Tolkien’s creation myth in The Silmarillion is unique in its use of music as a tool of pure creation to fill the void of non-being: “the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void” (note the change in capitalization). Other mythologies use the concept of sound: the Hindus believe the universe sprang from the sound of Om echoing through the void, while the Christians proclaim “let there be light”. Some, like the Japanese, call upon light to illuminate the void. Some simply declare existence to occur, since all the important parts come afterwards anyway. In all cases, the Void is filled; what it is filled with, however, determines how to proceed. Tolkien, however, links the act of creation with the interplay between harmony and discord, and the entire process of creation is influenced by this decision.
Music is not a traditional form of art. When one draws, or sculpts, or paints, the deliberate action of each stroke or each chiseling is present in the work; it has a sense of permanency, for it is static. After a painting is done, one cannot return to modify the original work. Instead, a completed painting has now broadcast its message to the world, and its message, however subtle, does not change or waver in the minds of the observers. Traditional art has a sense of finality, where evolution ceases. There is no need to modify what is already present, so there is no need to evolve. To put it another way: the painter does not have to sit in a museum all day and keep repainting a masterpiece for his audience, so that they may see it with fresh eyes each time. That defeats the purpose of static art: it must exist in a finalized form to be fully appreciated. If Iluvatar had drawn the world on a sheet of paper in permanent marker, then the world would have no ability to change, and no purpose in changing.
Iluvatar, however, crafts the world in the malleable medium of music, not simply words, light, or pictures. When one goes to a symphony, the audience is not given the sheet music for the evening’s composition (unless you bring your own, in which case you are a terrible person). The sheet music is an outline for the art, certainly, but it is meaningless; sheet music is not music. Instead, the music is inherent in the harmony and discord, the loudness and the softness, the interplay of instruments, each section of which will sound completely different when playing the same note (the ensemble nature of creation should also be noted). Music is not a static art; it cannot simply sit there. It must be continually re-invented with each repetition of a song, and its beauty is inherent in the fluctuations in pitch, volume, and complementary harmonies. Furthermore, music is an art that exists temporally as well as spacially, meaning that it has the capacity to evolve. Songs are dependent on their tempo as one way to express themselves, and to listen to a song, one must accept the speed of the performance. Unlike static art, where there is a choice in how long a piece can be viewed, music can change and evolve with a simple shifting of timeframes or a complex evolution of conductor and player interpretation. The London Philharmonic has a different playing style than the Chicago Symphony, and The Nightmare Before Christmas’s theme song takes on terrifying new depths when performed by Marilyn Manson.
One impact of this temporal malleability is that the world is not set in stone, nor is it a static creation. Iluvatar meant it to be a dynamic, evolving process that his children could participate in, and where sub-creation could flourish beyond the imaginations of the Ainur and Melkor. By outlining the world in terms of harmony and dissonance, he leaves his children to fill in the blanks of the world and make their own interpretation of his song. The Valar experience this firsthand, when they realize that while the music had told them what to do, they must still interpret it. the Valar perceived that the World had been but foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it.”
Music is also deliberately chosen because of its different method of audience approach; the drive and motivations of the races of Middle Earth depend on this. While in static art one can approach at leisure (both physically and mentally), form opinions, and walk away at leisure, music demands the exact opposite. Music seizes its audience and sweeps it along a current of sound, and the audience has little to no choice in where they may journey. Melkor’s discordance, by its very existence, influences the other Ainur: “Some of these thoughts he now wove into his music, and straightway discord arose about him, and many that sang nigh him grew despondent, and their thought was disturbed and their music faltered; but some began to attune their music to his rather than to the thought which they had at first“.
(As a side note, music also has the potential for much more collaborative effort than some other art forms; it is a shared creation that can be passed around, not always the work of only one creator.)
Music determines the time, the place, the harmony, and, often, even the emotions of a listener; it forces active participation. Since the races have free will, if the world was static they could simply choose not to be a part of it, as seen by some of the Noldor desiring to stay in Valinor. Instead, because the world is shaped by a constantly moving harmony which demands understanding and re-making, this apathy is offset by the inherent desire to create, to explore, and to imagine. It is restrictive to a point; the Valar could not make Middle Earth out of pipeweed, and the elves cannot sing death metal. It does, however, within its outline leave ample room for re-interpretation and discovery. Iluvatar intended the world to evolve so that the art of the end would be greater than the art of the beginning; music allows leeway for that evolution. The Children of Iluvatar will participate in the final song and, presumably, sing about what they have done with their lives.
Tolkien’s decision to craft his world from music illuminates a great deal of how he envisioned Middle Earth to be, what purpose he believed elves and men to have, and even what he desired his readers to do with his mythology. Within the blueprints of his song, we are free to find our own interpretations and boundaries, and be swept along the currents of Middle Earth. His tale demands active participation and a different method of approach than a normal story, while forcing us, both separately and together, to grapple with something outside of the traditional creation myth purview. He did not paint a picture of Middle Earth; he sang it into being.
Of course, sometimes our own sub-creations get out of hand.