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.
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.