Where Music and Fantasy Intersect

Welcome to my first Expanded Universe column where I’ll be featuring essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers, talking about anything SFF related that interests us. My guest today is Peter Orullian, author of the VAULT OF HEAVEN series.

One commenter will win a book from our Stacks.

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Peter Orullian

I write epic fantasy. I’m also a musician. So, for me, when Kate and I corresponded on possible topics for an article, and she suggested “the intersection of music and fantasy,” I leapt at the chance to write about it.

And it’s a big topic. More than I can possible cover in a single article. That said, I’d like to tackle a few areas where these two things overlap.

First, and perhaps most obviously, many bands and music artists have written about fantasy books in their music. Led Zeppelin did it with songs like “Ramble On” and “Battle of Evermore,” where they write about Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS. But other bands like Blind Guardian and Battlelore also write about Middle Earth.

There’s also Iron Maiden’s “To Tame a Land,” based on the DUNE novels. Blue Oyster Cult’s “Black Blade” based on Michael Moorcock’s ELRIC novels — Moorcock himself wrote the lyrics. Moorcock has also contributed to Hawkwind’s work — another band that does a lot of scifi/fantasy themes music. There’s also White Zombie’s “I am Legend,” based on Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. And Within Temptation’s “Hand of Sorrow,” inspired by Fitzchivalry Farseer from Robin Hobb’s ELDERLINGS novels

But, bands are also writing fantasy stories. Often, these are concept albums, where most or all of the songs are part of an overarching narrative or idea. Consider: Rush’s “2112,” Nighwish’s “Imaginaerum,” and Dream Theater’s “Scenes From a Memory.” These are just a few examples of where fantasy and music intersect, with the band creating both the music and the story.

Trial of Intentions, by Peter Orullian

Trial of Intentions, by Peter Orullian

Then, we can go inside the books themselves. At perhaps the simplest level, you have worlds where there are bards, or traveling troupes, or tavern performers. They may not be central to the story, but they help create authenticity — for me, at least — since it’s hard for me to imagine a world without music. It’s as fundamental as politics or religion in fantasy world building.

Some fantasy writers write about characters who actually are musicians. Sometimes the music is potent, having magical properties. But before we go there, you have folks like Guy Gavriel Kay putting music and musicians in important roles in Tigana and A Song for Arbonne. For me, it’s great seeing characters who aren’t always toting a sword. Don’t get me wrong; I love my warriors and duels. But variety is the spice of life, right?

And for my part, in my series, I have entire peoples that pivot around music. It’s the very fabric of their culture. It’s part of how they communicate. How they think. They build conservatories, theaters. It’s central to their identity.

Music goes further, though, in some stories. On occasion, it’s the basis for a magic system. L.E. Modesitt Jr. comes to mind, as do Louise Marley’s SINGERS OF NEVYA books. But there are plenty more examples. The difference here is that the music is more than a cultural component. It’s literally a source of power.

In my new book, Trial of Intentions, I go deep into the music magic. How it works. And one of my main characters — who possesses this ability — uses it quite a bit. She spends some time in training. But she makes use of that training — sometimes to inspire, sometimes to heal, and sometimes to do battle. These scenes were fun to write. All of them.

And it might be worth noting that when I created the music magic system, I built it on something I call: governing dynamics. My thought was that the world I’d developed would have organizing principles, akin to our world’s mechanical laws, like gravity and magnetism. The central governing dynamic I posit is Resonance.

So far, I have five magic systems in my series. Underlying them all is Resonance. But because different cultures tap into this principle differently — which seemed natural to me — they are all distinct from each other. Yet, the reader can see how they are all fueled by Resonance.

Resonance, as many know, is a principle of acoustics. Things have a resonant signature, one that “stirs” when struck by the right vibration. I took this idea and enlarged it to encompass more than the mechanical law. Resonance in my world doesn’t require a medium for transference. And it doesn’t have a distance limit. In this regard, it’s akin to quantum entanglement, wherein a thing can be “stirred” simultaneously at a distance.

Beyond all this, there’s also the notion of music in fiction as a way of writing. Meaning, the language itself can carry a musical quality. Some call this lyricism. It’s a certain way of stringing words together to give the language a musical quality. I wouldn’t call it poetry, exactly. Scanned meter is a different thing. Calling it “poetic,” might be closer. But even that isn’t right. There’s a musical sense in some fiction that is somewhat ineffable. I think of writers like Ray Bradbury and Gene Wolfe here. There prose has an easy way about it, and yet feels like a composition, always striking the perfect notes.

I could go on and on with this topic. Both fiction and music are passions of mine. But I’ll return you to your day.

Kate, thanks for the opportunity to share a few thoughts. ‘Twas fun!

Thank you, Peter! Readers, check out Peter’s music and writing at his website. And, remember, one commenter will win a book from our Stacks.


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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14 comments

  1. Margo Hurwicz /

    I think of music as a basic human need, so I also think building a world, at least one where there are humans, requires music & musicians to seem real. I like Guy Gavriel Kay’s use of music in his novels. I like the way Breq collects folk songs and the general importance of music in the Ancillary books. I like Peter Brett’s magical control of demons by characters whi use music. I also like the way you (Peter O.) describe Resonance, which goes beyond what I’ve been talking about. I think I’ll check it out!

  2. Just started the first book last night. Great start. Can’t wait to get more into these amazing books!

  3. This is a really great article! I love the idea of reading being a multimedia experience. Thanks, Kate and Mr. Orullian!

  4. Conal O'Neill /

    An interesting and well written article. I really like the sound of your music based magic system and will have to try out this series.

  5. With Kat’s review of the Long Black Curl, there is a nice convergence of musical themes today! I love the use of melodic music and lyrics in fantasy novels — and “Battle of Evermore” (and “The Misty Mountains”) are two of my favorite Led Zep songs.

    Thanks, Peter and Kate!

  6. I also recently had a couple of articles go up that are, perhaps, relevant.

    One on music and metal: http://www.tor.com/2015/05/27/metal-music-for-five-fantasy-writers-and-their-worlds/

    And another on my use of Resonance: http://www.dragonmount.com/index.php/News/fantasyreview/resonance-law-science-magic-and-more-r875

    In case you’re interested . . . :)

    • Peter, you are contributing a lot of very good articles on the web! Congrats, that’s how it should be done.

  7. Thank you, Peter! Lots of good reading there to accompany my upcoming reading of your novels while on vacation.

  8. Be sure you check the “Notify me of follow up comments” box, since we will announce the Giveaway winner here, on or around June 10.

  9. Two more authors who do a great job with music: Alex Bledsoe, Janny Wurts

  10. Janet /

    Thank you, Peter (and Kate for prompting it!), for the article and the links to others you’ve written — having been raised with music as integral to daily life, dad was a band director and mom also a degreed musician, this is indeed a rich and vast area of magical and mundane enjoyment. I’ll be checking out your books as soon as I can get my hands on them!

  11. Ben /

    I look forward to the day when we get a real companion album to an epic fantasy novel (sort of like Danielewski’s sister did for House of Leaves).

  12. James Schmidt, if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

  13. Music always gets me in the mood when reading fantasy. I use the LOTR soundtrack from the movies when I am reading something similar like The Blade Itself, Diplomat of Uram, or Chronicles of Narnia.

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