Today we take for granted the ability to just flick a switch and listen to music. But go back to the early 20th century and before, and you had to make your own music, hire musicians or attend a performance to hear it. The thought of not being able to simply switch on my favourite music and listen to it seems almost cruel. But for most of human history there were no CDs, iPods, stereos and radios – it was up to you to do it yourself or find it.
So what does this have to do with writing fantasy fiction? Considering that a good deal of fantasy is written in a time before electrical appliances, you’ll need to look for other ways of bringing music into your stories so that your characters can dance, sing or party ’til dawn. And if you love your music or are a musician yourself, then you’re in a strong position to clearly describe the way your characters make music, what it sounds like, how it makes them feel and how they respond to it.
Start with a beat – People inherently understand rhythms because our bodies contain all sorts of rhythmic sounds and sensations, from breathing, to your heart beating, to blinking. We then transfer the beat to our hands and feet. And from there we pick up an implement and tap it against something. Percussion is an incredibly powerful type of music because you can physically feel it, as well as hear it. If you’re playing the instrument then you have control of the dancing, swaying, foot tapping and clapping of the people around you. It is the most natural form of music, used by shamans, religions, magicians, comedians, actors, dancers, healers, teachers, mourners and so on, since time immemorial. If you inject a little magic into it as part of your story, you may find a type of rhythm no one has discovered before.
Open your mouth – If percussion is the first form of music, what you can do with your mouth must come next. Not only can you sing, but you can hum, chant, whistle or use your tongue and lips to make various noises. Some noises may even be involuntary because of missing or loose teeth, or a lack of manners or sanity. I’ve used singing as a form of magic in one of my books, transporting the listener into a different place and time to listen to the histories of the character singing. Fairy tales have a plentitude of singing princesses charming little animals out of the trees with song. One of George R R Martin’s Game of Throne’s books even uses singing as a loud cover for clandestine conversations. And Princess Fiona from Shrek makes a little bluebird explode by going off-key.
Pick up an instrument – Playing an instrument is difficult to start and then once you get good at it, it is a joy to discover. I’ve played in bands where I’m surrounded by the sublime harmonies of truly skilful musicians all around me and it can bring tears to your eyes. Being within the melody – part of the sound – can be beautiful. It can also be frustrating when you get it wrong, jarring when harsh sounds collide and terrible when it’s out of tune. These are all things that can be blended into your fantasy world, providing characters who are particularly good or bad at the instrument they play, giving you opportunities for drama, magic and even comedy.
Go and listen – If your characters can’t make the music themselves then it’s time to seek it out or bring it in. Fiction is full of troubadours, wandering minstrels, harpists, lute players and angelic choirs. You don’t need to describe their music in minute detail, but you can explain all the activity going on around them because of the wonderful (or not so wonderful) music they’re making.
Styles – As you know music has changed dramatically over the centuries. What was top of the pops in 1656 wouldn’t cut it today. So it pays to research the types of music for the era of fantasy you’d like to write in, be it ancient, medieval, industrial or more contemporary, and also the culture of the characters who are making the music – compare old Chinese music to Indian or to native American or to middle eastern. True, if you have created a fantasy world the era and culture will be completely of your own making, but there’s no harm in loaning existing musical styles to get the party started.
So consider using music or elements of music in your stories. Juliet Marillier used it in Foxmask to sing away the souls of newborns. Liam Hearn used music in Across the Nightingale Floor to cross an unusual wooden floor stealthily without making it “sing”. Terry Brooks created “wishsong” magic in his Shannara Trilogy which allows his characters to change shape, enter dangerous worlds and create illusions. And of course, the Pied Piper of Hamelin used music to magic away rats and children. Music is a powerful device in fantasy and strikes a chord with readers that can send shivers down their spines.