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Musings on Musicby Sarah Kellington
Music is a human constant. We hum, we sing, and we make instruments. We've been doing it for thousands of years. We take our music with us when we travel, and learn the music of the cultures we encounter on the way. Given this, it would be the odd fictional world that is without music, but it often seems like a forgotten part of world-building, or an afterthought.
When musicians make an appearance on the fantasy stage, they tend to be playing something vaguely Celtic; ballads and dance tunes on harps, flutes, perhaps fiddles or a lute, maybe a guitar. I have nothing against this music. I play Irish fiddle tunes at a pub every week, and I enjoy the heck out of it (people are still coming to the pub, too, which is always a good sign). But it's really a pity that music from other areas is so underrepresented in fantasy (I'll nag sci-fi later). I'd like to see a fairy-hero playing love songs on an erhu (a two stringed bowed instrument from China), or a healer devotional music on a sitar (plucked, from India). I admit I'm unlikely to read about a traveling alphorn player, which is just as well, the alphorn being over two yards long. Even leaving out such unlikely combinations, there is a whole list of instruments that hasn't been used.
Music theory varies from place to place as well. If you listen to Turkish music, you will hear notes that don't exist in the western tradition. They divide each whole step into eight notes; the western tradition divides it in half at most. As a player from the western tradition, I can't even distinguish some of those notes. It's like being able to tell yellow from green, but not yellow from chartreuse. Anyone who's studied a foreign language has had a similar experience. With enough time and effort you'll hear it, and until then it all sounds the same. Theoretically you could divide the notes even more, but the difference would be so small it would be indiscernible to our ear.
Music can fulfill varied purposes. Ballads are a form of storytelling, poetry made more memorable with melody. Dance music brings people together and helps them unwind. For years, all "serious" music in Western Europe was commissioned by the church. Indian classical tradition is a tool for meditation (it's a very involved and ancient tradition written about in great detail in one of the Vedas. I'm more of the dancing-and-drinking type of musician myself, so I'm not terribly familiar with it). In your storytelling, it's worthwhile to consider the place of music in the society, and the place of musicians. Is it low art, or high art? Are musicians celebrities or servants? Historically, the latter was the norm. Musicians have often occupied a fairly low spot in society, even when the music was serious, "high" art.
Whichever tradition you draw from, there are three categories of traditional instruments: wind, string, and percussion. Percussion is the first, most common category. Humans just like to beat on things, and sometimes discover something to beat on that makes a cool noise. Goat and cow skins, goats or cows removed, are great for that. Flat metal works too, or pretty much anything thin enough to vibrate over a hollow resonator. Wind instruments are made from wood, metal, and reeds, from a classical silver flute to blowing across the top of a beer bottle. Stringed instruments have strings made of something that can be stretched taught and a hollow chamber to amplify the sound. Catgut was never used for strings. They were made from sheep gut, and now are usually steel or synthetic, so you can tell Fluffy to stop hiding behind the washing machine.
People make instruments out of what they have to hand. If wood is scarce, cellos are unlikely to be a common instrument. Stringed and percussion instruments might use gourds for the hollow resonator instead. If a culture doesn't do refined metalwork, wind instruments might be made out of wood or bamboo. The bow hair on a cello or violin is horsehair, but other materials could work, though they would sound and feel different. Human hair is too weak to last and too smooth to grip the strings, though, so unless you want to really snap my disbelief suspenders, I don't recommend it.
Electric instruments differ from traditional instruments in that they don't need the resonator. Electric guitars are flat, with no hollow space for reverberation. They could be smaller than that, and would sound the same. Electric violins often have even less body. Some instrumental oddities are purely electric, like the Theremin, which is played without actually touching the instrument.
The idea of new, more technological instruments has been touched on in sci-fi, but by no means fully explored. In fact, music in general is often absent in sci-fi, or something recorded, and never live. Music, and the desire to make music, is so deep a part of humanity that we'd surely take it to the stars. What better way to remember home, or to while away downtime on a long voyage? Even a starship crew with limited baggage could take something to make noise with. A pennywhistle can fit in your back pocket, and only costs about eight dollars (that's inflation for you). Harmonicas, jaw harps, ad ukuleles are all small. The harmonica-ukulele shipboard orchestra is bound to get old, but we already have the technology to totally isolate sound so that not everyone has to hear it all the time. It's in common use in music conservatories, where there are practice rooms so sealed you have to turn on the air when you go in. Electronic instruments can be played almost silently, with the sound piped through headphones instead of amped up and sent through speakers. Personally, I'd rather give the hyperactive crewmate an actual drum kit than listen to him bang on all the bulkheads every time he walks by.
If you can't tell by my string-focus, I'm a fiddler. I play at pubs and festivals and on the street (street musicians are buskers. We busk. Yes, we have our own verb! Use it well). To answer the second most commonly asked question* about fiddles: a fiddle is the same thing as a violin. Classical music, a written, academic tradition, usually uses the word violin. Folk traditions – Irish, Bluegrass, Old Timey, etc. – use fiddle.
The folk traditions are primarily aural, passed down from one practitioner to the next. Of the musicians I play with, around a third can't read music at all. They learn from friends, teachers, and recordings. Learning by ear is a different skill than learning from sheet music, like learning a language through immersion instead of a textbook. Eventually you'll reach the point where you don't have to consciously think about what you're doing, and there's a straight connection between hearing the sound and playing it. Until then, it's like learning to type – there's a lot of hunt-and-peck going on.
Aural or written tradition, ancient or futuristic instruments, venerated performers or normal, workaday people playing for their friends and family, music is a part of culture, and you can set your world or character apart as much by what music the play or listen to as how they dress and eat. It's almost a given, though, that they will listen to or play something, just as it's a given that they'll eat. A culture that has no music is strange enough that it could be the basis of a story itself.
*The most commonly asked question is "Can you play Irish Washerwoman?" Yes. Will I play Irish Washerwoman? Not unless you tip very well, or are ancient and venerable and therefore excused. Could everyone else, please, just ask for Julia Delaney's or the Humors of Trim instead?
Sarah Kellington is a fiddler, graphic designer, bibliophile, and when time allows, an artist. This isn't often, because Time is kind of a stickler and very hard to bribe.
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