Ah, on to music in fantasy. Once again, as with clothes, this is going to be about general things, since I can’t tell you exactly what kind of music was played at ancient Greek festivals or whether the people in your alternate-England shouldn’t be enjoying a certain style of music because that would have to be alternate French. (Those kinds of things are researchable. But I am a) lazy, and b) interested more in researching poetry).

1) Not every character’s voice has to be compared to music.

Other than generic words such as “soft,” “harsh,” and so on, the most common adjectives attached to fantasy characters’ voices tend to be ones from music. “Musical” itself and “silvery” are right up there, with “flute-like” or “fluting” not far behind.
This is irritating. I can recall my intense disappointment the first time I heard what I knew was a flute by itself, and realized it didn’t sound at all like a human voice.
“But it could be an elven voice!” someone will shout out now from the audience, and I will hit that person over the head. Because, at this point, the “silvery” elven voice, the “musical laughter” of the hero’s love interest, and the “fluting tones” of the Mother Goddess are all equally clichéd. The author wants to make them special. The problem is, they can’t be special when there are thousands and thousands of other descriptions out there just like them.
Only way to reclaim this: either go for a strictly unusual comparison—what about a dragon’s voice sounding like drums, and that being reflected in the rhythm of its speech?—or note that the character’s voice really does resemble the instrument, and that’s eerie. I don’t know about you, but I would get slightly freaked out if someone who really did sound like a piano chose to address me.

2) Put some damn limits on the power of musical magic.

The only system of magic to get more of a work-out is elemental magic, where mages can suddenly do thousands of things that seem entirely unrelated to water, earth, air, fire, and whatever other elements the author’s included. This is because a lot of beginning fantasy authors latch on to that system first. They don’t think past the immediate clichés to do something new with it. Nor do they respect the limits. Their characters have to be able to do anything, so anything they get to do.
It seems that way with magical singers, too. Someone wounded? No problem, the singer will sing them well again! Someone needs to find a hidden door? No problem, the bard has a song that will open it! The bad guy’s rushing at them? No problem, the harpist just strums a little, and the bridge collapses beneath his feet!
Look. No, don’t look over at that tempting panoply of magical singers, look here. This has to be restricted somehow. Music may soothe the savage breast, sure, but it should not also be able to do anything else it likes with the breast.
Put some hedges around this the same way that you would around any other magical system. Start with the obvious disadvantages. A singer has to be able to sing. (Do not take that cheating route where the singer can sing in her head and still accomplish as much as she could with her voice. A mental version of a tune may be quite complex, but it’s not the same thing as the physical song that’s been the conduit of the magic so far). What happens if her enemies gag her or cut out her tongue? If her magic comes from playing an instrument, one crack of the bad guy’s hammer on a few sensitive fingers and bye-bye musical future. Fantasy villains often have their reasons for not killing the heroine—not to say that I don’t think those reasons are often contrived for maximum angst and minimum actual harm—but if so, they shouldn’t knowingly leave her able to wield her magic against them. And, again, no cheating! It doesn’t count if the heroine gets her fingers broken on day 1, bound on day 2, and is able to play again on day 3. For one thing, as most people will tell you, broken bones take a lot longer to heal than that. For another, fingers are delicate; someone may heal enough to still grip things with her hands, but intricate playing on a harp may be quite out of the question.
For another, what about tying specific kinds of instruments or specific kinds of song to specific results? Perhaps someone can only cast a sleeping spell with a lullaby, and if he just knows ballads, he’s shit out of luck. Perhaps another kind of magic works best with a full symphony orchestra, all right with about half the orchestra, and not at all if a single musician is trying to work it on her own.
Use any limits you can. Magical musicians who can do anything are just as boring as telepathic mages or elemental mages or destiny-chosen mages who can do anything.

3) Make music of some kind other than heroic songs part of the festival celebrations.

This is something I almost mentioned in the holidays rant, but decided to leave for later. Now I know what it was missing. There are plenty of fantasy authors who do locate music in scenes of country fairs, or coronations, or court entertainments. But they’re always what I would call, loosely, “heroic songs,” telling about ancient rulers to infodump the fantasy world’s history, or prophecies that will turn out to be important to the hero’s future. They’re one of the sneakier ways of getting information across, sure, and if the author’s a talented songwriter and goes about it the right way (see point 4, please), they can be enjoyable. But no other kind of music ever shows up.
Please. People in our own pre-modern period didn’t only sing about heroes and kings, however large a part those were of the tradition. There were also:

  • Lullabies.
  • Prayers/hymns.
  • Ballads that might relate some event of only local interest, or a mythological one that wasn’t strictly tied back to identifiable history, the way that a lot of fantasy heroic songs are.
  • Lore verses (such as keeping alive knowledge of herbs, flowers, certain colors).
  • Poems set to music.
  • ‘Love songs’ (though that definition is not really the same as our own; see point 4, again).
  • Humorous songs, including bawdy ones.
  • Laments and elegies.
  • Children’s nonsense verses.

All of these are expressions of the human spirit. All of them would work. If there are several children having a naming-day party, there might be songs that would appeal primarily to children sung, and then a lullaby to put them to bed. I would despise an author who took the occasion to chant the prophecy to a bunch of five-year-olds, and then had the future main character go through the “somehow, he felt deeply drawn to the song” thing, while the rest of the children are more occupied in playing with their toys. It’s so obvious and cheap an excuse to have the prophecy in there early.
Likewise, laments would fit well at funerals, prayers and hymns for religious occasions, love songs at a wedding or a courtship scene—why not have the hero serenade the heroine with something other than the prophecy?—lore verses for a rite of initiation, ballads for celebrations of a certain town’s special event, and humorous songs for a nonsense celebration along the lines of our own April Fool’s Day.

4) If you’re going to write your own fantasy songs, please avoid the pop music model.

It just doesn’t sound right. It expresses sentiments that are too often modern, in distinctly twentieth-century or twenty-first-century language, and with a huge dose of mawkishness. Here’s a song that I wrote for a parody story:

So don’t let me down,
Don’t let me see you frown,
Always brighter tomorrow, someday,
In a good way…

Ouch. I’d forgotten how awful that was. *scrubs brain*
Can you imagine a fantasy maiden singing that in all earnestness as she walks along? I can’t, sorry. She may sing something that is as insipid, in its own way, but it won’t have a) phrases like “don’t let me down,” b) references to situations that could only work in the modern world, or c) that succession of vague phrases and metaphors that mark a pop song doomed to vanish in two months and never to be remembered again. Fantasy songs, especially ones in a culture that is predominantly oral, will usually be made to endure. If this maiden is singing something that a respected old balladeer made up, it will not sound like this. It may if she’s singing something she made up herself, but in that case, please have her be embarrassed about her efforts, not proud of them. And, in that case, though it might have c), it still should not have a) or b).
For the difference between modern love songs and pre-modern ones, go back and read pre-modern ballads and poetry. It’s the best education you can have. See what kinds of metaphors are used, what kinds of rhyme patterns—one reason I snicker uncontrollably at the lyrics of many songs is my exposure to pre-modern and much better-written songs—and what the lovers tend to concentrate on. Usually, it is not crying that their parents have grounded them and now they can’t attend the prom with Johnny.

5) If the song is the climax of a scene, it should be thrilling.

This might not seem like such a problem. After all, most fantasy authors like to describe, and here’s a perfect chance to go into a cascade of metaphors about the music that would do credit to a character with synesthesia. What’s the problem?
The problem is that quite a lot of fantasy author descriptions fizzle on the page when it comes to this. The same way that an author can write about a battle and make it the most deadly boring thing in the world if she doesn’t do it right, someone can write about a grand song that is the climax of a whole book and send her readers straight to sleep.
In general, watch your descriptions like a hawk. For music descriptions:

  • Include lyrics only if you’re absolutely sure of them. (Point 4, again. Memorize it, learn it, love it).
  • Make the descriptions grand and thrilling. A song that would only be suitable for a hero to sing to his love on some day thirty years in the future when they’re both tired doesn’t deserve that much description. Nor does it deserve to stand at the climax of a book, frankly.
  • Fit the music in with the occasion and the setting. If it’s a funeral where the person who died is mourned and will be much missed, why the fuck is the bard singing a happy song? (Point 3, again). If this is an alternate France, sing music that sounds like it could be French, or at least a translation of alternate French into English. (Guy Gavriel Kay does a pretty good job with this in A Song for Arbornne, although there he’s not dealing strictly with France, but with an alternate Provencal). If the music is battle-music, make it damn martial. (Good example: Finrod and Sauron struggling with music in Tolkien’s Silmarillion.)
  • Be specific about the placement of the musician(s) and what instrument(s) are being used. Sometimes, it’s necessary to visualize the scene. Sometimes, it’s a matter of practicality. If the bard has to sing a magical song to fell the Dark Lord, would he really be standing over in the corner of a room with bad acoustics and whispering the lyrics?

And finally:

6) Learn what’s involved in the care of any instruments your heroes bring along.

Strung instruments like harps will go out of tune; the heroes will need to check them regularly. Most instruments should have cases, or the wet and dirt and other hardships of a typical fantasy journey could destroy them. If a hero falls off a horse and his case is beneath him, your more alert readers will want an explanation of how the instrument survived, or at least have the hero patting frantically around to check that it did. Huge instruments like grand pianos are going to be a bitch to transport.
About voices: If the hero’s been screaming for a while, has a dry throat, or has been running, he’s not going to be at his best to sing. Likewise for hands if he’s been traveling in the cold without protection. These are the best kinds of details to make your fantasy journey “real,” since they don’t take much time to mention, they’re easy to research, and they’re not disgusting to read about or so joltingly lyrical they throw the reader out of the story.
These will vary depending on the instrument in question and the conditions surrounding the heroes. But try to make notes of them.
The rant on narrative fantasy poetry is next, and then a new set will start.