Ironborn

Introduction

The Ironborn are well known throughout the Seven Kingdoms for many reasons, but appreciation of fine art is not among them. To most scholars it seems inappropriate to compare their artistic merits to those of the Andals, or even the Northmen. Admitedly, the Ironborn face a fair deal of challenges in their pursuit of fine arts, especially music. There are no instruments native to the islands, and any and all instruments the Ironborn play come as loot from their latest pillaging and raiding. This means any aspiring Ironborn musician can rarely if ever find the parts to repair an instrument damaged during a raid, but also an instructor who is still alive and willing to teach him. No wonder most music is vocal in nature, even dance music, with instruments serving a secundary role. To add salt to injury, their distrust of Septons and Maesters have kept most of their population illiterate and with no knowledge of music notation, meaning their whole musical heritage survives entirely in the current living generation. Dozens of unique songs can be gone forever if a crew of Ironborn fails to return from reaving. But finally, and as many scholars seem to point out: what do the Ironborn have to offer that we don’t have on the continent? Shantys, or as the ironborn call them, Storm Songs.

Storm Songs

To hear a Storm Song means for many a death sentence. A crew of a hundred blood thirsty ironborn singing about rape and murder is not culturally enriching, especially if the target of the rape and murder is the listener himself. But if we manage to get past the surface level of the song itself and dive deeper into it we can learn a great deal about the Ironborn and their unique music style.

During my visit at Lannisport I had the opportunity to join a small Ironborn ship sailing north. To the dismay of my host I seemed to have gone mad, but the Ironborn seemed to have taking a liking to me. seeing how I was eager to hear their singing they perhaps saw an opportunity to boast of what it is still uniquely theirs. For three days I managed to keep my good graces with them by keeping my mouth shut and my ears open. Once I got off the boat at Seagard I had enough tunes in my head (and wine in my blood) that I could have been mistaken for an Ironborn myself. I started to write down as many of the tunes (and their lyrics) as soon as I got off the boat and much to my surprise there seem to be a great deal more cohesiveness than I thought there might have been at first glance. Using as few songs as possible I will try to demonstrate the shared features of most Storm Songs.

The Storm Song is first as foremost a working song for sailors to coordinate their moves aboard a ship. Without the predictive nature of the singing a simple task such as pulling a line becomes impossible, for sometimes 10, 20 or even more men must pull in unison to hoist a sail. Form is everything in a Storm Song, so the structure is clear. The captain begins the appropriate song with a verse and the crew chants in turn a verse of their own, creating a call and response form that repeats endlessly. 

Here I have written down one song they seemed most fond of, although it is possible that what they really enjoyed was the sight of me shrieking in terror every time they sang it. Even with the knowledge that it was unlikely that they would kill me I admit the sound of 50 men singing merrily about the grossest of deeds made me wish that sometimes I was less eager than I am.

Storm of steel, the iron born are coming for you,
Yo ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo ! Yo ho hooo!

Storm of steel, we take what we want ’cause with iron we pay,
Yo ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo ! Yo ho hooo!

Storm of steel, we’ll take your life, your wife, your child,
Yo ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo ! Yo ho hooo!

Storm of steel, and you can hide, but not from the sea,
Yo ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo! Ho hooo ! YO HO HO HO HO!

Fig. a – Storm of Steel

Scales

Having listen to many, many Storm Shanties it dawned on me that there seemed to be some shared features between all of them that allowed me to derived possible scales for them. The most common feature seemed to be that if transcribed to Andalosi music all shanties would be considered to be in minor scales. This is not a big surprised to anybody, but it was a surprise to see a direct correlation between pentatonic scales of the First Men and Ironborn scales. This realization occurred to me while sailing across the Narrow Sea from The North towards Essos. The smell of salt in the wind and the rocking of the vessel reminded me once again of the Storm Shanties and so I decided to transcribe these melodies. Only that this time I was armed with my newly acquired knowledge of First Men which made me reconsider how these shanties were actually organized. Before reaching Braavos I had already formed a theory based on the much talked about relation between Ironborn being distant descendants of the First Men who took to the sea. As a brief reminder here is a diagram of how the First Men build their pentatonic scales (fig. b).

Fig. b

As we learned in the First Men chapter, their music uses stackings of thirds to group their pitches into compact pentatonic scales that lie a fifth apart. This set of three scales (or rows) function as independent modes within one piece, with strict rules of when and how to change between them. It seems to me that the Ironborn see these pentatonic scales not as a goal but as a basis to create a new system that does away with the pitch limitations of the pentatonic scale while maintaining much of the musical form of First Men music. This is accomplished by taking whichever are the three consecutive notes of each row and combining them to create one single scale that unlike those of the First Men has no gaps between notes (fig. c).

Fig. c

These scales, however, are not like our Andalosi scales since they comprise nine notes in total non-octave equivalence between the second and the top notes. This non-octave equivalence is nowhere else found in Westeros and perhaps explains the Ironborn lack of interest in Westerosi instruments.

One very important difference to point out between First Men and Ironborn construction is that First Men scales feature the Lower Row below the root and the Upper Row above the root, while in Ironborn scales both rows need to swap places if one wants to ensure a smooth transition between the sets of three notes. This necessity is not without consequences, for the music loses not just sense of relation to the stackings of thirds and the pentatonic scale, but also obscures the connection to its First Men origins (if my theory is at all true, that is). After all, there is still much to be learned about Ironborn music, but I am sure there seems to be more than Storm Shanties if one takes the time (and dares) to look into it.

~ Turn the page to The Dornish ~