Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

The Arts in Worldbuilding: 
Music for Your Fantasy World

By K.R. Mercik
© 2002, K.R. Mercik


Kaspan stood at the edge of the circle by the fire, watching the travelers whirl around like madmen. On logs to either side of him the music-makers sat, lost in the world of their art, seeming to have drifted away from the mundane reality behind them. Kaspan watched them as they beat against drums or piped away on the long, thin instrument they called a floute, a complex metal instrument with several buttons that were pressed to close more holes than a man has fingers on his hand. There was also a man playing a fiddle, and another playing a harp. Back in the civilized Northlands, such a mixture of instruments would be deemed a catastrophe, but these travelers were experienced music-makers, and their melodies struck Kaspan’s soul and made him travel to the same realm as the others… 

Music is, and always has been, an important part of culture and society.  From the earliest humans beating on hollow logs to modern electrical music, it has always been a part of the human spirit and advancement, and is one of the oldest forms of expression known. When dealing with music in a Fantasy setting, a writer has a wealth of music history to draw from. 

First, a writer should learn the basics of music theory and application. Understanding the concept of time and key signatures is important. The time signature explains to the musician how many beats per measure there are, relative to what note provides the basic beat. For example, standard Western is a 4/4 time signature, providing 4 beats per measure, with the quarter note (1/4) providing the beat. A nonstandard western time signature would be something like 10/8, where there are 10 beats per measure, with the eight (1/8) note providing the beat.  

A key signature describes what scale will be used for the music. Western music is often composed to the Key of C, meaning the C note is the root of the scale used. I recommend visiting the website on Music Theory on Outside Shore: http://www.outsideshore.com/school/almanac/html/Music_Theory/ . It is primarily a Jazz website, but the theory aspects are good for basic research. 

The first consideration when adding music to your world is the function music serves. Is it religious in nature? Or does it stem from a glorious history of war and conquest, a progression from drums and pipes into a culture-wide movement? One should also consider whether or not music interests the commons, and to what extent it is available. A noble Lord or Lady would be able to hire musicians with superior instruments (such as complex wind instruments, or large, finely-tuned string instruments made of precious wood); the common people, on the other hand, would not be able to afford such extravagance, and would use far simpler instruments. 

One way to make your world unique and interesting is to add what I call "nonstandard music" to your cultures. Nonstandard music is drawn from real-world cultures that are not normally associated with traditional fantasy. Some of the best cultures to draw musical ideas from are tribal African cultures, Indian cultures, and Aboriginal cultures. 

The African tribal beats are rather unique in the world of music. The time signatures used cannot be easily explained by Western musical theory, as the time is given to the other drummers through two instruments called axa and gan. The axa resembles a maraca, with a beaded cover; the gan is a simple double-bell instrument. Together they provide an irregular, consistent beat. The other instruments used are the kag, kid, sog, and ats, which are progressively larger drums. For more information, check out: http://www.dancedrummer.com/trad.html

An Indian music tradition called Sangeet can also provide a unique flavor for your Fantasy world. Sangeet uses a dual-concept layered approach to music, based around tal and rag. Tal is a sophisticated and complex form of rhythm, often using long and repetitive rythmic beats. Rag is a system that uses seven notes in various arrangements, which at first glance appears similar to Western key signatures. However, Sangeet Rag does not follow the same rules for scale construction, and will often sound "off" to a trained Western listener. More information can be found at: http://chandrakantha.com/articles/indian_music/

The traditional music of most Aboriginal cultures uses vocal melodies more often than instrumentation. An Aboriginal song is a collection of short rythmic settings that is about a particular background, and is called a songline. Most Aborigines believe songs belonging to different groups cannot be heard by outsiders (such as men listening to women's songs and vice versa) because they believe illness or death can result. A complex and highly advanced vocal form of music, it is also beautiful to the ear and pleasing to the soul. More information is available at: http://www.aboriginalaustralia.com

As you can see, there are many more forms of musical expression that can be used for your fantasy world than are traditionally used. If your goal in writing is to break away from a stock European culture, then studying music and the cultures that produced it can open up a whole new world of ideas.  

K.R. Mercik is currently serving in the United States Marine Corps as a Computer Tech. In his spare time he works on his first serious science fiction novel, Blink. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two cats.