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Cannon Fodder: Music

Today I will introduce a topic I hope to return to from time to time: Inspiration.

This one word is incredibly important to writers of all stripes, and is the basis for my ongoing article series, “Cannon Fodder.” Through this series, I hope to share some of what is unique in our world in hopes that it might be repurposed in yours. Some weeks, I may share interesting tidbits from history, while other weeks, I may share facts about wildlife, the arts, fashion, or even weather. I write these articles primarily because I believe that the best art is based quite strongly on life itself. We live in a fascinating world, full of beauty, coincidence, and a fair bit of science-based magic. It only makes sense that we should take advantage of it!

But why focus on ideas and items that make up the minutia of a story?

Because details matter. Whether it is the trees which grow in your world, or the songs your races sing, the little things lend flavor and color to the black and white of your plot. And when it comes to these details (and most things in writing, really), there are two important considerations: what you choose to write about, and how you describe it.

What you choose to write about will probably land on a continuum of familiarity. If the item or idea you choose is too stereotyped, it will come off as either unconvincing or dull. If, on the other hand, the item or idea you choose is too alien, it will come off as unrelatable or intimidating.

Description follows similar principles of familiarity, with an added challenge: how do you describe something with appropriate depth while keeping the description at a manageable length?

These two considerations come into play for all of the major and minor story elements you use. This week, I will turn to one story element which quite literally hangs in the background of most stories: Music.

Music plays a critical part in painting a picture of the world you have built. While song is a common type of music in fantasy (and one I will touch on in a future article), this week’s article deals with non-vocal music.

Violins, pianos, lyres and guitars: all familiar instruments in our world, as well as fantasy worlds. But there is so much more out there to play with than these instruments. So, without further adieu, I offer up my favorite unusual instruments for use in your fantasy world.

Hammered dulcimer:

This instrument has an amazing medieval feel to it. Dating back almost 2,000 years, it comes in a variety of sizes. The hammered dulcimer consists of a trapezoid shaped soundboard with a row of pins down the center and the sides, which hold horizontally aligned strings in place. The instrument is played by striking these strings with little wooden or metal paddle-shaped hammers. The sound is bright, sweet, and slightly tinny, reminiscent of a blend between a harpsichord and a guitar. Check out the complexity of play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9HnRZlMiKQ. A word of caution, however: The hammered dulcimer is large, and would be extremely impractical for characters on the move.

Hang drum:

This instrument is extremely new, an invention of the 21st century. The materials are fitting, however, for much older stories. The hang drum consists of two steel bowls with 8 carefully designed pits which, when struck, produce an astonishing array of different notes. This instrument is played entirely by hand. The musician strikes a specific pit to produce the central note, or the curve around the pit to produce a related family of notes. The sound is lush, warm, lively, and a bit wild. Check it out:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNJswfXKJ3s. One of the advantages of this instrument in particular is its portability. Another is its ability to provide both sound and rhythm simultaneously.

Hurdy gurdy (Also known as wheel fiddle):

This instrument dates back to the 11th Century AD. It consists of a fiddle-like body with a resin wheel mounted in the middle and a keyboard along the neck. The hurdy gurdy is strung in a manner similar to a guitar or a fiddle, with strings stretching from the neck down to the base. The instrument is played by using a crank on the end to turn the resin wheel, which rubs against the strings, producing a drone tone. Melodies are played along with this drone note by pressing the keys on the neck. The drone note has a sound that is very similar to bagpipes, while the keyboard produces sounds similar to violin notes. Check out the excellent playing:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePGL7sWC3Ko. As with the hang drum, the hurdy gurdy is reasonably portable.


For those of you looking for a more modern instrument for present day or futuristic settings, you need look no further than the Theremin. Invented in 1919, the Theremin consists of a looped antenna for controlling volume, and a straight antenna which controls pitch. The Theremin is played without touching the instrument, with the player merely moving their hands closer and further from antennae to modify the sound generated by the instrument. The sound is an eerie, howling sort of electric murmur, wistful and unsettling. Check out this wonderful video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6KbEnGnymk. The Theremin requires electricity and a world with sufficient technological advancement to produce it.
I have a deep fondness of each of these instruments for different reasons. Each has qualities which could enhance or emphasize features of a fantasy world. Each is challenging to play. And each will pique your readers curiosity as you tell your story.

So go out and explore the world of music, and share the strange things you find below!


One Comment

  1. Avatar Michael Schultheiss says:

    Instruments are fascinating, and my thanks to you, Tegan, for highlighting this important element of culture. As a substantial part of my own fantasy WIP takes place in a setting modeled on the lands and peoples of the great Eurasian Steppe, I took an interest in the instruments of the same. The two-stringed dutar (played by plucking or strumming) and the two-stringed morin khuur or Mongolian horsehead-fiddle (played with a bow) are my favorites. I’ve found that YouTube is a good place for finding videos of performances with these instruments, and many others I’m sure–just a tip for fellow aspiring writers!

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