Hundreds of years before the printing press revolutionized communication, orators and musicians bore the responsibility of passing down their heritage to the next generation. Like Jaskier promoting the legend of Geralt in The Witcher, minstrels during the Middle Ages relied on poetic language, pleasing accompaniments, and emotional vocals to convey events and themes. The tradition has continued into our modern day, albeit with changes in technique and style.
However, watching dwarves lament their lost home in the cinematic version of The Hobbit is far different from reading about it in the original novel. Despite the absence of sound, the songs in Tolkien’s works have been captivating readers for decades. Beauty is part of the reason, but the meaning of each line also deepens the plot and characterization.
Although songs typically appear in epic fantasy, any genre can contain a scene that obligates the author to turn into a composer, such as a character blaring her favorite band on the stereo, a gathering around a campfire, or a mother comforting her child. Imitating three of Tolkien’s practices can equip you to fill that role without disrupting your story.
1. Give the Song a Purpose
Why go through the hassle of writing an entire song (or a portion of one) when you can relay the same ideas in a few paragraphs of exposition? That’s the question you need to answer before you commit to the task, because if you don’t know, readers won’t understand your choice either, and confusion tends to morph into annoyance.
In The Hobbit, the dwarves could have shared their history and upcoming quest through a conversation with Bilbo, but instead they launch into a melody that quivers with longing. The moment would have been less poignant if Tolkien had framed it in dialogue, which demonstrates two benefits of the format he used:
- The song stands out and lingers with readers because of its rich imagery and cadence that’s reminiscent of Celtic folk music. Applying a rhythm to a concept automatically makes it easier to remember (think of how you learned the alphabet in kindergarten), and the shift in narration enhances the effect.
- The song connects readers to the characters and their legacy. Thorin Oakenshield’s past is so dear to him that he refuses to recite it rotely, and his comrades treat the litany of verses like an anthem that unites and inspires them. His backstory escapes the stigma of an info dump because readers can feel his grief and anger.
A song should never be inserted at whim—or because you’re hoping to wow your audience with clever metaphors. It ought to either contribute to the plot or reveal a character’s personality and values. When you stay within those guidelines, readers will not only tolerate the concert but also hum along.
2. Contextualize the Song
Pretend that readers will have to interpret your song’s lyrics apart from your story. Would they be able to identify the genre, culture, era, scenery, and heroes? For example, if your main characters are pirates, their sea shanties will overflow with sailing terms. If the stardate is 8237.09 on a remote but highly advanced planet, the stanzas will revolve around technology and intergalactic travel. If the setting is based on a college you attended, you’ll need to replicate the kind of hits students would listen to while studying in a coffee shop or dancing at a party.
In chapter one of The Hobbit, the dwarves mention elements of Middle-Earth as they glide through a series of chants. None of the spells and creatures exist in the real world, yet readers have no doubts that Thorin and his friends are commemorating their ancestors’ actual experiences. People don’t speak that floridly today, which halos the words with the intriguing aura of another time and place. Notice how Tolkien whisks you down beneath:
Far over the misty mountains cold,
To dungeons deep and caverns old,
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.
The dwarves of yore made mighty spells
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep
In hollow halls beneath the fells.
As you begin brainstorming your song, consider the dialects and slang that distinguish various people groups in your novel. Do they borrow Americanisms? Reverse their sentence structure like Yoda? Drawl their vowels? All of these details add authenticity. A beat and lingo that resembles pop would be jarring in fantasy and historical novels. The more readily readers accept a song as belonging to your story, the more effective it will be at delivering your intended message.
3. Learn the Mechanics of Songwriting
Since most novelists are not songwriters, cranking out vocals and chords that don’t come across as childish can be like trying to paint a mural with your thumbs. Every song follows a recognizable pattern (similar to poetry), and without knowledge of how the tempo is supposed to rise and fall, you’ll struggle to maintain consistency. You probably can’t discern which instruments play which notes either. Although nobody expects you to produce the next chart-topping track, you do need to have a basic sense of how all the parts harmonize with each other.
The solution to your dilemma? Consult the musicians in your social circle. They can help you fine-tune your draft. Toss them a coin (or buy them lunch) and ask for their feedback, a demonstration, or any insights they’re willing to offer so that you’re no longer evaluating your song while wearing mental earplugs.
Chuck Black, author of the Kingdom Series, included sheet music at the end of his books so that musically inclined readers could enjoy hearing the pieces aloud. You don’t necessarily need to invest that much effort, but Black’s familiarity with his own songs lent more accuracy to his descriptions and, most importantly, allowed his characters to respond viscerally.
Music’s strongest driving force is emotion, and you can see how it influences the audience’s perception of a situation in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Hobbit, as well as Tolkien’s portrayal of Bilbo after the dwarves finish their impromptu performance. A desire for adventure surges within him that conflicts with his preference for comfort and safety. Although the structure of your song is the overture that ensures it’s believable, your character’s reaction is the encore that makes it unforgettable.
Let the Show Begin
When shaped with precision and care, songs are powerful, even in the black and white silence of a page. And the good news is that you don’t need to be an expert to write one! With these tips at your disposal, you can take a cue from Tolkien and usher an orchestra onto your story’s stage to the roar of applause (instead of boos).
Don’t just warn readers about the dragon’s lair. Enchant them with a song and lead them “far over the misty mountains.”
Joshua Barrera was born in a little town in upstate New York. From an early age, he thoroughly enjoyed imaginative play with his brother, utilizing whatever was around him to create new worlds in which they were the heroes. At around ten years old, he developed an interest in writing those fantasies down and crafting them into stories. Thus began his endeavor to become a writer.
Joshua loves to read (oftentimes narrating out loud for his family!), and some of his favorite authors are J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Timothy Zahn. He enjoys writing either fantasy or science fiction, occasionally dabbling in other genres to gain more experience and skill as a writer. Other than reading and writing, his hobbies include entertaining card games, playing musical instruments, and spending time with his wife and three crazy kids.