Wednesday, 7 December 2016

What Is A Bard?

I've just finished watching a documentary in which Nitin Sawhney composed a symphony for animals to listen to. It was successful for starlings, a parakeet, and a seal; dogs and wolves seemed nonplussed. Believe it or not this is actually a burgeoning field of study; it turns out all kinds of animals can and will respond to musical cues. Some of what is going on seems to concern teaching animals how to interact with music; some of it concerns finding out what kind of music animals naturally respond to.

I think there is something very moving about the former, but I find the latter more interesting. It turns out that we can figure out what kind of music monkeys like and compose it for them. (There is something Bartok-esque about it - I actually kind of enjoy it for that reason.) There are even people making music for cats (think Brian Eno doing something ambient).

Naturally enough, thinking about all of this my mind starts to wander: what if people in a fantasy world knew how to make music for dwarves or goblins or dragons?

Let's take that further. Imagine it was impossible to communicate through language with other races: humans, dwarves, elves and so on simply lack common key concepts which make true communication possible. But what if music - rhythm, tone, pitch - was something that all living things understood? You might not be able to really talk to a dwarf. But maybe through music you could find a way to share certain messages, emotions and so forth.

In this world, bards are essentially translators. The local dwarf citadel and human kingdom have been at war. As a peace overture, the humans send a bard to play certain melodies which communicate good faith and sincere intentions. Meanwhile a nearby orc tribe is gathering its warriors to take advantage of the human kingdom's weakness. A bard is sent with a group of drummers to beat out a rhythm from a mountaintop which will tell the orcs, "We're ready." The bard PC is like a snake charmer who gradually learns more and more specific ways to communicate with monsters and animals through music - and can improvise at a push.


  1. look up kulning. those swedish herding songs are pretty related.

  2. i have a cat sculpture from bali (a guy was making for himself not tourists and we nabbed it unfinished) animals hate it and freak out at it - dogs, cats, birds

    i think plato might have complainedabout art that fooled animals as shallow

  3. I think this is brilliant in a game mechanic/class role sort of way. If you approach the game as "different classes are different tools with which to poke at the dungeon" then the class that can communicate with assorted denizens in increasingly sophisticated ways as they progress in levels definitely brings something new to the toolbox. I like it a lot more than the usual view of the bard as the guy who brings a lute to a sword fight.

  4. Historical bards were first and foremost entertainers, who were allowed to cross the boundaries between cultures (like Homer) and in politics, sacred jesters akin to Zen monks. A lot of what is present in entertainment industry today took part in the bardic lifestyle of antiquity. Roman bards were a bit like modern rappers. There is song attributed to roman legionnaires, who joined the Spartacus rebellion: There lived an old cat once, the bitter enemy of mice... one day while the cat was asleep mice snuck out and tied a bell to his tail. Then they made like they are escaping from their hole. The cat jumped after them, but the ringing of the bell startled him and he was so terrified that he jumped up and down to try to get away... Odin when he was Wotan was a patron saint of bards. A bard was a minstrel, who lived as a soldier and as an outlaw and sang to tell about it. Legend had it, that Wotan in disguise will have a drink with a good man, and under the spell of that drink, the man will never be the same again. He would get Wanderlust. He would wander as a soldier or a thief (or a Viking), and he would leave his family and his settled life behind. There are still bardic traditions. There are two schools of guitar play - Chord progression of the Spanish School, and the Medieval string picking style of the Germanic Tradition, best exemplified by Ritchie Blackmore, there is a video of him playing live a classic music piece in a virtuoso picking style. Mark Knopfler is a bard. Bardism is a tendency that competes with pressure to make money via hit singles. His most bardic album is Shangri-La. Today's military bards are common in armies driven by political ideology and gems of their poetry and experience, tainted by partisanship and hidden by linguistic barriers are hidden from the mainstream pop culture. Here is a D&D themed bardic song:

    Temple of the King, by Rainbow.