How to Use Folk Songs for Worldbuilding

In this article, we will look at three of the most popular fantasy folk songs as a way to explore three forms of folk song. We will examine how these examples uniquely elaborate on the worlds they stem from, then develop prompts to create our own folk songs.

How to Use Folk Songs for Worldbuilding

Including folk songs in your worldbuilding is one of the most engaging and concise methods you can use to convey rich information about the cultures in your world.

Because the "commoners" are the ones who have written the folk songs, they allow the worldbuilder to quickly convey what the people are like, what they care about, and what their tone is. Whether it’s an idyllic sci-fi cityscape with buildings that tower into the heavens above, or a lowly fantasy world where a revolution simmers below the surface, music is essential to understanding any culture from the perspective of the people.

What exactly is a Folk Song?

You’ve already heard them on your favorite shows, and you’ve read them in your favorite books. Folk songs are small works of music for the common people that situate them in a specific time and place. Folk songs belong to the people and are often taught as part of an oral tradition with no single composer getting the credit for writing them.

In this article, we will look at three of the most popular fantasy folk songs as a way to explore three forms:

  1. The Important Event: The Misty Mountains Cold
  2. Propaganda: Toss a Coin to Your Witcher
  3. The Worker’s Shanty: Diggy Diggy Hole

We will examine how these examples uniquely elaborate on the worlds they stem from, then develop prompts to create our own folk songs.

The Important Event: The Misty Mountains Cold

“...The music began all at once, so sudden and sweet that Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons, far over The Water and very far from his hobbit-hole under The Hill.”
-Excerpt from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Written by arguably the most successful and enduring worldbuilder of all time, one the most iconic songs from Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth is The Misty Mountains Cold. The song is used by the dwarves to tell of the troves of treasure that lay awaiting reclamation under the Misty Mountain, and of the mighty Smaug that guards it. As Bilbo hears the dwarves sing this song, he becomes intrigued by the plight of the dwarves as the song hints of a great adventure to be had with his new unexpected allies.

This folk song exemplifies the opportunities for hooking your audience into major plot points through the lens of music created by the people. A folk song in this format can be used to poetically inform your audience of an important event that has happened in your world. The song can reveal more details of the event as it happened, and how it was perceived by witnesses. A great folk song will help the people of the world to remember the important event and its lasting significance.

Propaganda: Toss A Coin To Your Witcher

“I promised to change the public’s tune about you. At least allow me to try.”
-Jaskier to Geralt, in Netflix’s The Witcher

Propaganda may elicit imagery of nefarious advertisements, patriotic zeal that’s used to motivate citizens, and blocky lettering on vaguely-threatening posters. While these may be true in our modern perception of our world, propaganda can be used in the world that you’re writing for in very unique ways.

For these folk songs, we are defining propaganda as “The spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.”

In the case of The Witcher, we watch as Jaskier enlists his bardic talents to make a song for Geralt in order to help sway the opinions of the commoners that find him rather distasteful at first. After spreading his song we find that, only episodes later, he has helped to change the public perception of Geralt, and that the commoners now cheer on his escapades.

A more thorough discussion of the original song’s conception can be found here. It is truly a great resource for seeing how a writer’s mind can take the concrete facets of an established world and move them into a more poetic (and persuasive) structure.

When something is not viewed favorably, those who hold the power to change that view will leverage their resources. Propaganda incentivizes its audience to take action, even if that action is merely changing their opinion of something. The Witcher demonstrates that this approach works just as well for individuals as it does for factions or abstract ideas.

The Worker's Shanty: Diggy Diggy Hole

“I am a dwarf and I’m digging a hole. Diggy diggy hole, diggy diggy hole.”
- Unnamed dwarf, singing in Diggy Diggy Hole

Shanties. They’re funny, catchy, and memorable. They are typically the most light-hearted of folk songs, as they are constructed by the workers of the world to pass the time while they toil away at their daily labors. While this type of song may not wholly lend itself to conveying the background architecture of the world’s history, it can be a wonderful addition to display the facets of life that are important to the people who sing them.

Even if you do not have any understanding about what dwarven culture is like, this song conveys great swathes of detail about the things these dwarves hold most dear: Digging, drinking, and dining.

The worker's shanty is a simple format to write in, using simple language that can be easily drawn from the daily activities of the people singing them. Shanties are great opportunities to showcase the people of your world, and how they might spend the normal days of their working life.

And a side note, a video has been created to chronicle the development of this song. It’s a fantastic example of capturing a moment that starts as a small joke that gets built upon, further developed, and eventually turned into an entire work on its own. Diggy Diggy Hole spawned other great pieces that were inspired by the original. It proves that even one small moment can evolve into something magnitudes greater in its impact and reach.

Write your own Folk Song with these prompts

Now that we’ve covered three possible forms of folk song, it’s your turn to have some fun and think about your world and its people.

Listed below are a handful of questions to ask yourself about each type of folk song, and how they might be applied to your own personal setting. Consider each and develop a folk song of each type that could fit in the different cultures and areas of your world.

The Important Event

Consider your world and pick an important event that has happened, recently or otherwise.

  • What would the commoners be thinking about it?
  • Would they make songs that tell of it to warn others, or entice a new generation to do what they could not?
  • What could be gained, or lost, in the impact of engaging with this event in the story you are telling?

Examples:

  • A Crime Lord’s den sings about a captured crew member, who's kept in a prison in space. Only the prisoner knows where the map is that leads to a cache of ancient (and valuable) tech.
  • The elders of a crumbling wasteland refuge sing songs of a far-off reservoir that could solve the town’s growing water shortage, if only some daring individuals were willing to make the journey to reclaim it from The Others.

Propaganda

Consider some of the notable figures in your world. If it is a home-brewed world for a roleplaying game, consider the player characters for your focus.

  • How are they remembered by the people they’ve met?
  • Is there something they’ve been trying to change, or something that is being changed for them?
  • Just how true are the claims that the song has made?

Examples:

  • The band of adventurers who promised to clear out a haunted graveyard have left town and problems have become worse for them. The people sing of their failures and how they are unwelcome to ever return.
  • A baron has commissioned the local tavernkeeper to sing songs about his prosperity and charity, all while the baron continues to overtax the town and pocket their coin for his own use.

The Worker’s Shanty

Consider, first and foremost, the sounds that fill the workspaces of your world.

  • Are there any sounds that might be rhythmic, ones that a structure can be built around and lyrics added to?
  • What are the workers doing for their jobs?
  • How fun, or dreary, is their job?
  • What would they look forward to doing after they are done with a day’s work?

Examples:

  • An army of marching dragon knights lets out small flames from their nostrils on every other step, and they use that beat to sing of their conquests.
  • A room of textile workers sing softly to the sound of the machines that they use to weave together fabrics, lacing them with the poison webs of their spider god’s silk.

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