Image by Ernst Vikne used under CC BY-SA 2.0

The cultural ambiance of your world wouldn’t be complete without music. When adding musicians to your settings, it’s easy to insert generic instruments and songs without thinking through them. But that wouldn’t do justice to the huge diversity of music human cultures have. Here are some guidelines and inspiration to jumpstart the musical development for you world.

What’s Music?

You might think of music as sounds with rhythm and melody, composed in a manner that’s pleasing. But many cultures don’t have a word for music. They might think of ritual chants and festival singing as entirely different things. We don’t want to limit ourselves, so I’ll use a wide definition. For this post, music is the production or manipulation of sound, in order to enhance the experience of people nearby.

What Does Music Mean to Your Culture?

As you’re deciding how your culture sounds, remember they won’t always play the same type of music. Different forms will fill different purposes in different situations. Thinking about these occasions will help you find the right accompaniment. Music in your culture might be used for:

  • Socializing with friends or a larger community. Casual tunes could liven an evening of drinking, or solo performances might woo a potential mate.
  • Celebrating holidays or rites of passageSpecial songs may mark the passage from child to adult, or usher in a seasonal event.
  • Conducting religious ritualsYour culture could have hymns with great religious significance, or add rhythm and melody to preaching and prayers.
  • Improving the atmosphere. Soft chimes could make the wind feel magical, or quiet background music might make visitors feel welcome.
  • Coordinating movement. Oarsmen need a beat to coordinate their rowing, and dancing couples would be lost without music to follow.
  • Aiding energy and attention. Some sounds provide a focus for meditation, others help motivate people to work hard or stay on task.
  • Making announcements. Sounds are frequently used to signal a specific time of day or when a customer enters a shop. There’s little reason these alerts can’t be enjoyable.

Your culture’s language may affect the way they approach music. At the least, the rhythms and tones of their speech will find their way into songs. In addition, certain music may have an extra layer of meaning because of the way it resembles the beats, notes, or sounds of their spoken language, or other sounds that are significant to them.

Choosing Ambient Sounds

To strike the right cord with your culture, start by stepping away from performances to examine how they feel about the general noise in their environment.

Do They Prefer Silence or Noise?

Your culture might do everything they can to dampen sound. They could design every structure to include sound barriers and soft, sound absorbing surfaces. Alternatively, they might chose to create spaces that amplify sounds in them. There could be special corridors that allow two people at each end of a large house to speak comfortably with one another – just by bouncing sound around. Perhaps every home has an alcove for an instrument that produces background noise.

Do They Like Natural or Manicured Sounds?

In addition, your culture might strive for seemingly natural sounds, such as waves or the wind through the trees, or more manicured sounds, like a gong that rings at regular intervals. Perhaps they keep a cage packed with singing beetles, or a water fountain that falls on a series of cymbals. Your high tech culture might dampen the noises in their environment, only to replace them with other sounds they prefer.

How Easy Is It to Achieve Their Preferences?

Silence-loving people who live in remote areas will be very comfortable – until they travel to the city. Then they could be unable to escape the barrage of sounds. Silence in a bustling city could be a sign of wealth, because only the wealthy can afford sound barriers and plush interiors. On the other hand, the wealthy might have tiles that ring with just the right tone as servants step across them, while the poor are doomed to a quiet, and therefore bland, existence.

Your society could also create public works that add pleasing sounds to shared spaces.

Comparing Instrumental Music

Moving past ambient music, your culture probably uses tools to perform musical pieces. Because music is a synthesis of math, biology, and culture, some characteristics of music are largely universal, while others vary significantly.

Pitch & Scale

Most cultures have perfected the art of reproducing specific pitches (notes), and have a classification system for those pitches. If your culture is a human one, their classification system will include the concept of scale, because it’s built into the physics of sound and the biology of how we perceive it. A note at Middle C has twice the wavelength as the C above it, and half the wavelength of the C below it. To the human ear, these wavelengths fit smoothly together.

However, the number of notes on a scale, their distance from each other, and the exact hertz* of each one is a matter of cultural preference. While the seven note diatonic scale is the most popular today, there is also the pentatonic scalehexatonic whole tone, and many more. That’s probably why people from different cultures don’t always agree on which notes sound pleasant together and which ones do not.

If your culture is high tech, the scale and sounds will be more precisely calculated. Once we were able to measure the actual hertz of notes, we made a slight shift to the standard diatonic scale for better consistency. In addition, most instruments don’t really produce pure notes; they produce sounds that are interpreted by listeners as being at a specific pitch. As societies expand their understanding of the math behind pitch, they are able to create notes with more accuracy. A high tech culture might use exclusively pure pitch – even though the human ear could misperceive them as off-key.

Rhythm & Tempo

Adding to differences in scale are differences in rhythm. Rhythm is a regular pattern of sound and silence, enabling listeners to anticipate the music, and dance to it. Most cultures have some kind of rhythm, but it varies significantly.

  • It might be loose or exact.
  • It might have a faster or slower tempo.
  • It might be in the background, or it could be front and center.
  • It could be simple, or it could be full of complex polyrhythms.
  • There might be instruments such as drums devoted to producing rhythm, or rhythm could be built into the melody.

Today, we generally consider tempo, or the speed of our rhythm, as a relative characteristic. We have a general idea of how fast a single beat is – about the speed of a foot tapping – but there’s a large range within that. However, if you have a high tech culture, tempo could be measured as an absolute. A beat might last exactly a second.

Timbre & Melody

The timbre, otherwise known as the color or quality of the tone, also varies significantly. Even though humans share a universal instrument – our voices – it’s amazing how different we make them sound. Tones might be described as whiny, breathy, ringing, gravelly, sweet, brash, or more.

While not universal, many cultures embrace a structure to their musical pieces that resembles the stages of a story. They start slow, build up into a crescendo, and then end on a note of resolution.

To give you some inspiration for how you’d like your culture to sound, I’ve compiled this short playlist. It has a diverse set of music from around the world.

Selecting Instruments

There are more instruments in the world than you probably imagine. If it’s low tech and it actually works, we probably have it on earth right now. So you have a lot of choices when picking your culture’s most popular instruments, but remember to check them against your society’s level of crafting skill.

To get you started, here’s some instruments you may not have heard of.

Low Tech Instruments

Bone Flutes are the simplest instruments to make. The oldest musical instrument in the world is thought to be a 55,000 year old bone flute made by Neanderthals. Though flutes can be made from almost any material, bone provides a ready-made hollow tube.

The Bolon Bato is a gourd bridge harp. Unlike most harps, it’s a rhythm instrument. It only has four strings, and they play low, resonant notes. The musician also taps the gourd to make a crisper rapping sound.

The Bowed Psaltery is a stringed instrument with a simple design. It’s usually shaped like a triangle, with pegs holding strings along the edge. To play a note, the musician uses a bow to stroke the string right between two pegs at the edge. Advanced musicians would have a bow in each hand to allow for cords and a faster melody.*

The Glass Harmonica is an instrument that works just like rubbing wet fingers at the top of a wine glass. It’s composed of glass bowls that are continuously rotated. In lower tech cultures, rotation can be achieved by a foot petal, or even a crank. In high tech cultures, it will be done electronically. It produces an otherworldly sound.

The Harp Guitar is a guitar with a number of unstopped, harp-like strings added, generally from another neck or a different angle. Some harp guitars go even farther, with a handful of necks. While these instruments can have numerous strings, the musician doesn’t use many at once. The shape of a standard harp allows for more cords and harmony than a harp guitar.

The Jaw Harp is a small metal contraption with a single metal twanger. Musicians use their mouth as a resonance chamber, their breath to create rhythm, and their tongue position to change the pitch.

Mid Tech Instruments

Mid tech instruments don’t need electricity, but they have more moving parts and required more ingenuity to invent. They’re great for steampunk settings.

The Calliope is a steam powered instrument that sends air shooting through whistles.* The mechanics are similar to a harpsichord,* so it’s played just like a piano. Because pitch is affected by the steam’s temperature, it’s very difficult to tune accurately. Most are somewhat off-key.

The Hydraulophone is a water powered instrument with water pouring from holes corresponding to the notes it plays. To play a note, the musician blocks off a hole, redirecting the water into a valve or another sound mechanism. Its design requires ingenuity, but it can be powered just by elevating a tank of water.

The Pin Barrel Harp is basically an overgrown music box. Like a music box, there is a rotating cylinder with pegs that trigger different notes. These pegs can be moved before the song is played to form different tunes. During the performance, the musician may turn a crank to power the instrument, while also setting the tempo.

High Tech Instruments

High tech instruments require electricity. Because high tech cultures have software, amps, and speakers, they are free to dream up any kind of interface they want for their musicians.

The Theremin is an early electronic instrument invented in the 1920s, devised from radios. It’s played without touching anything. Instead, the player controls pitch and volume by changing the distance of their hands from the instrument.

The Stylophone is an electronic instrument invented in 1967. It’s essentially a miniature analog keyboard. The keyboard was originally designed for use with a stylus, but modern stylophones can be activated on touch as well. They can harness a large variety of sounds.

Inventing Your Own Instruments

If your culture is high tech, you can invent anything and just say “technology did it.” But if your society isn’t there yet, you’ll need to follow a couple rules to make your instrument plausible:

  1. Almost all instruments have resonance chambers – a hollow space to amplify the sound. Even instruments such as the gong or the cymbal are slightly curved to create this space.
  2. While pitch is created by a wide variety of factors, as a general rule of thumb, the mechanism for a note should be twice the size/length of the same note one octave above, and half the size/length of the same note one octave below. On top of that, some type of fine tuning is usually required. Strings and skins are tightened or loosened, and cylindrical instruments often have joints that allow them to be extended or shortened slightly.

This harp from Animusic looks delightful, but if it were a real instrument, it would play a narrow range of low, dead-sounding notes.

When in doubt, be vague. It will be hard for your audience to figure out you’ve made a mistake if they don’t know how your instrument is supposed to work.

Once you have some types of music picked out for your culture, you can use them to add nuance to everything, from dull moments in a lobby to lavish celebrations. Then don’t forget to make people dance.

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