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Writing Fantasy Songs: Part 1

BardEver since I created my list of topics for this column based on your requests, I’ve been mulling over this topic. The suggested topic was “I’d find an article on how to write songs useful. What makes a song great or a bit of a fail?”

First, I have to just give one of my usual disclaimers. I am not a poet or a songwriter, but I do have some small background in music. I understand the principles of rhythm, time, notes, etc., but I’d never call myself a musician.

Second, I don’t think I really have a handle on what makes ANY song great or a bit of a fail. Some of the most successful songs in the history of the world have been really stupid, and other fantastic, deeply moving, intensely beautiful songs have been relegated to the dustbin of musical history. I think fantasy songs are probably similar—beauty is in the eye of the reader, after all, and a song one person sees as beautiful and moving and important to the book might be seen as a fail to someone else.

With all that clarified, I want to take a couple of weeks to look at some of the functions of songs in fantasy books and then discuss how to use rhythm, time, and lyrics to create one for your work.

I think it’s important to consider, first, why you need music in your story. I don’t think every work of fantasy has to have music—certainly not every fantasy book includes a gratuitous song!—but it’s important to recognize that music is important to culture. Every culture has some kind of music, and there are a variety of important functions it plays. As first what kind of song you want to write for your book and why you want to write it.

Some examples of types of songs:

  • Drinking or bawdy songs. No one expects great poetry from a drinking song. Look at The Bear and the Maiden Fair from A Song of Ice and Fire. You don’t have to be a genius to rhyme “bear” with “fair,” and the song does exactly what it’s supposed to do—gives people a rhythm to drink to. Certainly the bar for lyrics is pretty low on a drinking song. All you need is some semblance of rhythm and rhyme (which I’ll talk more about next week).
  • Nonsense songs. A little different than drinking songs, although there can be overlap. A nonsense song can just be a little kid’s song or few lines of words that people hum for no reason. A good example is the nonsense song in Much Ado About Nothing. “Hey nonnynonny,” anyone?
  • Prophetic songs. I think you have a lot of flexibility in rhythm and lyrics with songs of prophecy. When I think of prophetic songs, I think of the Psalms in the Bible. In Hebrew, they have some rhyme and rhythm that doesn’t translate into English. They were certainly intended as songs of praise and worship, but many also contain prophecies, according to Bible scholars. You can write your prophetic song without quite so much attention to rhythm and time and mention that the prophecies were originally written in a different language.
  • Anthems. National anthems, house anthems, ethnic anthems, battle songs—I think to make these songs a clear win, you need to write them with a strong rhythm and close attention to the poetry of the lyrics. This does not mean they have to be fierce, driving rhythms, necessarily. Plenty of real life national anthems don’t have an intense, driving beat. But I do think you have to think of how people would sing these kinds of songs. Would they be sung on national holidays? During tournaments? On forced marches? To keep up the spirits on the battlefield? If you’re trying to keep spirits up, you want a strong beat and some meaningful, encouraging words.
  • Religious songs. A little different than songs of prophecy, religious songs would most likely be songs of praise, worship, supplication, or thankfulness to a deity or deities. Again, these songs probably need a clear rhythm and easy lyrics, especially if the people singing them will be common folk. You could probably write something a little more complicated for those in your particular religious orders as they would likely be more educated in the ways of the religion.

The next important consideration is why you want to include the song in your story. It’s entirely appropriate to just want something that adds a brushstroke of setting; drinking songs are perfect for setting. But consider how you can make your songs pull doubleduty. Can your religious songs include prophetic statements or lines? Even better, can there be some prophetic line in your drinking song? No one would think to look there. Use the songs to drive your plot, if you can. Plant little clues in the lyrics, even in nonsense lyrics.

Songs can also be strong character-building tools. Maybe the hard-drinking pirate’s favorite song is a childhood nonsense song his mother used to hum when he had trouble sleeping. Maybe the demure princess surprises everyone by singing the bawd when she has a harp in hand. Maybe the priest feels guilty because his favorite tune is one he heard in a tavern, so he sets religious lyrics to it. How can you use the music you write to build character?

Next week, I’ll look more closely at specific rhythms and how to use them in your songs.

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4 Comments

  1. This is an interesting article. I used to include loads of poems and songs, because Tolkien did so that was “obviously” correct, but I’ve come to the conclusion my poetic style doesn’t suit this. If I have singing, I normally just describe it.

    Incidentally, one important category that isn’t in your list is love songs, which probably account for more songs historically than any other category.

    • Oh, very true–love songs! I guess I was thinking of most of the recent ones I’ve read/heard, and I don’t recall any fantasy love songs in my recent reading. But that’s a really good point. Even Shakespeare wrote love sonnets (which you could consider love songs, in a way). And love songs could involve a thing instead of a person, I suppose–I mean, a song about loving the sea, for instance.

      I try to avoid songs if I can. It really has to be important for the plot, character, or setting for me to go there. I’m not a gifted poet at all!

  2. Thoughtful article. I include songs in many of my stories because I can’t help it–I’m a professional musician as well as writer so often my characters are musicians, too. When there’s music in your soul, you have to set it free. 🙂

    • Katy, that’s fantastic. I think who we are really does tend to shine through in our stories. That’s probably why I always end up writing some kind of romantic storyline… I guess I’m a hopeless romantic at heart… 🙂

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