page 7: The Twist

How to make Middle-earth music

So how does one go about making music that has a fantastical, Middle-earthly "twist"? I can think of at least four good ways.

  1. One method of giving a melody a general medieval-fantasy feel is to use melodic modes. The same seems to work well for Middle-earth music. It's not easy for most of us modern Western musicians to leave 3-part harmony and a bass line out of our thinking, and compose pure melody. But it is possible with some practice; it helps to listen to a lot of chant on a regular basis, especially English and Irish Gothic chant.

  2. Another way to make music feel ancient and/or fantastical is to use unusual or historical tunings. By this I mean tuning an instrument either to a subset of Just Intonation, or to a temperament that divides the octave into some other set of intervals (including more or fewer than 12, equal or unequal), or even to any divisions of some interval other than the octave.

    One straightforward way to do this is to tune to a set of harmonic overtones, which is virtually the same as tuning to the "harmonics" or flageolet tones of a string. A favorite "Elf tuning" of mine is a subset of odd harmonics 31-59, and adding number 32 for tonal stability. Almost anything played on a harp (or harp sample if necessary) tuned this way sounds both otherworldly and fantastically medieval at the same time. This and other tunings I recommend for Middle-earth music are detailed on the Tunings page.

  3. Some of the ways Tolkien described some Elvish music seems to imply a connection to Chaos Theory, of all things.

  4. The primary requirement, of course, is that your imagination be filled with images from Middle-earth while you compose, and that your composition compliment and encourage those images. The only way to achieve this state of mind is to read at least a little something from Tolkien's Middle-earth literature regularly. You have to "be there" in your mind first, then let those impressions and feelings flow out of you into a melody or musical pattern of some kind.



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Written by David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL, USA

Page last updated January 4, 2000