Beyond the Vulcan Harp: Constructing Musical Traditions in Science Fiction and Fantasy

I had precisely one good idea when I was in ethnomusicology school. It came to me, clear as the bright blue sky, one afternoon when we were sitting in a seminar room discussing Cantometrics, a method introduced by folklorist Alan Lomax to quantify the relationships between music and culture.

The thought I had was this: if we can mathematically define the correspondence between musical and cultural traits, can’t we then use this framework to create a musical style from the ground up for a fictional people? For example, could we plug in the numbers for how sexually permissive the culture in question is and see what those numbers tell us about the quality of its singing style?

It seemed so simple, and yet so useful, I couldn’t believe no one had thought of it before. I imagined myself taking the idea to Hollywood and making my millions helping filmmakers and television producers come up with ethnomusicologically “correct” musical styles for characters and cultures in science fiction and fantasy movies. For instance, what would the music of the Shire in Middle-Earth really sound like given the Hobbits’ lack of extra-local jurisdictional hierarchies? Would Klingon opera include so many solo arias given the equal footing afforded females in most Klingon subsistence activities? And so on.

I never took my show on the road, of course, but the idea has been kicking around in the back of my head in the many years since I came up with it. When I recently started thinking about world building with one of my super-secret writing projects (my long-gestating Tiki bar novella), I decided I would finally put the idea into practice.

I spent some time boning up on Cantometrics and was quickly reminded how ridiculously complex the method was. Lomax came up with a list of 37 musical traits to be measured for each song, collected under seven categories (“Group Organization,” “Level of Cohesiveness,” Rhythmic Features,” “Melodic Features,” “Dynamic Features,” “Ornamentation” and “Vocal Qualities”). The researcher would listen to the songs and rate each of these traits on scales of varying sizes. The social structure schema was similarly convoluted, encompassing as it did a host of traits related to political structures, class stratification and more.

I did eventually come up with a simplified (read: dumbed down so I could understand it) Reverse Cantometrics model that accepted as inputs the social and cultural traits of fictional peoples and then spit out numbers for the corresponding musical traits. I’ll be honest, though: having gone through the exercise, I’m pretty sure the whole idea is nonsense.

First, because the Cantometric findings upon which it is based – even just the idea of Cantometrics – have always been suspect. Why? Take your pick. Sample size; selection bias; vaguely defined parameters prone to subjective measurement and interpretation; the very notion that you could devise a single analytical framework to uncover meaningful statistical correlations between music and culture, neither of which is easily reduced to a quantitative measure, for every song style across the globe.

At the same time, I don’t think the outputs would ultimately be of any great use to filmmakers seeking to construct a musical style for a fictional people. As a purely academic exercise, Reverse Cantometrics might be moderately interesting, but ultimately the filmmakers want to convey something about the people to their audience, and a made-up musical tradition based on some arcane understanding of the relationship between social and musical traits – which is very likely bull pucky to begin with – isn’t going to do the trick.

Of course, this leads us back to the original problem: how to create musical traditions for fictional societies, and how to do so without falling back on lazy, reductive, probably offensive tropes. I suppose a first step in answering this question is to look at various other attempts over the years, to survey the history of constructed musical styles in science fiction and fantasy. I’ll report back on what I find.

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