musical instruments while underway and probably specifically commissioned instruments that were fit to this task.

The harp as the common instrument of all cultures again deserves some insights from Maier: Since we have no information about how the Men came to play the harp. Maier speculates that they encountered Elves and Dwarves and learned from them. He states that, contrary to the Dwarves, their harps would have gut or sinew strings, not metal strings, since the Men were not able to craft these. (Maier, 115). While this is certainly correct, they could have bought Dwarven harps. In The Lord of the Rings, harps are mentioned as being played by the Rohirrim and the people of Gondor. There are harpists at the coronation of King Elessar, presumable playing soloist performances as well as accompanying the “singing of clear voices” mentioned earlier. The harp is used in Rohan, too, or at least was at the time of Eorl, because it is mentioned in the old song translated to Westron by Aragorn: “Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?” (LotR, 508). The mention of the glowing fire suggests that the harp was primarily played in the mead hall – as it was customary in the kingdom of Mercia, on which Rohan is heavily based – and maybe during travels at the campfire, too. It certainly was an instrument reserved for instrumental music or vocal accompaniment of old, traditional songs, possibly also for accompanying the recitation of epics. We cannot imagine it ever being used to accompany a song sending the Rohirrim forth into battle.

Maier quotes the description of one such recitation of the Old English epic Beowulf from Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien:
…the opening of his series of lectures on Beowulf. He would come silently into the room, fix the audience with his gaze, and suddenly begin to declaim in a resounding voice the opening lines of the poem in the original Anglo-Saxon, commencing with a great cry of ‘Hwaet!’ [. . .] It was not so much a recitation as a dramatic performance, an impersonation of an Anglo-Saxon bard in a mead hall . . .
Maier, 109
Apart from Tolkien not having a harp at hand back then, it is very likely that his performance of Beowulf would not have differed greatly from a similar recitation by a Rohirrim bard.

Finally, there is the interesting absence of any percussive instruments in either Gondor or Rohan. Only the Drúedain are said to use drums for communication, but not as musical instruments. One possible explanation for this would be that most uses of music in The Lord of the Rings are either in war, or on the road, where larger instruments would have been unfeasible. Most likely percussive instruments were not used because they are employed quite heavily by the Orcs and as such are automatically associated with enemies. Whether this is a decision by the people themselves within the universe of the books or by Tolkien as the author himself cannot be ascertained. One cannot say, though, that only the “good people” use other instruments like horns and trumpets – during the Battle of the Pelennor fields the enemy uses them as well in a similar fashion as signal devices.