*As most of you know, I’m flying out to Bedford TX today to teach a workshop this weekend. We’ll forget the fact I hate flying (No, we won’t. Ya’ll keep my plane in the air till it’s SUPPOSED to land, you hear? Or you don’t get any more books!) I woke up late, and am trying to remember all the last minute things, so thank you Alma Boykin for stepping into the breach with a very interesting piece. (Yes, I have other guest posts waiting and am likely to use them all over this weekend. But Alma’s was the first one up.)*
Can a Dragon Play a Flute? Random Musings on Music in and Around Fiction
A guest post by Alma Boykin
Can you build a world without music in it? Would you want to? If space aliens have something analogous to our music, would we recognize it? What sort of music do you play in a space elevator?
As far as we know, humans have been making semi-musical sounds at least since the Mesolithic (i.e. the ice ages). We probably mimicked bird whistles and other environmental noises, and then started creating our own variations on whistles, cheeps, and thumps. Flutes and percussion instruments, or what seem to be flutes and percussion instruments, are found in graves all over Europe, Anatolia, and other places. Why do we do it? Because it’s fun? As a way to communicate with animal spirits? For religious reasons? To irritate the people in the next cave by banging loudly on a hollow log while they’re trying to sleep? Heck if I know. But over the course of time humans developed all sorts of ways to make noises, then put those sounds together into patterns that we call music. And then they put that music into their stories, or vice versa, since sung or chanted ballads predate novels by thousands of years.
Music appears in many, many sci-fi and fantasy stories. It ranges from religious music to bawdy ballads to formal instrumental compositions to something played for friends at a party. Music heals and kills. Can anyone who saw the original 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea movie from the House of Mouse hear the opening bars of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor” without seeing Nemo playing his pipe organ? Who here remembers bits of the Harpers’ ballads from McCaffrey’s Dragonriders and Harper Hall trilogies? You can put your hands down. Anyone willing to admit to listening to or even composing filk? Didn’t think so and I never have either, even though that’s what got me reading C. J. Cherryh. Slightly to the side, how many members of the general public had ever heard of Vangelis before the TV series Cosmos first aired?
Music can make the world for the reader. Sometimes literally, in the case of Aslan singing creation in The Magician’s Nephew. What people sing, play, like or consider unacceptable can give large amounts of flavor to a fictional world. Much of the Pern story falls flat without music, to the extent that you could argue that music IS the culture on Pern. The teaching ballads preserve the most important bits of history, the warnings about the Threads, and reinforce the social order. In fact, there’s an amazing amount of music in all of McCaffrey’s books, even the Ship Who series. She and Mercedes Lackey just might have the record for musical notes per page of text (although O.S.C. has a few moments, as does David Weber).
Music also helps make alien cultures more alien. Which can be a technical challenge for writers. Take, for example, a reptilian species with a complex society that has instrumental music suitable for religious and secular events. What sort of instruments will they use? Percussion is an easy and safe choice, since most limbs can beat on things or hold sticks or strikers of some form. What about wind instruments? Sure, except . . . your reptiles don’t have lips. Can they exhale through nostrils? How would you design a wind instrument for that (not counting P.D.Q. Bach’s nose-flute.)? Or would they use something powered by bellows, giving you versions of bagpipes and organs? How about plucked string instruments (harp, harpsichord)? Talons and catgut might not get along well, unless the musician chooses to wear a protective guard over her talons, or to clip them, which brings an interesting conundrum if those talons are needed for self defense. Are some musicians members of a special protected, but dependent, class? And what would their music sound like? If the aliens hear a broader frequency range than humans do, that could be an interesting plot point – a spy passing messages through music that human ears can’t register.
Often there’s a social aspect to music. Do the upper classes or castes listen to different music than the lower? Perhaps the political elite listen to simple instrumental selections, savoring the purity of the tone and melodic line, while the lower classes favor complex harmonies and catches, like bawdy bar songs with dropped rhymes (see “The Farmer” by the Wicked Tinkers for an example of the art). If religious music must be acapella, then is party music purely instrumental? Maybe that society’s really radical social rebels sing dirty songs acapella as an insult to the religious establishment.
For a while it seemed like every third short story included music as a way to communicate peace and harmony with aliens. Um, what if the first music they encounter is Queen, Iced Earth, and Black Sabbath, with a little Ramstein just to for variety? Earth might get turned into a smoking ember as a proactive step to keep such a violent species out of the stars! Or we could discover that the Little Green Men are headbangers who revere The Clash the way some of us look at Bach, Buxtehude, and Vaughn Williams. Or perhaps their favorite themes sound a lot like New Country (in which case, there is still no evidence for intelligent life in the galaxy, IMHO.)
Do aliens ever get earworms? No, not the Star Trek kind, but the “oh gads, make it stop, it’s stuck in my head, arrrgh” kind. I ended up writing a story around the MC getting an American folk hymn stuck in her head, and it keeps playing as she’s dealing with a medical mess. Does a character have a tune he always whistles or hums? Does it drive the rest of his work shift up the proverbial tree? And who managed to break into the interstellar fighter-carrier’s PA system and start singing an updated version of “Stand to Your Glasses Steady” without being caught?
And then there’s writing to music. Either here or over at the Mad Geneii’s place, the topic came up (or was it at the Passive Guy’s blog? Anyway.) about using music when you write. If memory serves, it came down to half the group eschewed music as a distraction, and the other half either used it for white noise or depended on it.
I will confess to preferring silence, except when I am fighting a mood or the TV. Gurney Halleck said, “Mood is for cattle and for love play,” not for fighting, but there are times when howling bagpipes or black metal are necessary to get me into the right frame of mind for a battle or combat scene. And sometimes a quiet, reflective movement calms me down when I’m bouncing too much to write a slow passage. It’s hard to beat the soundtrack to the remake of Battlestar for “creepy, something-around-the-dark-corner, did-you-hear-that” moments. For white noise, I have to have instrumental, or vocal music in a language I don’t speak, although some of the great masses are so familiar that they vanish into the background (Mozart’s “Coronation Mass” and “Requiem,” Hyden’s “Lord Nelson Mass,” the Faure and Rutter Requiems, Brahm’s German Requiem, Lauridson’s “O Nata Lux,” I think you can see a pattern here.) The trailer music compellations can be useful as well, again for bits of mood.
How musical is your reading and writing? And what does it mean if a culture has no music? Or if it had music and then rejects it as anathema, as a certain human sub-culture does today?
UPDATE: completely different post up at Mad Genius Club