Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Difference of Music

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.

-Prashant Parmar
Of course, sometimes our own sub-creations get out of hand.


  1. I like very much the distinction you make here between more static (non-performative) forms of art like painting and sculpture and the dynamic demands placed on the performers and audience by music. I think that you are right that music is unique as a form of art, but I wonder whether some of what you say would not apply to other performative media, for example, drama. Why music rather than speech?


  2. You illustrate very astutely that the use of music, in particular the interplay of harmony and discord, is not found in the traditional creation stories of our primary reality. You note the significant difference between music and other art forms – namely that, while tangible art forms are generally finished products before anyone but the artist sees them, music must be constantly re-created to be perceived in its intended form. However, to say that music is not a traditional form of art is inaccurate. The tradition of music goes back at least as far as painting, sculpting, pottery, etc., and none of these originally existed simply as art forms, but rather as aspects of the creation of functional things and/or parts of religious/spiritual practices.

    More recent art forms have incorporated the continued act of creation in which the creation of the work is part of the art or the art continues to ‘function’ even after its completion and is thus an incomplete work without this ‘functioning’ (take, for example, Cloud Gate in Millennium Park: this large, oblong, metal structure is ‘finished’ but its main purpose as an art object is to reflect the Chicago skyline and the people who come to visit it; because of this, the piece would be ‘incomplete’ if it were simply in a room by itself).

    To relate this back to the Ainulandalë, doesn’t Iluvatar’s initial creation of the music make that music essentially permanent? Can the music that has already been created ever change subsequently? Isn’t Iluvatar’s plan created at the very beginning in broad strokes which remain the same even though the details are not initially planned out and thus occur without a pre-existing plan? It seems to me that the plan does not change, but once time is set in motion, various events occur over time. Because these events are diachronic, they are dynamic; only without time would they be completely set and static.

    Which brings me back around to your point about how music as the medium of creation affects the roles of the Ainur. You make an excellent point about how creating through music allows the Ainur a kind of sub-creative ability not found in other creation stories; they can borrow various themes, alter them, make them their own, rejoin with the larger harmony, add their own themes to the larger symphony. But I do think a similar type of creation could be achieved in other media. If Iluvatar painted the universe, wouldn’t the Ainur be able to also pick up brushes and continue the theme of Iluvatar’s original outline, adding to it, altering the shades of color? Wouldn’t this also be true if Iluvatar had modeled the universe out of clay? It terms of metaphor, what do you think this says about the use of music rather than any other, also fluid, media?


  3. Professor Fulton, you asked why music and not speech; aren't they almost two sides of the same coin? I think what Tolkien is emphasizing here is sound, not just music.

    Music can communicate feelings and ideas, and even rivers, as we heard in class. Tolkien frequently talks about the sounds of his world, from the clashing of iron in Mordor, to the sound of the Lamenting Elves in Lorien. These details are just as valuable in relating information as the verbal descriptions of the scenery. Sound is the communicating medium, not just speech.

    There is even a Star Trek episode (if you'll pardon the fandom change) where a species that communicates only telepathically co-develops a system of speaking with humans by using sounds of differing pitch and tone. When another crew member walks in, she thinks she's hearing a symphony, but really its a conversation.

    I think Tolkien's choice of Music over any other Media, fluid or otherwise, emphasizes his focus on sound above all other mediums as a conduit for magic, divinity, and power. What is the Song of the Ainur, but the most elevated and perfect complexity of sound?

    -Katie M.

  4. I really like how you talked about music as it relates to the audience, especially in reference to participation and collaboration. From the music of creation, to love of song shared by hobbits and elves, to the sing-song speech of Tom Bombadill, music is an integral part of Tolkien’s legendarium and is found in important scenes of many of his works. In particular, it is song and verse that are important. In class, we listened to several musical compositions inspired by or reminiscent of Middle Earth, all (at least, I think all) of which involved instruments. Interestingly enough, the majority of the music in Tolkien’s works concerning Middle Earth do not involve instrumentals. At the beginning of the Hobbit, the dwarves play fiddles, flutes, drums, clarinets, viols and harps after dinner with Bilbo, but this is the only reference to instruments accompanying song that I can recall. I think this further emphasizes the relationship between music and sound that Katie M. mentioned in her comment above. Particularly, I think Tolkien is making a connection between music, creation and voice.

    - BLS