page 6: Instruments

Musical Instruments of Middle-earth

Tolkien specifies a number of musical instruments in his stories. All are known to have existed in medieval times. No instruments unique to the Renaissance period or later are mentioned (with the exception of clarinets, as noted below), and should therefore not be used in the music of Middle-earth (as I use the term).

No guitars, lutes, or other fretted instruments are mentioned in Tolkien's stories, nor are keyboards of any kind (with the exception of organs in the Ainulindale near the beginning of the Silmarillion--before Middle-earth was made, and thus outside of it). This seemed counterintuitive to me at first, since lute and harpsichord are the two instruments that have the most immediate association with "early" music to the typical modern listener. A Middle-earth animation from the 1970s ("Return of the King"?) portrays a minstrel of Gondor playing a lute as he croons in a sort of beatnik style. Much of the music from "The Hobbit" animation (by the same people) features the same sort of hippy-moralizing tunes ("The greatest adventure is what lies ahead..." with annoying fast vibrato, you remember). In my opinion, that's a prime example of how not to make Middle-earth music. It may have been in touch with the times, but is certainly not in the spirit of Tolkien's writings. [*1]

Middle-earth singing styles should reflect a kinship with ancient European chant and folk music. One artist whose solo singing style is well suited in my opinion is the late John Fleagle (1952-1999), famous for his performance of "The Voyage of St. Brendan."

So, what instruments are valid for use with the music of Middle-earth?

  • Voice is by far the most common musical instrument mentioned in the stories.
  • Harp takes a distant second.
In "The Hobbit" the Dwarves at Bilbo's house played, in addition to those,
  • Bells are mentioned a few times in LOTR; unfortunately, the contexts don't specify whether they merely sounded a signal for a time/event, or were actually used to play melodies.

Most of these instruments are also found throughout Tolkien's stories. In any case, all of them are known to have been in use in medieval Europe. In my opinion it would not necessarily be stretching things to use an instrument of Middle-earth in ways Tolkien did not mention. But it might be presumptious to use instruments that he did not mention, especially ones that are not known to have existed in Gothic Europe.

It should be noted that medieval instruments are not the same as modern ones, though they are in most cases their ancestors. (Voice, of course, has not changed in design but may well have changed in techniques used.)

Footnote on reed woodwinds:

Tolkien called them "clarinets," an instrument not invented until the time of Bach and not in widespread use until the time of Mozart; I take him to mean something like "crumhorns," or "chalumeaus," the medieval ancestor of the clarinet.





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Written by David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL, USA

Page last updated January 4, 2000