36 – Elven Songs in The Hobbit

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien has the lyrics for many songs, but no official melodies. What might these songs sound like if we follow clues in the text? In the first of three episodes about the music in The Hobbit, we explore the rhythmic structure, instrumentation, and performance style of the book’s five elven songs. The elves of Rivendell sing lilting jigs and waltzes, and dockworkers from Mirkwood sing sturdier songs with a 4/4 beat. Most songs are performed a capella, and the only instrument mentioned is the harp.

Tolkien once wrote a letter to a composer saying that he was “honoured” when a musician was inspired by his writing, as he was very fond of music although did not know how to create it himself. Readers of all musical abilities can have fun writing their own melodies to sing to go along with the elven lyrics in The Hobbit.

Because music is so professionalized these days, amateur artists can often feel that they shouldn’t even try writing a song. But this shouldn’t be the case! Anyone can sing, and anyone can come up with a simple melody. To prove it, I submit my own little composition. I gave myself just one evening to write and record the melody, although I did come back later to arrange the sheet music. I’d be honored if you gave my version a try, and I would love to hear what you come up with! These arrangements may be freely used for non-profit enjoyment.

Here is the audio of my arrangement of “Sing All Ye Joyful” lifted out from the episode, as well as a link to the song on YouTube.

Sheet Music for “Sing All Ye Joyful”
words by J.R.R. Tolkien and music by T.Q. Townsend

Arranged for SATB choirArranged for solo singer with chords for guitar or ukulele

Activity: Write a Melody for an Elven Song

Choose one of the five elven songs written out in The Hobbit. The traits of each song as described in the book are written below. Songwriters may choose to follow these traits closely or follow their inspiration in a different direction. This activity would work well as a songwriting exercise in a music class but should only be offered for extra credit in a literature class. New songwriters may find it useful to recite the lyrics out loud with the desired rhythm, then begin singing out notes that seem to fit.

Chapter 3: “O! What Are You Doing?”
Group singing: Elves of Rivendell
Poetic meter: dactylic dimeter
Musical time signature: 6/8 Jig
Instrumentation: Many male and female voices singing a capella

Chapter 9: “Roll, Roll!”
Group singing: Worker elves of Mirkwood
Poetic meter: spondaic dimeter
Musical time signature: 4/4 March
Instrumentation: Small male choir singing a capella

Chapter 9: “Down the Swift Dark Stream You Go”
Group singing: Worker elves of Mirkwood
Poetic meter: trochaic dimeter
Musical time signature: 4/4 March
Instrumentation: Small male choir singing a capella

Chapter 19: “The Dragon is Withered”
Group singing: Elves of Rivendell
Poetic meter: dactylic dimeter
Musical time signature: 6/8 Jig
Instrumentation: Many male and female voices singing a capella

Chapter 19: “Sing All Ye Joyful”
Group singing: Elves of Rivendell
Poetic meter: dactylic tetrameter
Musical time signature: 3/4 Waltz
Instrumentation: Many male and female voices singing a capella

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