Wheel of Time Music - Regional and Cultural Variation
National and Ethic Musical Styles
There is a lot of commonality between music of one region and another, especially in the inns due to the cultural mixing there, but a few nations or groups have some distinctive features in their music.
There’s a saying that the past is another country because they do things differently there, so let’s start with a look at historical styles.
Two musical devices survived from the Age of Legends:
A small music box sat on the marble mantelpiece, producing from its memory the soft strains of a sound-sculpture that very likely had not been heard outside this room in well over three thousand years.
Lord of Chaos, To Understand a Message
And a small red and green striped ivory box ter’angreal that contains hundreds, even thousands, of stored tunes (Knife of Dreams, A Different Skill). One device with only one “voice” and another with thousands.
Also from the Age of Legends is the tune Lament for the Long Night, which Rand played on the flute from Lews Therin’s memories (Winter’s Heart, Bonds). Asmodean performed The March of Death on the harp, which is the final movement of The Grand Passions Cycle, a work composed some three hundred years before the War of Power by an unnamed composer (The Fires of Heaven, Pale Shadows).
Early in the Third Age, the city of Londaren Cor in Eharon had a Procession of Flutes during the Blessing of the Swords. In the soldiers’ taverns of the city, veiled dancers moved sinuously (Knife of Dreams, A Stave and a Razor).
The Aes Sedai have massed trumpets and drums in their military and civic processions (The Eye of the World, Weaving of the Web) to impress onlookers. Within Tar Valon, there are street buskers playing flute or harp or pipes, sometimes with an acrobat or juggler (The Dragon Reborn, Tar Valon).
Once they have taken up the spear, Aiel warrior men do not sing except for battle songs and laments for those killed in battle. Wash the Spears is one such battle song. Aiel battle songs are slow dance tunes played on pipes with voices chanting harmonies in parts. It follows that they call battle “the dance” (Glossary).
The pipes also play in a post-battle victory dance where the warriors leap up high from one foot, do acrobatics in the air, and land on the other foot (The Fires of Heaven, After the Storm). They are like Cossack dances .
One of Perrin’s captive Shaido sang a song to insult him. The man was a warrior, not gai’shain, but he sang:
“I once met a man who was far from home.
His eyes were yellow and his wits were stone.
He asked me to hold smoke in my hand,
and said he could show me a watery land.
He put his head in the ground and his feet in the air,
and said he could dance like a woman fair.
He said he could stand till he turned to stone.
When I blinked my eyes, he was gone.”
Crossroads of Twilight, What Must Be Done
The song was meant to insult, or taunt. The Aiel have strong Celtic influences, and the Celts practise flyting, the exchange of insults in verse. Perrin didn’t play along, however, he brought his axe down on the man’s wrist.
The Aiel holds have a gong by the door in each household to sound the alarm. In Cold Rocks Hold, the gong was a square bronze instrument which was hit with a leather-covered mallet (The Shadow Rising, Traps).
Altaran music is shrill and typically played at a fast tempo on flutes, dulcimers and drums (Lord of Chaos, The Wandering Woman and Winter’s Heart, An Offer). Mat thought it an “odd sort of music”. The nation has a Mediterranean flavour, and a dance in Ebou Dar that Mat described as half pattern dance, half jig, may be like the Italian Tarantella family of dances.
At the Amadician court, mixed ensembles played light music for outdoors gatherings (Lord of Chaos, Plans).
Andor has a national song, Forward the Lion (The Eye of the World, Weaving of the Web). It is the only national anthem that we know and shows that Andor’s strength as a nation has led to a more formal nationalism.
The Andoran court may be wealthy enough to own an advanced mechanical music player. since Elayne was familiar with music boxes that had changeable cylinders with extensive music libraries (Knife of Dreams, A Different Skill).
The attitude to music is very different in Cairhien. In this nation, it is a low status activity, as Moiraine indicates:
She cared little for music and less for whoever played the instruments; in Cairhien, musicians were hired and forgotten.
New Spring, An Answer
The upper classes do not play instruments – that is what their servants are for:
"My Lord, I had a man here who played the bittern, …Since my musician's gone, would you let your man favor us with a little music?"
Hurin looked embarrassed.
"He doesn't play," Rand explained. "I do."
The woman blinked. It appeared lords did not play the flute, at least not in Cairhien. "I withdraw the request, my Lord. Light's own truth, I meant no offense, I assure you. I'd never ask one such as yourself to be playing in a common room."
Cairhien The Great Hunt, The Nine Rings
“I even hear that you play the flute. Can it be true?"
"I play the flute… If you will excuse - "
"I have heard that some outland lords play music, but I never believed it.”
The Great Hunt, Dangerous Words
King Galldrian paid musicians to perform in the Foregate to keep the populace from rebellion and vandalism (The Great Hunt, Cairhien). At the same time, Barthanes Damodred hired almost as many at his manor to indicate his wealth and status:
There were many other rooms, all filled with lords and ladies, all with entertainers: three different gleemen in their cloaks, more jugglers and tumblers, and musicians playing flutes, bitterns, dulcimers, and lutes, plus five different sizes of fiddle, six kinds of horn, straight or curved or curled, and ten sizes of drum from tambour to kettle. He gave some of the horn players a second look, those with curled horns, but the instruments were all plain brass…
There was even a bard in silver-worked Tairen boots and a yellow coat, strolling through the rooms plucking his harp and sometimes stopping to declaim in High Chant. He glared contemptuously at the gleemen and did not linger in the rooms where they were, but Rand saw little difference between him and them except for their clothes.
The Great Hunt, Dangerous Words
The hiring of many performers shows wealth, but not necessarily taste. However, they do perform the practical task of covering up the scheming conversations.
Cairhien had a procession of giant puppets accompanied by drummers:
Half a dozen men, beating tambours and dancing, led the way for a string of huge puppets, each half again as tall as the men who worked them with long poles. Giant crowned figures of men and women in long, ornate robes bowed to the crowd amid the shapes of fanciful beasts. A lion with wings. A goat, walking on its hind legs, with two heads, both of which were apparently meant to be breathing fire, from the crimson streamers hanging from the two mouths.
The Great Hunt, Cairhien
The Chinese dragon dance procession has large puppets on poles. Cairhien has similarities with Japan, and the Japanese also have a dragon dance, but it is not widespread.
More recently, according to Elayne, performances with multiple players singing and acting out ballads and musical plays—opera--were developed in Cairhien and then spread to Andor. This is an extension of the casts of players (actors) we saw in The Great Hunt who were putting on plays in the Foregate.
A Cairhienin man played an instrument not seen elsewhere:
a skinny Cairhienin in a ragged coat was blowing something that looked part flute and part horn with some odd bits tossed in.
The Fires of Heaven, After the Storm
It may be a clarinet (developed in the 18th century) or a saxophone (invented a century later).
Music in Lugarder inns is typical of inns elsewhere—flutes, tambour, bittern or zither—but with women performers dancing on a table in revealing clothing while singing bawdy songs (The Fires of Heaven, An Old Pipe and The Nine Horse Hitch).
The sa’sara is an erotic dance performed for a man by a Saldaean woman, although she is rather embarrassed to admit she knows it:
"You muscle-brained oaf!" she snapped, glaring up at him. "Men have thrown their hearts and fortunes at the feet of women who danced the sa'sara. If Mother suspected I knew it-" Her teeth clicked shut as though she had said too much, and her head whipped back to face forward; scarlet mortification covered her from her dark hair down to the neck of her dress.
The Shadow Rising, A Missing Leaf
Most spirited women from Saldaea probably learn the sa’sara, each thinking that few do so, and furthermore that their mothers surely never did. In the real world, the dance of the seven veils is likewise, legendarily erotic.
Apart from Rand, Faile is the only other noble we know who plays an instrument:
Could she [Berelain] ride in the hunt all day, then play the bittern at night while discussing how to counter Trolloc raids? [As Faile can.]
The Shadow Rising, Customs of Mayene
Some da’covale perform ballet-like poses or dance exercises solo or in groups while clad in a sheer white robe:
She took a hand from her cup to gesture, a slight movement of long fingernails, and the sharp-faced woman barked, "Thera! Poses of the Swan!"…
The serving woman rose from her place at the wall again, running out to the middle of the floor in an odd way, on tiptoe, with her arms swept back. Slowly, atop the flaring golden sun, symbol of the Children of the Light, she began a sort of stylized dance. Her arms unfolded to the sides like wings, then folded back.
Twisting, she slid her left foot out, lowering herself over the bending knee, both arms outstretched as if appealing, until arms and body and right leg made a straight, slanted line. Her sheer white robe made the whole thing scandalous. Morgase felt her cheeks growing hot as the dance, if it could be called that, continued.
"Thera is new and not well trained yet," Suroth murmured. "The Poses are most often done with ten or twenty da'covale together, men and women chosen for the clean beauty of their lines, but sometimes it is pleasant to view only one."
A Crown of Swords, The Irrevocable Words
The costume is reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian slave dancers but “poses of the Swan” and its dance movements may refer to the ballet Swan Lake.
Another type of Seanchan dancer, the Shea dancer wears a sheer veil, and very little more, according to Egeanin (The Shadow Rising, Hidden Faces).
The Sea Folk have distinctive melancholy songs (The Great Hunt, Leavetakings).
Graendal’s Sharan slaves—former rulers—played
oddly elongated harps, with chimes that resonated to the plucked strings in crystalline echoes.
Lord of Chaos, Threads Woven of Shadow
The music they played was atonal and “full of complex harmonies and odd dissonances”. The Chinese konghou is an elongated harp, and Shara—home of silk—has similarities with China. While the ancient konghou is more elongated than the modern version, the modern konghou has each string supported by its own bridge, so that the player is able to bend the strings to create vibrato and sliding effects, possibly equivalent to the Sharan harp’s chimes.
The Tairen soldiers perform line dances in victory:
Not far from where he sat, a dozen Defenders of the Stone, stripped to sweaty shirtsleeves, were dancing to the claps of ten times as many watchers. In a line, with arms around each others’ shoulders, they stepped so quickly that it was a wonder none of them tripped or kicked the man next to them.
The Fires of Heaven, After the Storm
These line dances are similar to those from Greece. For instance, Thracian dances are very fast. Historically, some Greek line dances were performed to prepare for battle. Tear shows no other Greek characteristics (in fact they have Spanish, Moorish and South East Asian influences). Ironically, their hated rivals, the Illianers, have many Greek names.
An instrument seen in Tear and not elsewhere is the semseer. which appears to be a shrill bulbous wind instrument, perhaps like a shawm (The Shadow Rising, Rumours).
The Tinkers are portrayed as the people most fond of music and devoted to collecting it:
All the People seemed on the point of dancing, even when standing still, even during the rare times when there was no music in the camp. Fiddles and flutes, dulcimers and zithers and drums spun harmony and counterpoint around the wagons at almost any hour, in camp or on the move. Joyous songs, merry songs, laughing songs, sad songs; if someone was awake in the camp there was usually music.
The Eye of the World, The Travelling People
The Tuatha’an’s own national musical style is of sharp trilling songs (The Eye of the World, Shelter From the Shadow), but also slow songs
to which the women dance the tiganza to drums and flute. The tiganza is the most erotic dance performed in public on the mainland. It is a type of belly dance.
Not knowing what Song they search for, they collect all songs. The Tuatha’an epitomise music as the rhythm of life, and devotion to the cosmic dance of the Pattern:
They would dance right up until the day when the Pattern burned away, whether or not they found their song, whether or not Trollocs ravaged the world or the Dragon Reborn destroyed it.
The Gathering Storm, News in Tel’aran’rhiod
The Tinkers—Lost Ones, to the Aiel—search for the Song because they believe it will bring back what was—paradise—the peace and high standard of living of the Age of Legends: "As it was, so shall it be, if we but remember, seek, and find" (The Eye of the World, The Travelling People). The Aiel also believe that these times will come again—if they follow the Dragon Reborn:
It is prophesied that a child born of a Maiden will unite the clans and return the Aiel to the greatness they knew during the Age of Legends.
The Eye Of The World. Glossary, Far Dareis Mai
Prophecy says when the Stone of Tear falls, we will leave the Three-fold Land at last. It says we will be changed, and find again what was ours, and was lost."
The Dragon Reborn. A Different Dance
Both these groups descended from Da’shain Aiel, and both have unusual customs surrounding song–wandering endlessly for it or limiting singing.
Rand saw the Song, or Singing, in the glass column ter’angreal in Rhuidean:
The Ogier began it, as was fitting, standing to sing, great bass rumbles like the earth singing. The Aiel rose, men’s voices lifting in their own song, even the deepest at a higher pitch than the Ogier’s. Yet the songs braided together, and Someshta took those threads and wove them into his dance, gliding across the field in swooping strides, arms wide, butterflies swirling about him, landing on his spread fingertips.
Coumin could hear the seed singing around the other fields, hear the women dapping to urge the men on, their rhythm the heartbeat of new life, but it was a distant knowledge. The song caught him up, and he almost felt that it was himself, not the sounds he made, that Someshta wove into the soil and around the seeds. Seeds no longer, though. Zemais sprouts covered the field, taller wherever the Nym’s foot had trod. No blight would touch those plants, nor any insect; seed sung, they would eventually grow twice as high as a man and fill the town’s grainbarns. This was what he had been born for, this song and the other seed songs…
The song faded slowly, the Aiel guiding its end. Someshta danced a few steps more after the last voices ceased, and it seemed the song still hung faintly in the air for as long as he moved. Then he stopped, and it was done.
The Shadow Rising, The Dedicated
This was seed singing involving Nym, Ogier and Da’shain Aiel men. The women clapped the rhythm of life instead of singing. And now, most Aiel men rarely sing—only for war and death, not life.
In The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, the singing of the Da’shain is said to have enhanced channelling. (Da’shain served the Aes Sedai in other, unspecified ways also.) Singing was a technique rather than a single Song. In the Prologue to The Eye of the World,. Lews Therin speaks of a session of Singing where all are welcome to participate—if they have the Voice:
”Have you the Voice, stranger? It will soon be time for the Singing, and here all are welcome to take part.”
The Eye Of The World, Prologue
And the Technique, I guess.
To impress the Empress, Rand Sang to make vegetation grow to the tune of a mundane song (Two Maids At the Water’s Edge ). This shows that it is the technique that counts, not the actual words and music. All this time, the Tinkers have been searching for the wrong thing. The fact that almost any song would do doesn’t make Singing less powerful, either. It’s all in the intent and the delivery—the Service. Interestingly, the Empress became pregnant fairly promptly.
Raen doubted that the Song would be found in a city (The Eye of the World, The Travelling People). However, Rand saw a Song performed in the lost city of Rhuidean, although it was only after he gained memories of his past lives that he showed a mastery of the technique.
We do not know of any Tinker’s reaction on learning of Rand’s Singing, or even if any heard and believed it, which makes Elyas’ commentary all the more poignant:
"They don't even know what the song is; they claim they'll know it when they find it. They don't know how it's supposed to bring paradise, either, but they've been looking near to three thousand years, ever since the Breaking. I expect they'll be looking until the Wheel stops turning."
The Eye of the World, The Travelling People
Ogier and treesinging
Just as music is the centre of the Tinker’s lives, it is more or less the basis of the Ogier’s language:
That inflected tongue sounded like deep-voiced birds singing. It seemed odd to Rand that a people so big had such a musical language.
The Eye of the World, What Follows In Shadow
When Loial sings to heal a tree, Rand felt it was as though the earth sang. Singing to create wooden objects seems:
pure song, music without words, at least none that Rand could make out; if there were words, they faded into the music just as water pours into a stream.
Rand was not sure what it was Loial did, or how; soft as the song was, it caught him up hypnotically, filling his mind almost the way the void did. Loial ran his big hands along the trunk, singing, caressing with his voice as well as his fingers. The trunk now seemed smoother, somehow, as if his stroking were shaping it. Rand blinked. He was sure the piece Loial worked on had had branches at its top just like the others, but now it stopped in a rounded end right above the Ogier's head. Rand opened his mouth, but the song quieted him. It seemed so familiar, that song, as if he should know it.
The Great Hunt, Kinslayer
Rand likens treesinging to the One Power—both fill his mind as the void does. The recognition Rand feels is due to the leakage of Lews Therin’s memories that had started. Lews Therin does know Singing and would also have witnessed seed singing. In Cairhien, and in Loial’s company, Rand was lured by the Choedan Kal and felt it sang:
Saidin sang to him. The huge ball seemed to glow white with the light of the sinking sun. It seemed to him that in the depths of the crystal, light swirled and danced in time to the song of saidin. … Suddenly - a drifting, distant thought - he realized that the void surrounded him. Saidin sang, and the sphere pulsed - even without looking, he could feel it - and the thought came that if he sang the song saidin sang, that huge stone face would open its mouth and sing with him. With him and with saidin. All one. He released the void. and it did not go. Saidin crooned, and the light in the sphere beat like a heart. Like his heart. Loial, Hurin, Selene, they all stared at him, but they seemed oblivious to the glorious blaze from the crystal. He tried to push the void away. It held like granite; he floated in an emptiness as hard as stone. The song of saidin, the song of the sphere, he could feel them quivering along his bones.
The Great Hunt, Saidin
The Ogier sang to the Great Trees that Rand caused to grow:
It washed over her, enveloped her, vibrated through her. A joyful song, a song of awe and wonder, though she could not understand the words. She approached a group of towering creatures, like trees themselves, standing with their hands on the gnarled trunks of the trees Rand had grown, their eyes closed.
Three dozen Ogier of various ages, from those with eyebrows as white as new snow to those as young as Loial. He stood there with them, a smile raising the sides of his mouth as he sang… Elayne nodded, listening to the Ogier song reach its climax, then fade, the Ogier bowing their heads. For a moment, all was peaceful.
A Memory of Light, Into the Thick of It
The Ogier also sing to heal trees (Towers of Midnight, opening passage) and a mourning song for those that die:
It was the dirge they sang for forests that had to be leveled or for great trees that died in a storm. It was a song of loss, of regret, of inevitability. He joined in the final refrain.
"All rivers run dry,
All songs must end,
Every root will die,
Every branch must bend.
A Memory of Light, Too Many Men
The Ogier have a war song which they describe as a call to blood, to death which is born of their rarely-roused fury:
He laid his ears flat as the Ogier began their war song. He lent his voice to theirs, glad for the terrible song—the call to blood, to death—as it filled the silence left by the trees. Loial did not stop his song, the call to blood, to death. Let them hear! Let them hear! Swing after swing. Chopping dead wood, that was all this was. Dead, rotting, horrible wood. He and Erith fell into place with Elder Haman, who—with ears laid back—looked utterly fierce. Placid Elder Haman. He felt the rage too.
A Memory of Light, A Silence Like Screaming
The Ogier themselves think their song is terrible; terrible because of the rage behind it and because it make the Builders destroyers. The song is the reverse of their usual working songs sung to flutes and fiddles:
"Clear the field, smooth it low.
Let no weed or stubble stand.
Here we labor, here we toil,
here the towering trees will grow.”
The Great Hunt, Stedding Tsofu
After singing songs of death, or regret for death, Loial literally changed his tune and used a song of life as a weapon:
He started singing again, louder, and this time it was not the song of mourning. It was a song he had not sung before, a song of growing, but not one of the tree songs that were so familiar to him.
He bellowed it loud and angry, laying about him with his axe. On all sides, grass turned green, cords and ribbons of life sprouted. The hafts of the Trolloc polearms began to grow leaves; many of the beasts snarled and dropped the weapons in shock.
Loial fought on. This song was not a song of victory. It was a song of life. Loial did not intend to die here on this hillside.
A Memory of Light, Too Many Men
Loial does something remarkable here; his song is akin to the power of the Nym at the Eye of the World.
Music has its dark side, following Jordan’s theme of balance. Trollocs have drums and horns for marching to battle (A Memory of Light, The Last Battle). More sinister is the seductive crooning of the draghkar that saps the will of those who hear it:
Elayne whipped her head up, turning to the side. That terrible song, a croon, a hum, beautiful yet terrible at the same time. She heeled Moonshadow, drawn toward that soft sound. Where was it?
It rose from somewhere deeper in the Seanchan camp at the base of Dashar Knob. Chewing out Mat for not telling her his plan of war could wait. She needed to find the source of that sound, that wonderful sound, that.
A Memory of Light, The Last Battle
Its crooning, hypnotic song clung tight around the Void… That song. Had he not been shielded from emotion by emptiness, kept dispassionate and distant, that song would have snared his mind.
The Shadow Rising, Traps
Draghkar are like Sirens as well as vampires, and Rand is better at ignoring their call than Odysseus.
Finally, the Blight itself has a terrible music:
And the dark song of the Blight had become a howl that drowned every other sound.
New Spring, Borderlands
While the *elfin people of Sindhol ban music, it is not because they hate it:
“Good. You have brought no lamps, no torches, as the agreement was, and is, and ever will be. You have no iron? No instruments of music?”
The Shadow Rising, Into the Doorway
It is because it lulls them into vulnerability—sleep or a trance—during which they are unable to take advantage of their intended prey:
Thom began playing. It was a familiar song, "The Wind That Shakes the Willows."…
Mat watched it, then began to sing along with the flute playing.
He did not have the best voice among those he knew, but he was not terrible either.
The Eelfinn yawned, then settled down beside the wall and closed its eyes. In moments, it was sleeping.
Thom lowered the flute from his lips, looking impressed.
Towers of Midnight, Gateways
This is a reversal of the stories of elves enchanting people with music and spiriting them away…