Nether Light by Shaun Paul Stevens – SPFBO #6 Finals Review

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God of Gnomes by Demi Harper

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Last Memoria by Rachel Emma Shaw – SPFBO #6 Finals Review

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Writing Fantasy Songs: Part 3

For my last two articles about fantasy songs, I’ve focused on lyrics. The obvious reason for this is that people are reading your work, not listening to it. Especially if you’re an amateur musician or poet—or not even an amateur, but a struggling beginner—there’s no reason to focus too much on the music to accompany your lyrics.

However, because so much of fantasy is about world-building, it’s important to consider as many elements of culture as possible when you create your worlds. Music is a very basic, very central element of any culture, and a wise fantasy author will consider how to use elements of music to give brushstrokes of setting to his or her world.

Let’s assume that you’ve written the lyrics of a song for your novel or story, and let’s also assume that you’ve decided when and where it will be “performed” in the story. Whether it’s one lone minstrel singing while he walks along the road or a group of drunken warriors singing in a roadside inn, you have a chance through performance to give your song a little extra descriptive power.

First, consider the vocals. There are as many variations in range as there are singers, I think, but for our purposes, I’ll split the vocals into four basic ranges:

Soprano: Soprano is the highest range of vocal performance. I think there’s a tendency to associate this range with elite singers—those who perform for nobles and such—but that doesn’t mean you can’t surprise your reader by having a barmaid with a natural talent for that range.

Alto: I’d say this is probably the most common female range, and the one you’ll probably hear a lot of young men sing as well. When performing in a choir, this vocal range will very often perform the harmony.

Tenor: Mostly associated with male voices, but when I sing in choirs, I sing the tenor part. I can’t sing as low as most men, but I do have a much lower singing voice than most women. The key thing about putting female voices in the tenor part is to remember that women have a different vocal quality than men. They may sing the same notes, but you can tell it’s a woman’s voice. That said, I think the alto and tenor lines are good places to mix up your voices a bit—put some men in the low alto parts and some women in the high tenor places. You’ll give a good, unique bit of description for your character by telling us the person’s vocal range.

Bass: The lowest range, and pretty much always done by men. The bass notes are the lowest, and some men can hit notes you’d think only animals can hear. This is the guy in the barbershop quartet who always does that low part.

So you’ve considered where your vocal artist falls on the range spectrum, and you’ve thought about how many people will sing your song. The next question is, what instruments will accompany your voices?

Rather than get into specifics of ancient instruments, I’m going to put them into categories, because I really think this is a place where your imagination can run wild. Don’t content yourself with just saying a drum pounded out a rhythm. If you want to add a cool bit of description, tell us it was a goatskin drum made by the highland natives who have an ancient technique for curing the leather and then give the drum a cool name. The Irish bodhrán comes to mind. Give us something truly unique to your world’s culture.

Here are some of the basic categories of instruments:

Strings: Everything from harps to guitars to violas, strings are great because the artist can play them while singing. They’re also incredibly versatile, because you can make them play anything from a soothing lullaby to a wild reel.

Percussion: Percussion instruments are instruments that make music by one object (a hammer, mallet, hand) hitting or scraping another (stretched leather, metal triangle, strings). Drums are what we usually think of when we think of percussion, but there are other common percussion instruments as well. A piano is a percussion instrument because its hammers strike the strings inside the outer casing. Xylophones, cymbals, and even triangles are percussion instruments as well. Because of the definition of “percussion,” you can really let your imagination run with this category.

Horns or brass: A horn makes music by vibration through a tube in conjunction with the player’s lip vibrations. Whether the instrument is actually made of brass doesn’t matter—it’s how the sound is produced that’s important. Horns would include things like bugles and trumpets, but also things like conch shells and animal horns, such as the shofar, an instrument traditionally constructed from a ram’s horn.

Pipes: Pipes are similar to horns in that they make music by vibrations through a resonating tube, but different in that the player must pass air over a reed or edge to make the sound. Recorders and flutes would probably be the most familiar early pipes, and we often associate them with pastoral or woodland scenes. Pipes can be very versatile, because anywhere that a boy can hollow out a stick and poke a few holes in it, you can introduce a pipe into your world.

BardThe final piece of setting you can give to your song is the performance arena. I don’t think I need to spell these out, because songs are performed in every possible venue at any possible time. My only word of advice would be to choose instruments and vocals that help set your tone. Be aware of the typical responses of readers to the sounds in our heads. For instance, if you tell us a harper was playing on the battlefield, there’d better be a good reason—either a comical one or a creepy, crazy one. Most people don’t associate harps with blood, gore, and violence. If you set your music to something other than the expectation of the average person, just make sure you clearly show your reason.

With that, I’ll wrap up this series on creating fantasy songs. I hope this helped some of you—again, I know I’m not a musician or a poet! Next week, the linguistics of fantasy.Yeesh. Time to dust off the college textbooks…



  1. Avatar Chihuahua0 says:

    Due to teenage-related issues, I’m usually stuck singing bass.

    But it’s nice seeing the four singing voices in one place.

  2. Avatar Jamie Gibbs says:

    Nothing beats a good set of pipes or a lute or harp in a fantasy song. Though after watching the new trailer for The Hobbit, I’ve become a fan of sombre, low pitch choral songs.

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