Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wheel of Time Music - Performance and Instruments

By Linda

Much detailed world-building lies in the music: the songs and dances, instruments and national and ethnic styles. While the world is busy developing technology of a similar standard to the 16th to 18th centuries of our world, the music, like the weaponry, lags behind. Folk music is the most widespread musical genre, played on traditional instruments such as hammered dulcimer, zither or flute and tabor. Western music progressed greatly from the liturgical demands of the Church, but the Wheel of Time world has no formal church. The courts of the nobility are a partial substitute at best, being under considerable pressure. Written music is unknown, or perhaps known by a few at this time, unlike in earlier eras of the Third Age. The oral (or aural!) tradition is king in the performance arts in the books, and (Celtic) bards and gleemen/ troubadours are its major performers, keeping and disseminating knowledge. This is somewhat incongruous considering that a fair portion of the population is literate. Yet there is a struggle to maintain knowledge and order at the end of the Age, let alone improve it.

This article, the first of three on Wheel of Time music, discusses the performance of music in the series, and the instruments on which it is played. A second article details the songs and dances performed in the series and a third article the regional variation in music in the Wheel of Time world.

Here is a list of topics on musical performance and instruments:

Court Music
Operatic Interlude
Gleemen and Troubadours
Music Players

Court Music and Bards—now with Opera!

Court music ranges from a solo bard declaiming ballads in High Chant, to a variety of instrumental groups. However, the massed hired performers at Barthanes’ manor was excessive and atypical; it was for display rather than appreciation.

Music may be provided outdoors as well as indoors:

Figures mounted and afoot filled the long pasture of dried brown grass, though they did not crowd it. A cluster of musicians in white-embroidered blue tabards, with flutes and bitterns and tambours, produced a light tune suitable for an afternoon over chilled wine.

- Lord of Chaos, Plans

In some nations, it is popular for nobles to play an instrument:

The talk ranged from music and the best musicians among the nobles at court to the rigours of travel, from whether rumours of a man who could channel might be true to why so many Aes Sedai seemed to be about, and Moiraine found it difficult to maintain the expected light wittiness. She cared little for music and less for whoever played the instruments; in Cairhien, musicians were hired and forgotten.

- New Spring, An Answer

Worked gold chased with silver, the instrument looked the sort a lord might play, if lords anywhere played the flute…

- The Great Hunt, The Nine Rings

In the Borderlands, at least, they do. Faile plays the bittern, a stringed instrument.

Ironically the court under the most prolonged pressure and with the least regard for musicians has made the most contribution to the evolution of music: Cairhien. In fact, the progress came as a result of the king’s efforts to keep the populace from rioting over famine and poor social conditions by providing large-scale entertainment. The competition among the many performers to gain audiences resulted in first, the development of theatric performances by a group of players, and then combining these with music into early operas.

From Rand’s thoughts, the only difference between the entertainers at Barthane’s manor and that of an inn was the quantity of performers:

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 Taren 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

If the fiddles are playing together, they may be a consort, which is typical of the 16th‒17th centuries in the real world. The bard may have subconsciously feared that there was too little difference and tried to keep himself apart.


In Celtic culture, a bard was a poet employed by a lord to remember the family histories of the aristocracy and the deeds of the clan’s warriors, and to commemorate the lord’s activities. Bards were chroniclers as well as entertainers, composers and poets. They committed oral history to memory for an illiterate society. The term has changed over time to refer to an epic poet/singer or storywriter and teller.

Bards and gleemen perform the same function as Celtic bards:

Perhaps no one would think it too odd if a gleeman asked to perform a song for the Lord Dragon, a song especially composed. He knew a deservedly obscure Kandori tune, praising some unnamed lord for his greatness and courage in grandiose terms that never quite managed to name deeds or places. It had probably been bought by some lord who had no deeds worth naming.

- The Shadow Rising, Strings

The Wheel of Time society is not illiterate, and Jordan combines both meanings of the term ‘bard’ in his bards and gleemen. The Andoran great families, or Houses, have house bards: Thom was the Trakand house bard.

Rand observed that bards and gleemen perform in the same style. Typically, they eschew plain speech and sing or half-sing their tales:

As for Common, Plain Chant, and High Chant: Common is ordinary speech, of course; telling a story as one man in the street might tell another. Plain Chant adds a rhythmic half-singing to poetic imagery; nothing is ever described plainly; conveying emotion is as important as conveying description. High Chant is sung, really, as though Benedictine monks had been brought up in a tradition of Chinese music; the rhythms are more precise, and emotional content is more important than mere description. High Chant can be all but unintelligible to those who are not used to it; it is a form used only by court bards and the like. I should point out that Common, Plain and High are not language names, but names used by bards for different forms of recitation.

- Robert Jordan in a 1994 letter on the Old Tongue

The Great Hunt of the Horn is a long cycle of legends of heroes, and can be likened to the Welsh Mabinogion, or the Arthurian tales, the Matter of Britain. (Robert Jordan drew on the Arthurian tales as a source of events and characters in the books to illustrate the effect of tie on history and legend.) Illian’s competition for tellings of The Great Hunt has a parallel in the Welsh Eisteddfods, where Welsh bards compete. Thom may be an analogue of legendary Welsh bards such as Aneirin and Taliesin.

Mostly there would be a difference in standard between bards and gleemen; and less talented gleemen would not use High Chant. Rand is used to Thom, who is outstanding, even among bards.

A handful of bards strolled playing through the crowd, picked out as much by a loftier air than any noble as by the carved and gilded harps they carried.

- A Crown of Swords, Into the Woods

They are the film or rock stars of their time. There is also a preference for bards to play the harp and not the flute (or presumably some other instrument, although this possibility isn’t even mentioned) because, as Mat remarks, the nobles think the harp is more ‘elevated’:

He had heard gleemen, performers and bards. Thom made the entire lot seem like children with sticks, banging on pots.
The flute was a simple instrument. A lot of nobles would rather hear the harp instead; one man in Ebou Dar had told Mat the harp was more "elevated." Mat figured he would have gone slack-jawed and saucer-eyed if he had heard Thom play. The gleeman made the flute sound like an extension of his own soul. Soft trills, minor scales and powerfully bold long holds. Such a lamenting melody.

- Towers of Midnight, The Seven Striped Lass

Mat’s tribute to Thom is an indication of his great skill.

Operatic Interlude

No doubt Thom is not the only bard who dislikes the evolution of theatre and players. Very likely, he would dislike the recently “invented” opera even more. Some of the audience also do not appreciate it:

This particular story was a retelling of the tragic marriage and death of the Princess Walishen, slain by beasts of the Shadow. Birgitte was familiar with the ballad that the players had adapted to form their story. In fact, they sang parts of it during the performance. It was remarkable how little that song had changed over the years.
Some different names, a few different notes, but the same overall…
"Stop complaining," Birgitte said, suppressing a wince as the diva—so the players called her—began a particularly shrill aria—so they called a song by yourself. Why did the players need so many new names for things?

- Towers of Midnight, The End of a Legend

The songmistress of the Lucky Man's Theater Troop continued her song. It was beautiful, pure and high. Elayne sat on a cushioned chair on the right side of the hall, which had been repurposed with a raised area at the front for the players…She had often listened to "The Death of Princess Walishen" as a ballad, and didn't really see the point of adding words to it and different players, instead of just having one bard do the entire thing…The song finished, the final, high-pitched note dwindling like a candle running out of wick. The end of the play came shortly afterward, men in white masks jumping out of the darkness. A brilliant light flashed, something thrown into one of the lanterns, and when it faded again, Walishen lay dead on the stage, the bell of her red dress splayed around her like spilled blood.

- Towers of Midnight, Foxheads

The stage, lights and special effects, as well as the music—which Elayne conceded was beautifully sung—show why operas will gain popularity. In the real world, opera was developed in Italy at the end of the 16th century as an attempt to revive ancient Greek drama, but soon had a wider scope. (Theatre was restored late to the Wheel of Time world due to the lack of a Church sponsoring morality and biblical plays).

The bardic system lasted until the mid-17th century in Ireland and the early 18th century in Scotland—about the time of the late New Era. The opera scene looks forward to changes in the new Age, where theatre, opera, and books from writers like Loial may become at least as popular and more widespread than ballads from bards like Thom.


Thom is the pre-eminent bard in the Wheel of Time world: composer, performer, acrobat, juggler, prestidigitator, advisor and chronicler. He mesmerises his audience:

Thom was performing again, standing on a table against the far wall, his gestures grand enough to fill the big room. It was The Great Hunt of the Horn again, but no one complained, of course. There were so many tales to be told about each of the Hunters, and so many Hunters to tell of, that no two tellings were ever the same. The whole of it in one telling would have taken a week or more. The only sound competing with the gleeman's voice and harp was the crackling of the fires in the fireplaces…
Kitchen smells drifting into the room reminded him that he was hungry, but even the people who had food in front of them gave it little attention. The maids who should have been serving stood entranced, clutching their aprons and looking at the gleeman, and nobody seemed to mind at all. Listening was better than eating, no matter how good the food.

- The Eye of the World, Watchers and Hunters

Flourishing his cloak to set the multihued patches fluttering, Thom told stories—“Mara and the Three Foolish Kings," and several tales about Anla, the Wise Counselor—and recited a long stretch of The Great Hunt of the Horn, reciting it so that horses seemed to prance and trumpets blare in the common room, and men and women fought and loved and died. On into the night he sang and recited, only pausing now and then to wet his throat with a sip of wine as the patrons eagerly clamored for more.

- The Shadow Rising, A Cup of Wine

Like Loial, Thom aimed to witness history—and legend—being made, but found he had to participate:

If I really can free Moiraine . . . well, we'll see. Besides, somebody needs to be here to watch, then put this all to song, someday. There will be more than one ballad that comes from all of this."

- The Gathering Storm, The Tipsy Gelding

In the scenes of Moiraine’s rescue, Thom was like Orpheus in the Underworld. In A Memory of Light, Thom whiled away the time outside Shayol Ghul, another underworld, by composing a ballad.


As Demandred was to Lews Therin—and perhaps Mat—so Asmodean was to Thom: almost, but not quite, as good.

Natael did a fair job of it; nothing like Thom's sonorous recitals, of course, but the rolling words drew a crowd of Aiel thick around the edge of the fire's light.

- The Shadow Rising, Imre Stand

"She still wouldn't suspect." Settling back onto the cushions, the other man took up the harp again, strumming a line of music that had a devious sound…Mournful music began to flow from the harp, speaking of loss and tears. "The March of Death," Asmodean said over the music, "the final movement of The Grand Passions Cycle, composed some three hundred years before the War of Power by—"…"Earth, Fire, Air, Water, and Spirit." Natael strummed a chord for each… “What Moiraine believes to be truth, she tells as truth whether or not it is; one of a thousand weaknesses in those fool Oaths." He played a bit of something that did indeed sound foolish.

- The Fires of Heaven, Pale Shadows

Asmodean was lured to the Shadow by a desire for immortality and the opportunity for endless days of composing and performing. A very talented musician, he could play a wide range of instruments very well: the harp, several sorts of flute, the shama, the corea, the balfone, and the obaen (The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time).

The first two instruments, the harp and flute, are directly comparable to modern instruments and are discussed below.

Corea probably pays homage to Chick Corea, the famous jazz musician, while also alluding to ‘cor’, which is French for ‘horn’ and to the kora, which is a harp-lute from West Africa, see picture right (an example of Jordan’s practice of suggesting multiple parallels with one name).

Shama probably refers to the shawm or shalm, a traditional instrument related to the oboe, see illustration left, although a shama is a South East Asian bird noted for its melodious song (multiple parallels in one name, again).

Balfone is derived from the balafone or balophone, a West African percussion instrument like a xylophone, but with gourds as resonators attached to the wooden keys, see photo right.

Obaen probably refers to the oboe. In short, Asmodean could play well on wind, percussion, brass and plucked string instruments.

Asmodean was a child prodigy in both performance and composing. Prodigies in performance are common, but not in composing (see Asmodean essay).

As good as Asmodean was, he is probably exceeded in performance by Thom. For one thing, Asmodean was a musician rather than a storyteller. One gets the feeling that Asmodean would certainly have killed Thom if he had met him.

Gleemen and Troubadours

Gleemen wander the Wheel of Time mainland, performing at inns and peoples’ homes, perhaps even in palaces if they are good enough to come to the notice of the rich and powerful. Jordan likened Thom’s recitals to troubadour music:

Thom chanting the tales is quite like troubadour music of the Middle Ages in continental Europe.

- Robert Jordan at a 2003 booksigning

The troubadours were originally medieval poets in 11th‒13th century Europe who composed songs and poems. The class originated in southern France.

A troubadour often stayed with a wealthy noble patron of his own for a considerable period of time and entertained his court with his songs and so had a similar role to a bard. Many did travel extensively, however, spending time at one court and then another.

Their songs were not only used as entertainment but also as propaganda, praising the patron’s deeds and causes, flattering his allies, encouraging or justifying wars, and as education. Thom helped his patron, Morgase, gain the throne, and helped Rand, and later, Elayne and Nynaeve, by spreading propaganda.

Troubadours performed their own songs. Jongleurs (performers) and cantaires (singers) also performed troubadours' songs. The court was not the only venue for troubadour performance; competitions were held from an early date. Similarly in The Wheel of Time, Illian held competitions for tellings of The Great Hunt of the Horn.

Over time, the term ‘troubadour’ came to mean any wandering singer or minstrel, and likewise, in Scotland, a bard became a derogatory term for an itinerant musician. Jordan’s gleemen are socially a considerable step below bards.

Gleemen and bards are all male. One of the many tragedies of the series is that a very promising bardic student is killed for being a bystander in the Great Game:

"She'll be a bard one day," Thom said with a note of pride after she was gone. "She listens to a tale once—once only, mind!—and she has it right, not just the words, but every nuance, every rhythm. She has a fine hand on the harp, and she played the flute better the first time she picked it up than you ever did."

- The Great Hunt, Discord

Dena would have been the first female bard in some centuries. I expect that there were female poets/composers in earlier centuries.


Inns are major venues for entertainment and are perhaps the most important maintainers of a regional, if not continental, music style. They often have a raised, semi-stage area at one end of the common room for performing. Failing this, performers sit or stand on a table. Their budgets seem to run to one or two performers in any one night. It is uncommon to see an inn with a larger group of performers. (The second-best inn at Maerone had five when Mat was there.) The music played is in the style of folk music of Western Europe and the Appalachians. Some acts are treated as background music:

Inside, a greying woman, tall and handsome, presided over a crowded common room where talk and laughter almost drowned out the slender girl singing to the music of her zither.

- New Spring, Canluum

in contrast to the attention Thom, or even Rand and Mat, commands.

Inns hold dances on some occasions, and the jigs and reels are analogues of the Irish and Scots dances of the same names still danced in Europe and also the US where they were taken by immigrants in the 18th‒19th centuries.



Hammered dulcimer

One of the most commonly played instruments in the series is the hammered dulcimer. It is found in all nations on the main continent, both solo and as part of a band of mixed instruments (also called a broken consort in the 17th century), but does not often accompany singing.

A knot of musicians played on a small dais at the back, two perspiring men in their shirtsleeves with keening flutes, a pair plucking nine-string bitterns, and a red-faced woman in a blue-striped dress working tiny wooden hammers across a dulcimer on thin legs.

- Lord of Chaos, A Different Dance

The hammered dulcimer is a very ancient Eurasian stringed instrument consisting of strings stretched over a trapezoidal sounding board set in a frame. In the series it stands on legs on a table. The strings are in pairs—two strings tuned to the same note, two per course—or sometimes even three or four per course, and are struck with small hammers held in each hand. The hammers are traditionally wooden; they can be covered with leather or fabric for a more muted sound. Typically, dulcimers are tuned to the diatonic scale but in some modern dulcimers short bridges are added at the top and bottom of the sounding board for extra strings tuned to the missing notes.

The hammered dulcimer led to the development of the pianoforte around 1700. It is interesting that while the Wheel of Time is set in roughly this time period, there are no keyboard instruments. Yet in the real world the harpsichord and organ—even portable organ—existed by this time.


The zither is another common stringed instrument played in all main continent nations:

Inside, a greying woman, tall and handsome, presided over a crowded common room where talk and laughter almost drowned out the slender girl singing to the music of her zither.

- New Spring, Canluum

There were musicians inside, their zither and drum almost drowned in coarse laughter and drunken shouting.

- The Eye of the World, Four Kings in Shadow

It accompanies singing or is part of an instrumental group.

The zither is a stringed instrument from central and eastern Europe and east Asia. It is related to the hammered dulcimer but, unlike the dulcimer, it is not in a frame, but laid flat on a table, which acts as a resonator to amplify the sound.

Typically, the zither has five fretboard strings which are stopped with one hand like on guitar, while plucked with a plectrum on the thumb of the opposite hand. The remaining fingers of this hand play chords on the open strings. The open strings are tuned in fifths. There may also be from two to thirteen chromatically tuned contrabass strings.


The bittern is a Wheel of Time instrument with six, nine or twelve strings that are plucked or strummed as the instrument lay flat on the knees (The Wheel of Time Companion). In the real world, a bittern is a bird of the heron family with a deep fog-horn call. This implies an instrument that is loud—consistent with the number of strings, which would be three or four courses of three strings.

It is common in inns and at court:

A plump man in red and white played the flute while a lean woman in livery played the twelve string bittern, producing lively, joyous tunes.

- Knife of Dreams, The Importance of Dyelin

Turning away from the musicians on the street corner, a perspiring woman puffing at a long flute and a red-faced man plucking a nine-string bittern,

- Lord of Chaos, An Embassy

The similarly named gittern (see photo above right) is a gut-stringed, round-backed instrument carved from a single piece of wood with body and neck joined in a smooth curve or straight line (unlike the lute, which was bent at this period). Dating from the 13th century, and originating in Western Europe, it had three, usually four, courses of two strings. A flat-backed version appeared in the 16th century which gradually displaced the original round-backed instrument and evolved into the guitar.

Yet another similarly named stringed instrument, the cittern (see photo right), a flat-backed and metal-strung instrument also carved from a single piece of wood, was developed in the Renaissance. It usually has four courses of one to three metal strings, which give it a bright timbre. With a flat back, it was easier and cheaper to construct and hold, and hence was a popular instrument for informal music-making. In my view its louder sound is more consistent with a deep, loud bird-call. There was a bass version of the cittern, the bandora, which may be exactly what Jordan had in mind.


The lute does not feature prominently in the inns or informal music, but was played at Barthanes’ manor:

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...

- The Great Hunt, Dangerous Words

The lute is a plucked string instrument with a deep round back. With a shell made from thin strips of hardwood glued edge to edge, the instrument was braced internally. It was large, but light, due to this construction. The soundboard is a tear-dropped thin piece of wood with a decorative knot-shaped sound hole carved out of the wood of the soundboard. Lutes were popular from the Medieval to the Baroque eras, especially the Renaissance. Prior to the Baroque, the pegbox was angled back from the neck at a sharp angle. The gut strings were in varying numbers of strings and courses. Most courses had two strings, but the highest pitched course was of a single string, the chanterelle.


Fiddles are played in inns and in noblemen’s manors:

A fiddle began to play, and after a moment a flute joined in.

- The Eye of the World, The Road to Taren Ferry

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.

- The Great Hunt, Dangerous Words

The five different sizes of fiddle would perhaps include a treble, alto-tenor and bass. They may have played together as a consort. Some of the fiddles may have been played resting on the arm as they were in Renaissance times, rather than under the neck.

The fiddle/violin has four strings tuned in fifths and no frets marking the finger stops for different notes. The strings were traiditionally made of gut and are usually played with a horse-hair bow. The difference between a fiddle and a violin is that the fiddle is more humble than a violin and is played in a different style—used to play folk and traditional music. The violin family developed at the end of the fifteenth century.

In the US fiddle music refers Irish-Scottish-French traditional music and Appalachian, bluegrass, etc styles of music. The Appalachian style has droning and double stops as well as syncopation.


The harp is a very ancient stringed musical instrument consisting of strings spanning a frame to a sounding board. The strings were traditionally made of gut and are plucked by the fingers. The Wheel of Time harps are all portable, or lap, harps; there are no large harps that are set on the floor.

The harp is a high-status instrument in the Wheel of Time world, as it was in ancient and medieval times.

The flute was a simple instrument. A lot of nobles would rather hear the harp instead; one man in Ebou Dar had told Mat the harp was more "elevated."

- Towers of Midnight, The Seven-Striped Lass

The Ancient Greek goddess Athena rejected the aulos, a wind instrument, because when playing it her cheeks puffed out and made her look less pretty. This prejudice lasted centuries: woodwind and, especially, brass were looked on as 'inelegant' to play in early modern times. In constrast, the harp and lute were regarded as much more suitable for the upper classes.

The pre-eminent harpist is Thom, but there are many others from Asmodean to anonymous players on street corners.

Street musicians played flute or harp or pipes, sometimes accompanying a juggler or an acrobat, always with a cap set out for coins.

- The Dragon Reborn, Tar Valon

A bard-harp played softly in the room behind him…Jasin Natael, as he called himself here, lay half sprawled on cushions against one of the windowless walls, softly playing the harp perched on his knee, its upper arm carved and gilded to resemble the creatures on Rand's forearms.

- The Fires of Heaven, Rhuidean

Asmodean and Thom played very high-status instruments with guilding and carving; most would be far humbler.

The Sharans played a different style of harp:

The slender pair played oddly elongated harps, with chimes that resonated to the plucked strings in crystalline echoes. "My newest acquisitions, from the lands beyond the Aiel Waste”… The very dark man and woman had come to the foot of the dais with their peculiar harps. Sammael supposed the chimes added something to their playing; what, he could not say…Shaofan and Chiape played their strange atonal music, full of complex harmonies and odd dissonances, quite beautifully;

- Lord of Chaos, Threads Woven of Shadow

This description resembles that of the ancient Chinese Konghou (see illustration, right), 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 most popular woodwind instrument in the Wheel of Time world is the flute. Thom's is silver and gold:

To keep himself company, he unwrapped Thom Merrilin's cloak, exposing the harp and flute in their hard leather cases atop the many-colored patches. He took the gold-and-silver flute from its case, remembering the gleeman teaching him as he fingered it, and played a few notes of "The Wind That Shakes the Willow," softly so as not to wake the others. Even soft, the sad sound was too loud in that place, too real.

- The Great Hunt, Kinslayer

but many others would be made from the more traditional wood and have a softer timbre:

The woman with her hammered dulcimer was being accompanied by a thin man playing a flute that sounded as reedy as he was.

- The Shadow Rising, Veils

A reedy sound would come from a wooden flute.

Thom’s flute is most likely transverse (held horizontally), but there may also be end-blown (and therefore vertical) flutes (see photo below left):

Turning away from the musicians on the street corner, a perspiring woman puffing at a long flute and a red-faced man plucking a nine-string bittern,

- Lord of Chaos, An Embassy

The puffing suggests this instrument may even be a recorder, although Cairhien, with its Japanese influences, is perhaps more likely to have an end-blown flute like the Japanese shakuhachi (see photo above right).

A recorder (see photo below) has a different mouthpiece to an end-blown flute; it is a whistle-like mouthpiece which directs the air through an internal duct over the tone hole. It makes the recorder easier to play, but reduces the musician’s control of the air flow.

Shepherds are associated with flutes and panpipes and Rand, as the good shepherd, plays the flute:

I even hear that you play the flute. Can it be true?"
"I play the flute." How did she...? Caldevwin. Light, everybody does hear everything in Cairhien. "If you will excuse—"
"I have heard that some outland lords play music, but I never believed it.”

- The Great Hunt, Dangerous Words

Panpipes are a type of end-blown flute.


Pipes (plural) are flutes with multiple tubes with end-holes that are usually blown one at a time—for example, panpipes. In the series, they are played by shepherds and some street musicians:

Street musicians played flute or harp or pipes, sometimes accompanying a juggler or an acrobat, always with a cap set out for coins.

- The Dragon Reborn, Tar Valon

a shepherd less than half as large, playing the pipes with his crook on his shoulder and a sheep at his feet,

- The Shadow Rising, Need

The Aiel play pipes as they go into battle and also as celebration afterwards:

For another circle of onlookers, near a ten-foot pole stuck in the ground—Mat hastily averted his eyes—as many Aielmen were doing some kicking of their own. Mat assumed it was a dance; another Aiel was playing the pipes for them.

- The Fires of Heaven, After the Storm


The tabor pipe consists of a wooden or metal pipe played with one hand, while the other hand beats a small drum. The tabor (drum) is slung from the player’s neck or shoulder. The pipe has a whistle mouthpiece and has three finger holes, two in front and one in back.

The pipe and tabor were traditionally played at dances, ceremonies, processions and street entertainment, whereas the fife and drum were developed later (from the eighteenth century) and were associated with military marching. The fife is a small transverse flute requiring two hands, and so the drummer was a separate player.

Tin Whistle

The tin whistle is a small metal flute with a whistle mouthpiece (see photo right) and is more closely related to the recorder than to the flute. Many were played by the Band of the Red Hand soldiers:

Without stirring, he could count ten flutes, not to mention twice as many tin whistles.

- The Fires of Heaven, After the Storm

Semseer/ Shawm

In Tear, a shrill woodwind instrument was played:

The babble of voices fought with the musicians’ offerings on three assorted drums, two hammered dulcimers, and a bulbous semseer that produced whining trills.

- The Shadow Rising, Rumours

It is perhaps a kind of oboe, which has a bulbous body. The shawm (see photo right) was a forerunner of the oboe, and has a brilliant, piercing sound like the semseer, but is flared or conical rather than bulbous. The shawm is much played in the Middle East and Tear has Moorish influences.


There was also a large woodwind instrument of dark wood in Altara:

They all had a few feathers in their hair, as did the capering musicians playing in front of the small palace at the far corner, a woman with a flute, another blowing on a tall, twisted black tube covered with levers, and a fellow beating a tambour for all he was worth.

- A Crown of Swords, The Festival of Birds

This may be a bassoon.

Clarinet or Saxophone?

Another unusual instrument is described by Mat as part flute and part horn:

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

If it is wooden, but has a bell-shaped opening and a horn-like sound at times, it may be a type of clarinet (developed in the 18th century) or if it is all metal with a woodwind-like mouthpiece it may be like a saxophone (invented a century later). A saxophone is rather later than the typical 16th‒18th century setting of the series. The bass clarinet (see photo, right) is in between the two instruments. The tenor clarinet is also called the basset horn.



Trumpets are used in high-status processions:

Twenty ranks of trumpeters came first, splitting the air with peal after triumphant peal, a fanfare of victory.
Behind them, as many drummers thundered.

- The Eye of the World, Weaving of the Web

The drummers appeared first from the trees, a dozen of them, drums lifting as they stepped to their own beat, mallets whirling. Next came trumpeters, long, shining horns raised, still calling the flourish.

- The Great Hunt, The Flame of Tar Valon

These massed displays emphasise the large resources of the Aes Sedai. With many musicians, the show is grand, expensive and broadcast to a large audience.

The long shining horns of the trumpets are straight, not coiled. The straight trumpet was also made of wood in earlier times. With their loud, carrying sound, they are also used to signal in war:

"Forward!" Lan called as the trumpets sounded in the air, accompanied by thunder from above.

- A Memory of Light, To Ignore the Omens

We don’t see any brass bands or solo trumpeters playing to entertain.


The horn was used for entertainment as well as military functions:

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…

- The Great Hunt, Dangerous Words

Horns are curled (see photo above), curved (see photo right) or straight in the series.

Presumably the Horn of Valere is not brass, but literally gold:

Mat's hand shook as he raised the Horn of Valere to his lips.
It was a clear note, golden as the Horn was golden. The trees around them seemed to resonate with it, and the ground under their feet, the sky overhead. That one long sound encompassed everything…
Trumpeter, will you give us music on the Horn? Fitting that the Horn of Valere should sing us into battle. Bannerman, will you advance?"

- The Great Hunt, The Grave Is No Bar To My Call

No wonder Mat was surprised it wasn’t damaged by being tossed over the wall. Gold is soft and heavy; yet the Horn is not, by all accounts. The Horn of Valere is “metamorphosed” gold—an alchemical marvel. Hawkwing calls Mat “trumpeter" because the last trump was played on the Horn of Valere.

The Seanchan and Aiel use horns in battle:

A distant Aiel horn blew; a signal from one of the scouts. The Trollocs had entered the pass.

- A Memory of Light, To Ignore the Omens

The blaring Seanchan horns behind were giving the call to charge, each horn pitched slightly differently from the next, producing a grating, dissonant sound meant to be heard at great distances.

- A Memory of Light, The Loss of a Hill

Over the battle, Mat heard sounds that must have made the enemy's blood run cold: hundreds, maybe thousands of animal horns blared out in the night their call to war; a thunderstorm of drums began to beat out a unified cadence that became louder and louder; and a rumble of footfalls made by an advancing army, man and animal alike, slowly approaching Polov Heights in the dark. No one could see them in the pre-dawn blackness, but everyone on the battlefield knew who they were.

- A Memory of Light, Wolfbrother

The Seanchan horns, at least, are animal horns, which horns originally were, so the Seanchan have not developed them further. The horns the Trollocs play may literally be of horn, or even actual Trolloc horns…

Which of them was blowing those horns? Those were Trolloc horns.

Elayne searched through the Shadowspawn, but could not find the ones sounding the horns.

- A Memory of Light, Considerations



Drums consist of skins stretched over a shell. The skins may be nailed, or they may be laced with tags to adjust the tension and, therefore, tone.

In Barthanes’ manor, there were:

ten sizes of drum from tambour to kettle.

- The Great Hunt, Dangerous Words

Aes Sedai use drummers in processions:

The drummers appeared first from the trees, a dozen of them, drums lifting as they stepped to their own beat, mallets whirling. Next came trumpeters, long, shining horns raised, still calling the flourish.

- The Great Hunt, The Flame of Tar Valon

These are large military drums, either kettle or side drums. The kettledrum is a larger tunable drum with a metal or wooden bowl-shaped body and a skin drum head. The head is tightened with screw tension. Two mallets are used to strike the drum. The diameter of the drum is from 50‒85cm (20‒33 inches). The side drum is tightened by rope tension and also struck with two drum sticks.

The most commonly mentioned drum is the tambor, a cylindrical wooden drum shell with a skin head at either end of the drum tightened by rope tension and a gut snare. The snare rattles when the head is struck. The tambour has a pitch range of about an octave and is played one-handed, with the single stick. The other hand can play a pipe or another small drum. Tambour is the French name; the English name is tabor. The tabour drum was originally developed to accompany the flute:

A cluster of musicians in white-embroidered blue tabards, with flutes and bitterns and tambours, produced a light tune suitable for an afternoon over chilled wine.

- Lord of Chaos, Plans

Two lean fellows with their dark hair in braids and swords on their backs—Hunters for the Horn, Rand expected—stood chatting with a number of Saldaeans—as they listened to a woman playing the flute and a man the tambour on a street corner.

- Lord of Chaos, A Saying in the Borderlands

Hand drums were preferred for the journey to the *Finn’s world because of their small size:

"I got us a variety," Thom said. "I'll bring my harp and flute, but I found us some hand drums and hand cymbals. They can be strapped to the side of your leg and hit with one hand."

- Towers of Midnight, The End of a Legend

Hand drums are struck with the hand rather than a stick, eg frame drum, tambourine. A frame drum (see photo right) has a single head and is wider than it is deep.

Drums were also improvised:

And there were countless drums, most of them pots being banged with spoons.

- The Fires of Heaven, After the Storm

Cymbals and gong

Cymbals are metal disks that can be played singly by hitting with a stick, or clashed together. Thom found some small cymbals to smuggle into the *Finns’ world:

Noal began to play the little cymbals he had tied to the legs of his trousers, tapping them in time with Thom's music.

- Towers of Midnight, The Light of the World

The instruments tied to legs is reminiscent of one-man bands, but Thom and Noal have to be able to fight and move freely.

Gongs are large metal discs suspended in a frame that are struck with a mallet. They are used to get people’s attention. The Aiel use them as an alarm:

"If you know how to sound the alarm, do it."
"The gong by the door—"

Even as Rand snatched the leather-padded mallet hanging beside the square bronze gong, pandemonium erupted from the canyon mouth, human shouts and Trolloc howls, the clash of steel, screams. He sounded the gong hard, a sonorous toll that echoed down the canyon; almost immediately another gong sounded, then more, and from dozens of mouths the cry, "Up spears!"

- The Shadow Rising, Traps

Music Players

Elayne is familiar with mechanical musical players:

After all, a fine music box might have cylinders for as many as a hundred tunes and some could play quite long pieces on one cylinder after another without changing them.

- Knife of Dreams, A Different Skill

This is indicative of fairly advanced clockwork techniques. Musical watches and snuff boxes appeared in the 18th century. Cylinders appeared after 1815 (which is about the most recent of Wheel of Time technology). Changing cylinders were invented in 1862 and cylinders were obsolete before the end of the century.

Sammael had a ter’angreal music player:

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

From Graendal’s observations, the player held one composition. In contrast, Aviendha identified a ter’angreal music player which contained hundreds of musical pieces:

She thought a small hinged box, apparently ivory and covered with rippling red and green stripes, held music, hundreds of tunes, perhaps thousands. With a ter'angreal, that might be possible.

- Knife of Dreams, A Different Skill

Robert Jordan tells us that music can be made with the One Power:

Question: “Can you make music using just the One Power?” Robert Jordan: “Yes you could.”

- DragonCon Report

So the ter’angreal don’t necessarily reproduce music mechanically or electronically, nor do they rely on the standing waves.

Written by Linda, September 2015


Silent said...

Sorry for off topic, but i have a question that I haven't been able to find an answer to, and from my searches I may be the first to ask it.

Was Rhuidean based on a real city? I ask because I am currently rereading book 4 and as Rand and Mat travel through Rhuidean they notice that many towers are colored Red, White, and Blue.Knowing how RJ has hidden meanings in this story I was wondering if perhaps it was a old city in the US or some other location around the world.

Linda said...

Rhuidean has a 'lost city' feel - one that looks back to a golden Age. Although the characters are familiar with the glories of Ogier-built cities. It is a reference to an Ancient Roman or Greek city in one sense.

It also looks to a mythical city : Sarnas, where the Holy Grail, San Greal, was attained. Rand got the access keys to the great sa'angreal there. A place of answers and soul-searching and -finding.

I do look at the WOT places in this article: Origin of Place Names. Rhuidean is in there. the name is rather similar to Ruined - which it was for a time.

Anonymous said...

Bittern - the instrument - was very likely a cittern, easy to confuse. A bittern is a Eurasian bird whose mating call (male) is a low booming sound. The cittern has 4 or 6 strings, or doubled, 8 or 12, and is played like a guitar. Would fit into the small bands in the taverns, as accompaniment to a singer or as a solo entertainment. See Wikipedia.