World-building with Music: Instruments

As a youth opening my eyes for the first time to science fiction, one particular fictional world I fell in love with was Pern. Crafted by Anne McCaffery, it had a lot to attract readers. The presence of dragons that were treated like people who regularly saved humanity in spite of themselves instead of being portrayed as evil creatures or illusive god-like beings was appealing to me.

However, this low-tech global society also had another yet another present for young musically-inclined me, a craft guild of known as Harpers. Strongly inspired by the Celtic bards from Anne's Irish roots, the Harpers were well-learned folk who served as a neutral party between the different political units of Pern. They used music and other arts to entertain, teach, archive, and communicate the vast distances of the populated Northern Continent through the drumtower system [think an auditory telegraph].

Through their music, some pieces of which were actually written and recorded by Tania Opland & Mike Freeman in collaboration with the author, we can learn a lot about the society's technical skills, origins, resources, social structure, values, and the role that music plays in it. For example, this song, "Duty Song," is a Teaching song. That is why it is a largely choral piece with light accompaniment, allowing the whole class to participate with a single teacher leading with a guitar, lyre, or hand drum.

I will look more at analyzing structure, uses, and lyrics later. Today, I wanted to discuss some of the ways you can use music to explore further into your own world's cultures by starting with a lesser considered element, the instruments we use to make the music. To do this, I will provide some suggestions and insights, then look at a recently released generator tool.

A collection of old musical instruments
What can you tell me about the societies that made these?

Tools of the Craft

An examination of the world will show many different types of instruments and an equally large number of ways to categorize those instruments. To allow for the widest range of creativity, we will use this sorting tool called Elementary Organology which sorts instruments based on what creates the sound.

  1. gaiaphones - create sound by vibrating a solid

  2. chordophones - vibrates strings (e.g. pianos, harps, guitars)

  3. membranophones - vibrates a membrane (e.g. drums, kazoos)

  4. idiophones - vibrate the instrument body (e.g. bells, rattles, marimbas, glass harps)

  5. hydraulophones - creates sound by vibrating a liquid (e.g. hydraulophones, sea organs)

  6. aerophones - creates sound by directly vibrating the air (e.g. wind and reed instruments)

  7. plasmaphones - creates sound by creating or vibrating plasma or ionized gas (e.g. pyrophones, singing Tesla coils)

  8. quintephones - creates sound by translating physically or digitally stored information or changes in phenomenon like light or electromagnetic fields into sound. (e.g. synthesizers, theremins, samplers and turntables, electroencephalophones)

We can be quite creative in a scifi or fantasy setting, but most instruments would still fit into one of these 5 categories. Some societies would have an easier time creating and using some instruments over others depending on special abilities or where they live. For example, a fire elemental may help create music by heating glass or crystal tubes like Rijke Tubes to create a form of convection pipe organ. A magical sensor or recording spell could be used by a wizard to create a theremin or synthesizer.

Instruments and the Societies that Make Them

However, what I would like focus on is the technological capabilities of the the society. Having metal instruments clearly shows that our society is able to create materials strong and stable enough to be usable for instruments like bronze or brass. The thinner and more complex the materials or machining, the more sophisticated the abilities of the artisans who create them, no matter if they are made by magic, hand, or machine. Instruments of other materials also can show the technological capabilities of a society, as well as availability of those resources like wood, crystal/glass, special types of resonant rock, or reeds.

Returning to the example of Pern, the lore states that the society was still able to create metal horns, flutes with padded keys, metal-bodied drums, and wires to craft metal strings. However, they had lost the technical know-how to create the piston or more complicated valves needed for use in a trumpet, or french horn. They also still possessed advanced wood-working skills as they still make and utilize complex wooden instruments like guitars, fiddles, harps, and dulcimers based on presence in the story and the music produced. However a rarity of hardwoods for story reasons makes large wooden instruments like floor harps rare. This informs the world-builder about what other things may or may not be possible for manufacturing.

Integrating Instruments into a Game

"This is all too complicated right now!" you might say. "I just want something cool for this NPC Bard." Well, you are in luck! Ennead Games recently released a new part of their Equipment Maker specifically to make Musical Instruments.

Like a lot of their tools, it utilizes randomized tables to help you create a fully randomized item, but of course you have the option of choosing instead. The included d100 tables include an instrument type (e.g. bassoon, fiddle, santoor), a descriptive prefix (e.g. gilded, crushed, timeworn), a table of materials, and a sound descriptor (e.g. ethereal, invigorating, pulsating). There are several suggestions for ways that you could roll on the tables in different orders.

There are also several optional tables that you might want to use to add some extra flavor to the created instrument. One of these is a generic rating that the creator could use to indicate the difficulty of using the instrument, its quality, or value. Others include shape, size, the type of instrument (e.g. Brass, Percussion, String) for unique examples, and a d100 table of quirks and potentially magical features (e.g. glows when plays; amplifies the voice of the player; If played badly, plants in 20 ft die)

Example Instrument

As usual, I decided to craft an example instrument using the tool. I decided to roll using the suggested order #8, which is Material, Sound Descriptor, Prefix and Instrument

Starting with Material, I rolled "Nickle" on the table. My Sound Descriptor was "Sweet" and the Prefix was "Small." Finally for the instrument itself, I rolled a "Melodica." For those of you who are unaware, a Melodica is a small keyboard that uses air flowing over free reeds to create sound, but relies on the musician to blow air into the instrument instead of a set of bellows like in an accordion or pump organ.

A Horner melodica
A Horner melodica

Due to my teaching background in Korea, I associate it with elementary music education because it is commonly used to teach basic keyboard skills. Those melodicas are not what I would describe as "sweet." However, this may be solved by the final roll, which was for the quirk/feature of our instrument. It apparently drains the health/life of listeners and gives it to the player.

What I am envisioning is a bass melodica that is designed to look a bit like a harmonium, but with a hose for the user to blow into instead of the built-in hand bellow. The body would be made from a shiny silver material, the aforementioned nickel. The sweet sound is part of a hypnotic effect to prevent the listener to realize anything is wrong until it is too late.


I might further expand on this item later like giving it a stat block, but I think that is enough for today. If you want to check out the “Equipment Generator #11: Musical Instruments” you can get it here on or on DriveThruRPG. As usual, this blog post is not sponsored, but try to support your fellow creators!

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