World Building Tips: Music

Music: it entertains, aids in worship, expresses the attitude of entire societies, and is banned when tyrants want to crack down on the expression of one’s freedom. How can music enhance the “feel” of your world’s political situation or perhaps the relationship between your character and the major religion of his/her culture? If you’re incorporating music into your fantasy world, you could go the Patrick Rothfuss route in The Name of the Wind and simply use a regular old lute, or you could create your own interesting instruments, perhaps based on some real-life examples. If you’re writing a character who plays an instrument, how do you express what it feels like to play that instrument, particularly if you’re not a musician yourself?

Well, strap in, because we’re covering all this and more in today’s edition of World Building Tips.

1. Right In The Feels

Perhaps the most basic question someone might have when world building music into their story is this: what does it feel like to play an instrument? What about in a group? Alone? Playing a well known tune? Or perhaps something unfamiliar?

Well, as a professional musician myself, I think I have some insight into this question that may be valuable.

First, it’s important to note the experience level of the character in question. Have they played this instrument in their local pub since they were five years old with the same people, playing the same tunes for decades? Well, then it’s going to feel anywhere from familiar and comforting to rote and boring. Yes, boring. It really depends on the atmosphere around them. I’ve played the same pub here in Los Angeles every single week for five years now, and the way I feel while playing depends on the atmosphere around me. The music is in my fingers; I don’t have to think about it almost ever, at least not in terms of “put finger here, change bow stroke there,” etc. If there’s a lively atmosphere with a lot of people having a good time listening to us, then I get more animated, lively, I try new licks or runs on my instrument that I may not have tried before. A crowd’s energy really is infectious, and can spice up even a tune you’ve played a million times. On the other hand, if there’s nobody in the bar and you’re just playing familiar tunes you’ve played for years, it’s really easy to zone out and start looking at the television on the other side of the room. “Oh, the Dodgers scored again, cool…oh, the song’s over, cool…”

On the other hand, an inexperienced musician or somebody trying a new type of instrument does have to think about their fingers, their plucking/bowing arm, their breath control, etc. They might not notice what’s going on around them, get nervous in front of people, have to pause and find their fingering, etc. Even an experienced musician might do these things though if they’re playing something new or unfamiliar, especially if it's written down very specifically and they have to read it. This of course depends on the difficulty of the tune and the similarity of a new instrument to a known instrument. For example, a mandolin is tuned the same way as a violin and has a finger board of approximately the same length. It’s plucked with a pick and has frets instead of a smooth neck, but it is similar enough to where a talented violinist could reasonably be expected to get the gist of playing it very quickly with at least some degree of proficiency and comfort.

2. What’s It For?

What purpose does the music that your character plays/experiences serve in the world? Is it purely entertainment or folkloric? Is it liturgical, or perhaps passed down from a liturgical tradition that bled over into the layfolk traditions? Is it social, with people joining in freely in a pub session, or is it highly organized, with people having to pay to experience a specific musician’s stylings? Keep in mind that music itself and the instruments that play it are often highly influenced by religious practices and traditions, which intertwine with folk traditions to form interesting amalgamations of styles, instruments, and traditions.

Perhaps my favorite use of music is as a symbol of rebellion, or of oppression. In one world I created, there were two main styles of fiddle playing, a northern and a southern. When the northern country dominated the southern, the northern fiddle style wormed its way into the style of the southern country over time, and older fiddlers would intentionally spurn some of the ornamentations and nuances of the northern style in a gesture of resistance while the northern government outlawed the southern style of playing. Such laws are almost unenforceable on a grand scale, but can lead to interesting individual encounters, perhaps being used as an excuse to arrest a troublemaker that hasn’t done anything else against the law per se (i.e. your main character or someone they know.) A good inciting incident perhaps?

3. Realism

There’s a reason they didn’t have grand pianos in the middle ages. They didn’t have the ability to work metal in the way needed to create these instruments. But even with something as seemingly simple as a violin, there are factors to consider here. After all, isn’t a violin just wood, gut, and horsehair? Primitive materials, to be sure. So why couldn’t a caveman stumble upon creating a violin? Well, violin construction requires very specific knowledge about how to bend the wood, create the varnish, glue the spars together, the dimensions of the body, etc. that took centuries of knowledge passed down and layered upon more knowledge in order to arrive at the design we have today, or something similar to it. In addition, cave men or people in hunter/gatherer societies typically can’t spare the massive amount of time it takes to do something like create a violin. They have more pressing issues, like finding food and shelter. Complex instrument construction requires a society that has progressed to a tech/economic level in which not all of its inhabitants must work the fields or hunt for survival, likely one in which large cities have existed for some time. Consider factors like this in deciding what kind of instruments exist in the society you’re creating.

4. Some Fun Misc. Inspiration

  1. Be creative with your instruments. Take some cues from real life instruments that aren’t as common like the hurdy gurdy (a fiddle-like instrument with a wool-covered wheel that bows the strings when turned with a crank), charango (a guitar made from an armadillo’s shell), nickelharpa (keyed Swedish fiddle), etc. Real life can sometimes be stranger than fiction.

  2. Most cultures in Europe (a common basis for fantasy cultures) have had some sort of bagpipe. That’s right, bagpipes aren’t just a Scottish thing. The highland pipes of Scotland are just one example. There’s the arm-pumped bellows of the Irish uillleann pipes, the giant, wool-covered sheepskin bag of the Sicilian zampogna, and many more takes on this instrument. It’s a fun instrument to riff on and play with in your world.

  3. Music can have really interesting applications in magic systems. You can get super specific or very general with this, but it’s definitely something to consider.

  4. A fun example of something I once did with music in one of my worlds was influenced by gamelan music of Indonesia, in which metallic pots or bars are struck to create tones. My spin on it? I took it underwater for a ceremony left over from the days when, according to legend, the islanders would call a giant shark deity from to depths. The villagers descend to a sand bar with metallic instruments and play a very meditative/trancelike sort of music that echoes eerily through the depths. There’s a real life Dutch group that actually plays music underwater and it’s one of the most haunting things I’ve ever heard. Check them out below.

As with all world building, have fun with it, but don’t go crazy. Decide what tone you want for your story, and world build accordingly. Also, as always, don’t let world building music for your story distract you from, you know…the story. The characters on the page probably don’t care whether your world tunes their instruments to 440 hz or 444 hz, and neither should you! At least, not in your first draft. That said, music can be an engaging way to illustrate the culture that surrounds the character and to show them interacting with it in a very tangible way. It can aid in magic system construction, add flavor to religious practices, and add depth and immersiveness to your world in a way that everyone can relate to. We hope these tips will help you in your world building journey, and we hope you’ll check out the podcast episode that inspired this article, which is already loaded up in the little media player below

Happy writing!