De Musica

One of the most famous depictions of music qua music within literature is found in the Ainulindalë, the creation story that opens Tolkien’s Silmarillion. It owes obvious allegiance to the first chapter of Genesis but has two significant changes: first the angels are involved more directly in helping with creation and, important for this article, Eru (God) does not ‘speak’ but rather ‘sings’ creation into being. The angels than accompany him in harmony (or, in the case of Melkor, the Satan analogue, attempted disharmony) and it is this Great Music that forms the foundation of creation.

There are few who are not moved by a reading of this tale. It is a powerful presentation, speaking to something rather deep within our souls. Few commentators fail to note that Tolkien found something very primal in humanity that is awoken at music.

What is most fascinating about the story is an admission from Tolkien himself: that he is, essentially, amusical (or at least that he had no aptitude for it). He says that the only music talent in his family belongs to his wife and her family (all of whom were deeply musical). The Tolkien side was, while not tone-deaf, well unsettled in the musical world.

Music or, more specifically, musicality, is a confused concept in our culture. Those who play instruments (or at least one instrument) are certainly musical, as are singers and dancers (the debate is out on drummers). Those who enjoy classical music, opera, any sort of specialty music, are also probably musical. But simply being a fan of Mumford & Sons or U2 does not one grant one any special note; it is too ordinary.

But obviously Tolkien was musical, even if he denied it and our definitions would deny it. Music belongs to something deeper in the person than as an form of expression or art. Rhythm sets us not only to dancing but to living, in some unfathomable way. Perhaps one could argue the ‘musical’ man is at a disadvantage, for form and function begin to crowd in upon the simply impossibility of music. To debate the relative worth of Baroque versus Minimalism is to loose the ephemeral heart of both.

One is hard-pressed to imagine worship without music. Every tradition chants or sings or serenades. There is an enigmatic line in the 47th Psalm where we are called to “sing with all our understanding.” Regardless of interpretations, what is evident here is that singing and music are things subtle and belong to a deeper region of the person. Music touches us and demands a response, even if we do not ‘know’ music.

There is much that can be said about music, but if we are to accept its mystery much be left unsaid (there is a space for knowing the effect of a minor fifth but for most of us the knowledge runs the risk of turning a piece into a technical apparatus). What belongs to music belongs to the mystery; it is not forbidden to understand but one need not understand to love. Perhaps music is the deepest, closest presentation of beauty our mortal minds can comprehend; certainly this is a valid interpretation of Tolkien’s thought. It is not in designing music that we tap into this more perfect beauty, but simply in hearing it or partaking in it, whether by signing aloud, drumming our fingers, or aligning our hearts. If it is not true that the world was created in music, it is true that it is one grand step in its recreation. “Come, let us sing to the Lord.”

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One Response to De Musica

  1. Richard G. says:

    Great post, Justin. There is something about music that resonates well with us and, as being does to us, draws us out of ourselves and in a sense de-centers us.

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