Harmony Not Unison

One of the neatest things in all of Tolkien is his account of the creation of Arda (the world which Middle Earth is part of). The creator-god, Iluvatar, or Eru (“the One”), sets a musical theme. He directs his deity-children, the Ainur, to sing the world into existence.

Each of the Ainur is free to sing his own way, allowing for much greater beauty and interaction and complexity. The freedom also allows the rebellion of Melkor, the source of the marring of the world, and source of much (all?) suffering.

Cory Olsen often points out that one key idea which pops up again and again in Tolkien is that of harmony. To make beautiful music, characters like Beren and Luthien sing in harmony, not in unison.

Beauty does not come from unison. The only thing unison adds to the song is more volume: louder and louder until it becomes braying. Rather, beauty comes from harmony: complexity, counterpoint, chords, tension and resolution. Far more interesting than unison — and far more lovely!

Melkor thinks he is improving upon the music of the world by writing his own theme. But he doesn’t really want to add anything — rather he wants to drown out everything that isn’t his own theme. He wants total sameness and total obedience, and all in the name of creativity and individuality!

In fact, demanding unison is a sure sign of evil in the world of Tolkien. When listening to a talk by Professor Olsen, I realized this. Iluvatar and all the good angels and people work in harmony. Melkor is the angel of unison: darkness, sameness, and all creatures bowing to the iron crown.

Worshiping and cultivating our own petty differences is enough to make us all in unison underneath, all thralls to the same self-will. Insisting on being mini-deities, mini-Melkors: that is disharmonious and striving after unison, and again all in the name of individuality… that’s the irony.

Deep connection to the wellsprings of life and love are what give us a theme, a melodious tune all our own that is at once unique and in beautiful harmony with the rest of the world. Loving the song of others, loving the song that was written a long time ago, and singing our own thread of that great theme: much more beautiful — and more interesting!

4 comments on “Harmony Not Unison

  1. Aurini says:

    Unison versus harmony… I may explore this theme myself in greater/specific detail.

    I was writing recently on the topic of immigration, and of mixing cultures; I’m of the opinion that – done right – it strengthens our value as human beings. The perfect example being Tea in India and Curry in Britain.

    The Left, however, likes to speak of ‘vibrancy’ – but their social prescriptions seem to be those of Unison. “Everyone is perfectly equal, all is the same, no judgement allowed!”

    It is difficult to point out that dissenting from Unison is not a rejection of Harmony. The words have been co-opted.

    PS I’d love to read more from you on the Simarillion – never could work through it, myself.

    • outofsleep says:

      Hi Aurini… I agree with you fully here. The unison of diversity-worship would be comical if it wasn’t so deadly serious.

      As for the Silmarillion… be careful what you ask for! I could ramble on about that stuff for days. I’ll post something on Beren and Luthien soon, perhaps. It is, for me and for many others, by far the most luminous and memorable story that Tolkien ever wrote. Aragorn sings the tale to the hobbits on Weathertop, but you have to go to the Silmarillion to get the full treatment.

  2. Kristor says:

    But then, there is plainsong. Having sung a very great deal both of plainsong and of polyphony with groups of extremely skilled and dedicated singers, I can tell you that beauty is far easier to achieve with polyphony than with unison. When voices are trying to sing in unison, every tiny variation from absolute unanimity of tone and rhythm and dynamic sticks out like a sore thumb. Yet I can tell you also that nothing in life is more ravishingly beautiful than a successful unison. The top of one’s head opens up – no kidding, this is how it feels – and the center of one’s awareness extends up through the opening in a column. Instead of feeling like a point, one feels like a column. Five feet up, one’s column is felt to be joined with the columns of the other singers by thick beams connecting all of them. The lattice of beams pulses, and so do the columns. It is as if all the singers are animated by the single tone they are producing.

    When this happens, one’s voice is no longer felt to be proceeding outward from one’s mouth. Rather, one’s body participates in an ocean of sound, and resonates to that ocean; the buzzing of one’s vocal chords is felt to be a local aspect of that oceanic vibration. The instrument that is producing the music then is the choir rather than the vocal chords.

    Further, when unison is achieved, the overtone series makes itself quite audible, so that the unison produces a chord. When the overtone series begins to sound, it is quite as if invisible singers had joined the song. In a reverberant building, the upper tones sound like boys singing high in the vaulting. I am convinced that it was just this experience that prompted monastic choirs to try organum – to try assigning visible singers to the different overtones. When one has been singing unison for a long time successfully in a service, the shift to organum has a shatteringly powerful effect.

    From organum, it was a short step to polyphony.

    NB though – and this is to agree with your larger point – that achievement of true unison depends upon total self-abnegation as a performer. One must be focused wholly on purifying one’s tone and letting it disappear into the joint sound of the whole choir.

    Melkor, on the other hand, wanted to be the front man, the star. That’s a totally different thing.

    • outofsleep says:

      For five years I was a very serious rower, of the racing shell, Olympic sport, Head-of-the-Charles type. I spent many long hours lifting weights, running up hills and occasionally vomiting, getting blisters, sunburns, being propelled out of my boat into the water by an oar-handle to the gut, etc.

      Nothing was more frustrating than being in a boat with bad timing. Eight rowers all rowing “at the same time” and yet with no true agreement.

      In boats with great rowers, with a wise coxswain, with a reliable “stroke seat” rower and a nimble bow-man, we achieved true unison. An incredible feeling to be pulling with all your might, thigh- and back-muscles bursting at your skin, and yet to have a feeling of total, floating ease. The boat literally picked up in the water a few inches, and it seemed to pick up a few thousand feet, as if we were flying. Total complete, fluid calm on the recovery … then a hugely forceful driving force through the water … followed by another graceful, silent glide back up the seat-slides to dip the oars once again. It’s an almost indescribably joyous feeling. But the work it took to achieve such perfect unison is measured in months (of the same rowers rowing together in the same boat) and years (of each individual rower becoming skilled enough to be part of such a top boat).

      So yes, I agree. It can be beautiful!

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