Worldbuilding Music, Part One: Culture and Society.

This post – and the next few – are a slight change from my usual writing, in that I’m talking about my other big hobby of worldbuilding, and how worldbuilders can engage with music.

Though I spoke quite strongly about why I don’t worldbuild music on the most recent episode of the Artifexian Podcast, that discussion and the ensuing feedback on our subreddit did get me thinking. Music is my job, and it’s something I care a lot about, so as a worldbuilder I thought maybe I’m in a bit of a position to write a guide on how to worldbuild convincing and in-depth music in your fictional settings.

I am not an expert in all of these topics, and in worldbuilding there are no right answers. It’s very hard to make declarative statements about what is good or bad worldbuilding, especially when talking in the abstract and not referring to specific works. However, though I’m not an expert in all these fields, I have a pretty broad knowledge of a variety of music and music-related topics, so what I can do is provide some rough guidelines and differing perspectives from which worldbuilders can consider their setting’s music.

I’m going to split this into a series of maybe three blog posts, and this is the first, where I will discuss the cultural aspects of music and how worldbuilders can begin to think about creating believable musical cultures in their fictional settings.

There are a number of questions to ask when designing a musical tradition. These are by no means a definitive checklist, but thinking about these questions will help you to sort out your thoughts and situate your music in the wider context of the culture you are building. This framework can be applied, with some changes, to many other art forms outside of music.


First of all, consider the roles of the people involved in the music. These can be divided into three broad categories. These are:

  • artist
  • audience
  • mediator

The first of these are pretty self-explanatory – the artists are those who create the music, the audience those who listen to it – but the third may require some explanation. Mediators are those who facilitate the creation of music but don’t actively perform it. In the modern Western world, these could be gig promoters, or record executives. In older societies, they could be patrons who commission the composition of new works. People in more peripheral roles, such as teachers or instrument makers could also be considered mediators, though that’s less directly relevant. Composers and songwriters may be considered either artists or mediators.

These roles are not mutually exclusive – and that’s the first and most important thing to consider. In most modern Western musics, there is a clear divide between the audience and the artists – the artists are on a stage and the audience watch them, and the two roles are clearly distinct. Not all music is constructed with a clear distinction between artist and audience, however – in some cultures, music is performed as a community activity, where everyone sings and there is no one passively listening without participating. Similarly, mediators in particular may also exist in other roles – a wealthy patron is presumably going to listen to the music they have commissioned, or a composer may perform their own works. The point of this model is not to assign everyone involved to a single fixed position in this network, but to consider these roles so that you can better envision how your constructed musical culture operates. Who are the artists? Who are the  audience? Is there  a distinction between them? Who are the mediators?

Some modern models of cultural musicology posit that audiences are not merely passive, and listening or consuming music is an active part of any musical scene, but for the purposes of worldbuilding this needn’t be considered.

In accordance with The Ministry of Labour and Culture Productivity Order 440, all workers must participate in workplace choral singing. Immediately following the cessation of your shift, your work detail will report to the canteen to engage in praise of the Party and the Leader. Participation will strengthen the workplace, raise worker motivation, and reinforce the ideologies of our Leader. Attendance is mandatory.

Perhaps this setting is a totalitarian state, where after their shifts in the factories, workers must attend choir practice to build worker solidarity and sing anthems to their rulers. In this example, there is not necessarily a distinction between the artist and the audience as the music is not being performed for a crowd, but rather for the effect it has upon the singers. There may still be mediators – composers must write the anthems to the Party, networks to publish and distribute the government-approved music must operate.

Among the Yishoi, music is the sole domain of religious initiates. Their priests may only play upon their sacred instruments when so directed so by the chieftain – who does this only for specific religious events and ceremonies. Though all members of the tribe may participate in some capacity in such rituals, only those initiated into the sacred mysteries of their gods may be trusted with their holy music.

In this scenario, the priest is the artist; the chieftain is the mediator that dictates when, where, and how the music takes place; and the audience is whichever tribal members witness or take part in the ceremonial events – and perhaps, in the tribe’s own perception of their music, the spirits that are present at these occasions of significance are the audience also.

Note that in neither of these examples are the roles of artist the entire role that the individual has in society. The singers praising the State are workers who also perform music, and the priests presumably have other duties, or at least the their music has significance beyond the performance itself. It is possible for artists to have their musical role as their chief role in society – performing music is a full-time job for many orchestral musicians, for rock stars, and for others. However, this raises a second important point for consideration – how does the music operate in the wider context of the society?


Art – music included – does not take place in a vacuum. It’s tied into many other aspects of society and culture. For people to develop musical arts requires a society where people are able to devote time to pursuits other than survival. This is not possible for some societies – early industrial civilization, for example – but is likely possible for hunter-gatherers and any large societies with specialised labour roles. Further, the kind of musical culture that exists – the relationships between artist, audience, and mediator – are impacted by these economic and social factors. A 19th century symphony orchestra requires a literate culture with the ability to support large numbers of people whose entire job is to play or facilitate music. Symphony orchestras or analogous organisations would be neither likely nor practical in Homeric Greece or the pre-Columbian North American plains. These societies would lack the large amounts of surplus production and concentrated capital needed  to support such a large number of people who only produce art, and also lack the complex means of producing and distributing printed music. Of course, creating and justifying such an organisation in the context of a society that shouldn’t support it would be an interesting exercise, and could result in some compelling worldbuilding.

As with oral traditions of poetry or storytelling, it’s possible for complex non-written musical traditions to exist. These aural music traditions work similarly to literary ones – works are transmitted from player to player rather than through a written medium. It’s probable that, with a work not existing in the fixed form of a score, it’s more likely for a given tune to mutate and experience regional variations, but more difficult to communicate large and complex works.

For these reasons, much of the music we know about in Europe before the renaissance is church music. As well as the central role that religion played in many aspects of life, the Church was ideally situated to act as a mediator in many respects. The Church’s wealth allowed it to educate and support performers and composers; it had a tradition of copying biblical texts which allowed it to produce musical literature; and it had a wide network for distributing its musical output.

The Thiar occupy are viewed ambivalently by the rest of the society. Though many of the castes have their own songs, and their own private written scripts pertaining to their work – indeed, the priests and the smiths could not function without them – the Thiar are alone in writing their music, and no scripts are as arcane as those of the Thiar. Far more given to wandering than any other castes, they are nonetheless tolerated by the powerful classes. The beauty of their music, held as the highest in the world, is one reason for this – yet many hold that their ability to transmit complex information and their propensity for travel is what truly makes them useful to those who rule.

Here, we have a society where all the professions have different ways to communicate through writing, the musicians included. Their ability to write down music allows the Thiar to have a greater command of music than the other castes. Further, this concentration of expertise in carrying complex, impenetrable information combined with their wandering tendencies means many suspect them of acting as conduits of clandestine information across their civilization.

Q: So what we’re seeing here is a resurgence of what, in the twentieth century, was called ‘postmodern’?
A: It’s – it’s culture accelerated through and far beyond postmodernity. Music, for the young people nowadays, has changed from performance into a sort of high-speed dance. Remix, recontextualisation, allusion, parody – all these are moves in a breakneck game where prestige and respect are the winner’s reward.
Q: So who are the original artists?What are the works they’re remixing?
A: That’s not relevant, not to how these kids view their music. Authorship is an outmoded concept, each new interpretation draws from a deep reservoir of previously interpreted work. Identifying the original work is not only meaningless task for these kids, it’s impossible – like looking at a human and trying to describe the first fish that struggled onto land. When the biggest challenge to surmount for these artists is the light-minutes gap between planets and habitats around the solar system – that’s how fast these cultures move, this is how up-to-date they strive to be – how can an outsider hope to comprehend their output?

This presents a futuristic music scene. Artist and audience are in a sense blurred – the music is produced not for a passive audience but in response to, and to provoke response from, other artists; though of course, passive listeners may also engage with this scene. Technology, presumably something akin to the internet, is used to share musical materials. Rather than working from the printed instructions of a musical score, another artist’s work is the basis for a reinterpretation that is presented as a new piece of music. This scene would probably operate without the need for record labels and other mediating organisations – the artists communicate directly with each other, and are likely operating without the need for much capital, or formal education.


As with a lot of other aspects of worldbuilding, exposing yourself to a variety of musics from around the world, and even slight familiarity with how different musical cultures and traditions operate, will help you as a worldbuilder consider the social and cultural aspects of the music in your own worlds. The goal is not to become an expert on Qawwali music and then faithfully recreate that in your own world – such a project would not only be difficult but it would be silly since we already have Qawwali and it’s probably more interesting than what a single worldbuilder can come up with. Rather, you want to learn about how Qawwali is described and use that as inspiration for your own setting. Even a biased or unreliable account of Qawwali is valuable to a worldbuilder – since the goal is not faithful representation of the culture you’re inspired by, even a source that misleads readers about a real-life culture could result in interesting fodder for a fictional one.

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