Ever sit and think how musical most of us are? I don’t necessarily mean that we know how to play an instrument – which is also awesome – but if we’re not listening to music, we might be absentmindedly humming or whistling, if we’re bored, we might start tapping a little tempo on whichever surface we can. Why, a commonly suggested mnemonic device is to pair something you need to remember with a tune! Personally I can’t go for any protracted amount of time without listening to something, as it helps me concentrate on my tasks, or in the case of traveling and big crowds, it keeps me from feeling anxious.
So I thought, why not gather in one post books, that have music or song as an integral part of their plot or setting, to share with you all ! It is always a neat find for me in a story, and I feel that it adds a dimension to the writing that draws me in even more. The following list then is based on SFF books that I’ve read, which either have songs (be they complete with lyrics, or just implied/mentioned), or music being actively played for plot purposes. I’ll be adding a quick Goodreads link to all for your convenience and they’re not in any particular order either. Hope you enjoy, and if you think of any others that you think I might like to read, or I’ve missed, go ahead and let me know in the comments or Twitter, for I am always happy to read more !
Oh and I suppose a spoiler warning is in order, although they are veeeeeeeery mild as I do my best to keep things as vague as possible hahaha.
First up a classic I’d say, and one that most likely doesn’t require much explanation! It would be a disservice to the man himself to not mention all the songs Tolkien has written throughtout his LOTR books, but the Hobbit is the one I’ve read the most times out of the Middle Earth stories, so take this as the one book entry to represent them all.
(See what I did there ?? Yeah…. that wasn’t my best, let’s move on). While not necessarily plot impacting, Tolkien’s characters, in this particular case the dwarves, always take time to sing, both as a way to remember their past and culture but also as a way to draw courage or raise their spirits for the things to come. Which is just one of the myriad little details mr Tolkien has left us with to build his world!
Next, Garth Nix’s The Old Kingdom series, here shown in their newest editions because I cannot stop gushing about how beautiful they are! In Sabriel’s world music is used as a medium for the magic system in place. More specifically, through the use of different bells and/or whistling, the protagonists are able to channel the magic that allows them, among other things, to banish or control the dead spirits or creatures that return from the afterlife to haunt the living.
Being dependant on their instruments or the ability to produce music is something that significantly raises the stakes in the story as well, making for really interesting action sequences.
And on we continue with De Castell’s The Greatcoats tetralogy, one of the most recent additions to my all time favorites, due to, in no small part, the fact that a lot of what makes this story is based on the importance of sung stories!
Song and music have a double importance in this world in that, first and foremost, an integral part of who the Greatcoats are, is that these traveling magistrates bring the laws of the king throughout the land through the medium of song.
Remember when I said it was a good mnemonic device? Well that is exactly why they exist in such a way here as well! In order to make the King’s Law accessible to all, even those who cannot read. De Castell has also recently mentioned how he’s yet to release all of said laws because they might actually be a key aspect and reveal mysteries of a future Greatcoats book, so I am very excited!!!
Secondly, the effect of their music and the need to be present in order to keep a record of events, is intrinsic to the figures of the Bardatti who play a big role in several events of the story as a whole, much like the bards/minstrels of old we’re familiar with from the Middle Ages or ancient Greece for example!
Technically I haven’t yet read RoW but the presence of songs throughout the Stormlight Archive is a big part of the story regardless of which book you’re on. Indeed among Sanderson’s characters you find the Parshendi race who, instead of a normally spoken language, communicate in continuous songs, or rhythms !
They near constantly sing these rhythms which can shift and vary into a different intonation for each of their emotions, or events in their lives. This connects them all in a very interesting and, I found, beautiful way.
Also, the whole idea of an entire army chanting a war song in unison while charging at their enemies is so incredibly badass, let’s be real. The added dimension of the song also makes the action more cinematic in my opinion, and if these books ever get adapted into something, the Parshendi songs are one of the main things I will be looking forward to.
Also! Technically a soundtrack for the first book already exists, composed by The Black Piper with contribution from Sanderson’s team, which was really really cool and I thought they really nailed the feels from key scenes oh so well!
This is a series that I paused after the third book for a few reasons you might know if you’ve read my review of it in the past. But among its pluses was the presence of music as a medium for magic once again. Similarly to Sabriel in fact, characters have to employ music instruments and sometimes their voice to fight the demons that exist in this world. I found the whole idea of this quite mesmerizing, much like how the different demons are entranced by a character playing their instrument. I won’t say much else though because I’d be giving out some major spoilers for this, and that would be a shame. In fact the reveals that dealt with this particular aspect of the story were some of my favorite in the books.
Ok so full disclosure, I read these two books little over a decade ago and my memory isn’t great. If I sat to think about it a lot and someone where to remind of some things, I’d fully catch up, but yeah, what I’m getting at is that I am due for a reread. Regardless of this though!
I *do* remember some key aspects of the story, mainly that Kvothe’s musical ability is very important to who he is as a character and the legacy of being raised among a troupe of travelling players. Scenes of him playing the lute and the effect it has on those listening is perhaps the part that stayed with me the most after all these years in fact. The importance of that instrument for him and the emotions surrounding his playing even while struggling to do so, made for some very touching scenes, that much I am sure of
And that’s about it I’d say ! But before you go there’s a couple of honorable mentions as well:
I felt like highlighting the Raven’s Shadow trilogy because even though *technically* this series isn’t musical in the same way as the others I listed above, there is still a kind of song present. Ideed this is more of an ability or power that has to be trained in the characters that possess it, and the definition of it as a song can be more metaphorical I suppose, than literal. Compared to the rest of this list anyway! I still think of it as an internal kind of singing though so here we are.
And finally, last but certainly not least, we have one of Neil Gaiman’s YA stories. This was the definition of a serene read for me, almost magical in its apparent simplicity while touching on complex themes. One of the ways it does this was a single scene in particular, that felt like a bit of an aside to the rest of the plot, but was truly magical. Gaiman, as is his habit really, took an old myth/folk tale/ story/allegory or what have you, and put it on the page. In this particular instance it was the one that concerns the Danse Macabre, also known as the Dance of Death, and the way he describes the ghosts dancing with the living, and the sense of music coming alive, truly felt like I was listening to the classical piece composed by Saint-Saens (I also feel like most of us know this piece having heard it somewhere, but never knowing its title) . After reading it, moreover, I went back to read into the allegory because it was something I’d known about in the past and wanted to refresh, which is always a fun side effect of reading Gaiman but I digress.
Well, if you’ve made it this far I hope you all enjoyed this list as it was my first time making one! And as I said at the start, feel free to tell me of any additions you’d make or even if you have already read these books and want to chat about them in this light. You know where to find me !
Until next time,
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With any songs found in Tolkien’s works or any fantasy novel, I hear them as medieval/celtic/folk/ sounding. Now for anyone unfamiliar with those styles, how do you hear them?