Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Why Music?

As we discussed in class, Tolkien did not invent the idea of music occurring during the creation of the world but rather drew on medieval and biblical sources.  In the Job version of creation, the stars sang and the angels shouted.  Some medieval philosophers investigated the idea of the celestial spheres making a kind of music.  I think that music possesses certain attributes which allow it to fit well within creation stories.  It is indescribable using words on some level, which allows it to be used to describe events which are completely outside of our primary reality, such as the creation of the world from a void.  The physical vibrations which form music are universal because they can exist in a world without words (or before words as I will argue).  I think that Tolkien uses music in Ainulindalë because its physical properties allow for it to exist and be described in particular ways within the story and because it fits within the ideas of the medieval philosophers of our primary reality.  

After we briefly discussed the idea of planets moving with the same frequencies as instruments and creating “music of the spheres,” I investigated further into this idea.  I found that Pythagoras had hypothesized that spheres such as the sun, moon, and planets emit vibrations as they orbit and essentially create a hum.  This idea was expanded during the Medieval era by theorists such as Boethius, who wrote about the idea of musica mundana or musica universalis.  The frequency of the spheres is created by the “celestial revolution” which creates a “fixed sequence of modulation” (Ilnitchi).  He believed that musical and cosmic structures have the same mathematical rations, and therefore the universe is creating a form of music through the orbits of the spheres.  This shows an idea of how music could translate from vibrations into physical celestial objects if musical and cosmic structures have the same mathematical ratios.  In Ainulindalë, this exact transformation occurs, with music creating the blueprint for the physical world which fills the void.  I think that Tolkien used music because this philosophy connects frequencies to the our primary reality.  He wanted a story which was a plausible myth, and the music of the spheres has foundations in our own medieval history.  

I think that music is used in these theories because of the way that it is described through language.  Last night, I heard Patrick Rothfuss talk about how he described music in his fantasy novels.  He said that he is careful to only use certain descriptive language rather than technical words which can be translated directly into a particular piece of music.  If he tried to describe what the music actually sounded like, he would lose the idea of the music because it cannot be explained using words.  Instead, by describing the emotions portrayed by the music using abstract language, he is able to create an idea of the music in the readers mind.  Tolkien uses this technique by describing the music of the Ainur as “deep and wide and beautiful” rather than fortissimo (Silmarillion 16).  Describing music allows him to give the general features of the scene without specific details which are indescribable (how can you describe physically something which takes place in a void?).  Music can exist without an actual physical world which makes it the perfect medium for use before the world was created.  

Tolkien takes the idea further by having the music translate not only into objects but also events in time such as the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar.  I think that this is because there is no language until the coming of the elves.  Although the Ainur and even Eru have conversations before this time, I do not think that they are using words in the way that we think of them today.  Since Ainulindalë is told by the elves, the story is told using language, but I think this is a translation of a different form of communication which is only possible between non-physical beings.  When the elves first arrived, “they began to make speech and to give names to all things that they perceived” (Silmarillion 49).  Before this moment, I think that both physical objects and abstract ideas did not have names.  Music is a concept which we can understand which tells a story without using names, which I think it why Tolkien used it to describe the creation of the world before the awakening of the Children of Ilúvatar.  Ilúvatar already knew the entire history of the world, but it could not be translated into words since they did not exist yet, so he used music as the medium for creation.  

One part of the story that I find problematic is that Tolkien described the music as “like unto harps and lutes … and like unto countless choirs singing with words.”  This connects the music in a fairly concrete way with the frequencies of instruments which we can perceive and imagine.  I think that it contradicts the idea that by using music, one is able to create an image in the reader’s mind which is indescribable with words.  It also does not follow Rothfuss’s idea of using descriptions of music which cannot be directly translated into sounds that we know but rather into vague concepts which we fill using our imaginations.  Why do you think that Tolkien uses this description of the music rather than leaving it more open to interpretation?

I think that music is used by Tolkien because it can be described using metaphors such as a “raging storm” without being forced to correspond to a precisely defined object (Silmarillion 16).  Music allows an author to describe things which cannot be said using written language.   Also, music is comprised of vibrations which allows the myth to fit into our primary reality.  As was discussed in class, any physical object can vibrate, and therefore a song comprised of vibrations could be hypothetically used as an actual blueprint for our universe.  

Anna Lasky


Ilnitchi, Gabriela. "Musica Mundana, Aristotelian Natural Philosophy and Ptolemaic Astronomy." Early Music History 21 (2002): 37-74.

Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.


  1. I would be interested to hear what you think about the different musical examples of creation that I played in class: only Beethoven's is usually described primarily in terms of the emotional response that it evokes. Smetana, Lassus, and Hildegard all seem to be doing something rather different with their music. RLFB

  2. My music teacher used to say that if a picture is worth a thousand words then music is worth a thousand pictures. I definitely agree with you that music is timeless and can make you feel emotions that words are sometimes unable to capture. Tolkien was very aware of this characteristic in his writings. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, while Frodo is listening to the music of Rivendell he imagines, “far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined” (The Lord of the Rings). The music evokes images that Frodo has never even dreamed of before, and this is an amazing characteristic that music possesses. In answer to your question, I feel like Tolkien’s description of the music, “like unto harps and lutes…and like unto countless choirs singing with words” (Silmarillion, 15) is not actually very specific. I think Tolkien just mentions all these varying instruments in order to portray a large range of music that the music of the Ainur could have been. Readers can imagine for themselves what the music would have sounded like, and there are many different possibilities and interpretations. There is no right or wrong answer, and by giving us such contrasting images to trigger our imagination, we can branch off in almost any direction to imagine this music, and bring it to life in our own minds.

    -S. P.

  3. Dear Anna,
    I’m very glad of your probing into the early medieval ideas of musical ratios and especially Boethius! That certainly sheds light upon what Tolkien is up to and it is very interesting to see these mathematical ratios as constituting the ‘blue-print’ for Eä.

    I think there is a lot of merit to your insight that Tolkien was more invested in describing music not to give technical understanding to in order to communicate the music emotionally to the readers. Is there a relationship here between the music and the elvish tongues, which also communicate emotionally (e.g. to Frodo in Hall of Fire) even without technical (i.e. grammatical) understanding?

    Coming back to language, I am intrigued by the notion that language did not exist before the elves, but I think the case has not yet been made. The Lhammas (1) begins with the statement:
    “From the beginning the Valar had speech, and after they came into the world they wrought their tongue for the naming and glorifying of all things therein.”
    It would be hard to hold on to the idea that there was no language, but we might ask what kind of language it was, and if it was not akin to the music?

  4. I was interested in the contradiction you brought up about the description of music. As you say, music is on the one hand indescribable (and thus appealing as a way to talk about the workings of the heavenly realm) and yet at the same time very quantifiable and able to be notated. Musical notes function in this way as language, so to answer Robert's question, I do think the language of the Valar must have been quite akin to music. I also think it's interesting to think about the production of music as a creative act (the literal metaphor here) and its connection to creation/sub-creation for Tolkien. By modeling an art form, music, as the very thing that brings a world into creation, Tolkien is showing in his own work his equation of artful creation with the heavenly creation. This relates back to his stance in Mythopoeia: "his world-dominion by creative act:/not his to worship the great Artefact,/man, sub-creator, the refracted light/through whom is splintered from a single/White/to many hues, and endlessly combined/in living shapes that move from mind to/mind."


  5. Hey Anna, great post!
    I think, to answer your question, that Tolkien had certain things in mind when he described the music as being like harps and and lutes, and countless choirs with words. To me this sounds quite a bit like religious music, or ancient pre-historical music.
    Doing some research, it looks like harps and lutes (and of course the voice) are the oldest instruments we know about. Harps go back to Sumer (c. 3500 BCE), lutes have origins in numerous cultures from Greece to China and are linked to lyres (which are just as old as harps), and the voice is the oldest instrument of all. It would make sense that the oldest human music of all is alike to the music of the Ainur. In fact, I would venture to say that perhaps the early ideas of music (just like language) draws pretty closely from the music of the Ainur.
    Also, the Silmarillion is a tale by the elves, and honestly it's not surprising that an elvish tale would try to express how the music sounds in terms they know about, i.e. in the instruments they play. Whether or not the music actually sounds quite like harps and lutes and voices is beside the point if this is a description with a narrative bias.

  6. I think the ideas you touch upon in your post are incredibly interesting. I feel as though the nature of music, however indescribable, is the perfect way to envision the creation of the world, a process that is incredibly complex and beyond the comprehension of man. There is something about music, perhaps the way in which it is a whole composed of many indistinguishable parts, that is so close to how Tolkien feels about his universe. Music is certainly powerful as well, both in its ability to convey ideas or emotions, and its ability to shape them. The way you describe music as a sort of language without words ties into this. I agree with you that the use of specific instruments as description seems contrary to the indescribable and grandiose sort of nature of music that Tolkien conveys. But even the sound of a particular instrument, though able to be imagined, cannot truly be adequately conveyed through words. There are still aspects of a particular sound that can be understood metaphorically, but not fully explained.