Fairy music is one of the constants of fairy-lore. Though there are many different stories – including the casual walker cursed by music or the man blessed with music by the fairies or a bizarre case of mistaken identity – we are going to concentrate here on the man or woman who suddenly hears fairy music blown down to them on the breeze and remains enchanted. The references are so similar and so widespread that there is the suspicion that there might be some natural phenomenon that explains ‘fairy music’: though what that explanation might be is anyone’s guess. Here is a reference from the Alps.
Once my wife was standing before her house on a bright moonlit night, and to pass the time she looked out into the ‘world’. At once she heard in the distance a music so lovely that she had never in all her life heard anything like it, just as if the angels were playing. She went away from the house and inched, bit by bit, farther and farther, in order to hear the music better, and the farther she went the more lovely it sounded. At last my wife could no longer stand still, and she walked and walked, and came, just by hearing and listening, all the way to the mountain ravine.
And here is a reference from the Isle of Man:
An English gentleman, the particular friend of our author, to whom he told the story, was about passing over Duglas-bridge before it was broken down; but, the tide being high, he was obliged to take the river; having an excellent horse under him, and one accustomed to swim. As he was in the middle of it, he heard, or imagined he heard, the finest symphony, he would not say in the world, for nothing human ever came up to it. The horse was no less sensible of the harmony than himself, and kept in an immoveable posture all the time it lasted; which, he said, could not be less than three quarters of an hour, according to the most exact calculation he could make, when he arrived at the end of his little journey, and found how long he had been coming. He, who before laughed at all the stories told of fairies, now became a convert, and believed as much as ever a Manks-man of them all (Waldron).
In Ireland, meanwhile, the phenomenon was so common that some fairy sites were named for music Lissakeole, the fort of the music, is a common name in the south of Ireland, while there is a Knocknafeadalea, Whistling Hill.
What does the music sound like? A professional musician Thomas Wood heard what he believed was pixy music on Dartmoor in 1921 and wrote: ‘this music was essentially harmonic. It was not a melody, an ‘air’. It sounded like the weaving together of various tenuous fairy strands’. When he was later told that Irish fairy music was ‘a waving in the air’ he agreed enthusiastically. An individual (DY) from the same general locality some forty years later had a similar experience: ‘lying in bed in bed when I was about 8/9, windows open, summer night – it was gloaming coming on night I always remember ‘bells’ – well at least that’s how I think of them. A lovely music, like glass bells – very very beautiful…’
Other descriptions from elsewhere seem to correspond to this essential lack of melody. Consider this comment from Wirt Sikes: ‘The music of the Tylwyth Teg has been variously described by people who claim to have heard it; but as a rule with much vagueness, as of a sweet intangible harmony.’ Sikes compares fairy music to the famous lines about Caliban from the Tempest that come close to Thomas Wood’s description above: ‘The isle is full of noises;/ Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not./ Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments/ Will hum about mine ears.’ Perhaps a young Shakespeare in Warwickshire…
And here are three examples of fairy music written out. The first is Thomas Wood’s attempt to render pixy music; the second is a Welsh man who has written down the last bars of fairy music (Sikes); and the last is the cry of a banshee from Yeats!!
Thanks to Chris from Haunted Ohio Books for help with this page.