To the untrained southern ears, the music of The North sounds like a less refined version of its southern counterpart but with the same scales, instruments and forms. These ears also seem be in the company of eyes who wouldn’t be able to tell crow from raven, so we will pay them no mind. Just as the Red, Green, and Blue forks meet at the Trident, the First Men, Andal and Rhoynish traditions seem to merge into one flow of sound, but one needs only to listen carefully to tell one from another. In the Andal and Rhoynish traditions scales are heptatonic, that is containing seven distinct pitches, whereas First Men scales are pentatonic, with only five distinct pitches. These 5 note scales are thought of as primitive by many musicians, and are also a feature of societies we deem less civilized such as the Lhazareen and Dothraki. But the pentatonic scales of the First Men are not at all like the pentatonic scales of the Dothraki or the Lhazareen, for these ones follow the tried and true method of stacking the interval of a fifth one upon the other. First Men pentatonic scales do not stack fifths, but thirds. This type of musical system is completely unique to the First Men and it is unique in both Westeros and Essos. The fifth is so ubiquitous in scale construction that it has created a long disputed debate on the true nature of northern music: northerners argue the scales are based on what they call the ‘Old Way’, passed down from the Children of the Forest to the First Men; southerners claim these scales are just a northern interpretation of the Andal scales who couldn’t bear having no musical tradition of their own. For most of my life I was of the opinion that the talk of Children of the Forest only discredited the legitimacy of such claims made by northern musicians but after my stay in The North I must admit there is much more validity to those claims than meets the ear.
The following is an in-depth analysis of the scale system used by Northmen, who have kept it relatively the same since the times before the arrival of the Andals. For this reason, I will refer to it as the First Men scale system, as it is also the basis of the Freefolk, the Ironborn, and the Mountain Clans. In case the reader is not particularly interested in the of the scale system I recommend reading this brief summary before skipping ahead to the next section: The First Men based all their music on eight scales of five notes which they combined during performances to increase the complexity of the music, and even though a musician will play up to 9 different pitches in a piece the scale system remains purely pentatonic.
First Men created their scales we need to understand the stacking of notes from a note that serves as the basis of the scale (fig. a). To illustrate this idea, we will use a string with the entirety of the string sounding as the lowest note on top of which all the other notes will be stacked. The First Men only used two intervals for such a task: a note equivalent to 5/4 of the total length of the string that serves as the root (a major step); and a note equivalent to 6/5 of the string that serves as the root (a minor step).
By dividing the string in this fashion of alternating major and minor steps four times the result is a row of five notes in ascending order (fig. b). This row of five notes has two complementary scales; a Lower Root that sits a fifth below the original scale, and an Upper Root scale that sits a fifth above the original scale. The next step is to rearrange the notes of the row around a central note, known as the root (marked with diamond in subsequent figures).
The notes of the row all rearranged so that the note chosen as the root is the lowest note of the scale (fig. c). It is important to note that any note of the row except for the highest note can be used as the root, as convention dictates that scales lacking the traditional major or minor step above the root are deemed less playable.
With four notes as potential roots there are four scales depending on the note chosen as root (fig. d) 1st Position if the root of the scale is the lowest note in the row; 2nd Position if the root is the second lowest note in the row; 3rd Position if the root of the scale is the third lowest note in the row; and 4th Position if the root of the scale is the fourth lowest note in the row.
It is important to note that so far, we have considered the row starting with a major step, but starting the sequence with a minor step yields a completely different set of four rows, and in turn, four new scales (fig. e).
Having thus far created 8 pentatonic scales (four starting with a major step and four starting with a minor step) it is time to go back and remember that there are two complementary rows called lower and upper row (fig. b and c). These complementary scales are used in conjunction with the original scale to create a new color when performing music (fig. e). combining the original pentatonic scale with its lower or upper counterpart the illusion of a seven-note scale is created when the gaps in the original pentatonic scale are filled in with the notes of the complementary scale. This is the main reason why to many people not familiar with this type of music it sounds as if the scales do have seven notes as they do in Andal music, but in reality, it is only an illusion conjured up by combining different pentatonic scales. Thus, a pentatonic scale that combines itself with its lower root will create a color completely different from when it combines itself with its upper root.
Finally, it is necessary to point out that even though there seem to be many combinations of pentatonic scales that are repeated, the tuning of all of them is different and unique. As an example; when comparing the 1st Position Root and Lower Root and the 2nd Position Root and Upper Root they seem to share all the same notes. However, if one looks closely at the distance between the first and second notes in the imaginary seven note scale, it is quite evident that the tuning of the second note is different and quite easy to perceive during performance. This nuance in tuning is a feature of First Men music that is rarely kept when Andal musicians borrow and arrange tunes from Northmen.
Of course, this type of scale construction also affects the tuning of the scale, but most southern musicians do not bother to retune their instruments according to northern practices as to them anything diverting from Andal tuning and the purity of the perfect fifth is tantamount to sacrilege. Suffice to say that to my ears, northern tunes played by northern musicians with northern instruments, and most importantly, northern tuning, sounds so distinct and rich as to make the southern renditions of those same tunes nothing but a watered down and impoverished reinterpretation.
To serve as comparison, a Dothraki pentatonic scale on the root D (fig. h) will yield the notes D, E, F#, A, and B, whereas the scale we just analyzed (fig. g) contains the notes D, E, F#, A, C#. This one note difference, from B to C# couldn’t be more significant as it completely eliminates the possibility of being the result of a traditional stacking of fifths as it is the case of the Dothraki scale (fig. j). The only way to obtain such a scale by simple means is by stacking alternating major and minor thirds on top of a root (fig. i).
If the North has a natural resource in abundance that is for sure wood, and it is the material of choice for most instrument makers. Woodwind instruments are always feature in most dances and pieces, especially open-hole ones like flutes and double reed ones like the dulcian. On occasion an extremely rare instrument made of weirwood will be played. Maybe it is the striking white color of the wood that tricks the brain into imagining sounds that aren’t there, but the sound coming out of a flute or dulcian made of weirwood seems to be darker, and fuller than those made on maple or other hardwoods. Bowed instruments are used on occasion as well as the ever-present lute for accompaniment but they traditionally don’t carry the main tune. Due to the size of the land and the poor economy there is very little standardization of these instruments and most musicians travel with a variety of instruments. One consistent element across the kingdom seems to be the preference for instruments of larger size than their southern counterparts. The range of the Northern average flute far exceeds that of a southern flute and the dulcian extends the range even lower than any woodwind instrument found in the South. The deep, long sustained notes of the dulcian evoke a sense of untamed nature difficult to find south of The Neck.
Songs for a solo singer accompanied by a string instrument are usually the most common type of music heard in the North. Dances are quite popular in the North and a main staple of any type of celebration. Ensembles of musicians in the north aren’t as big as those in the south and they are rather standardized compared to those in the south so that organizing any type of event is as easy as possible. An average ensemble consists of at least two woodwind players and a percussionist, with the possible addition of a third woodwind player and a string player being also common. If the host of the event has the means the number can extend upwards considerably, but rarely if ever reaches more than eight performers at the same time. Unless the composer knows beforehand the number of players available during a particular event he will write the piece for the standard woodwind duet and percussion. The reason why large ensembles remain a rarity in the north is quite understandable in a land where every winters claim many lives and musicians produce no food. A piece written with too many players in mind that cannot be reduced to two woodwinds and percussionists is usually a sign of either an amateur writer (usually an Andalosi) or a lord who can boast of commissioning a set of dances and hiring a large ensemble of musicians only to be listened to once.
To familiarize ourselves with the different features of Northern music we will analyze a popular northern melody played during feasts and celebrations (fig. a). I chose this one in particular because it perfectly demonstrates the principles of the First Men pentatonic scale system in a very condensed melody. The melody consists of 8 measures divided into two sections of 4 measures each. The first sections is a melody we will call statement A, the second section which we will call A’ is the same melody but this time played a fifth lower and with a different ending that helps connect with the beginning of statement A.
When looked at it from a southerner perspective it makes sense to put all the notes together in ascending order to find the scale of the piece (fig. b), but that would the making the exact mistake northerners warn us against making. If one looks listens carefully to the two sections it is not difficult hear not one but scales, both of them pentatonic; the first one with the root on D (fig. c) and the second one with the root on G (fig. d). Statement A plays the tune in the main root of the piece only to have what I will call a temporary modulation to a secondary root a fifth lower for the restatement of the tune in A’. This is a clear example of the constant fluctuation of the root of the pentatonic scale that is a feature of First Men music.
Now let’s examine the northern claim of their ‘Old Way’ having been passed down from the Children of the Forest. In the chapter dedicated to the Children of the Forest I concluded that their music seemed to have been based on the interval know to the First Men as the major step, or 5/4 of the total length of a string, as a result of a subdivision of the octave into 3 parts. This could serve as explanation for the peculiar type of pentatonic scale system of the First Men: primitive at first glance but more intricate that it seems. There must have been something about the way the Children employed the major step that made the First Men adopt it in their music, but what it was we can’t say (and I refute to entertain the notion of magic having been part of it as many a northerner musician would have me believe).
As much as the major step seems to be a fundamental element of the construction of First Men pentatonic scales, the interval of five notes is not discarded entirely but simply relegated to a second plane. After all, the construction of scales seems to follow the alternation of major and minor steps to ensure that the pure sound of the interval of five notes occurs at least three times in any given scale. With this simple construction of alternating major and minor steps there doesn’t seem to be much room for variety, and here is where yet again southern expectations are meet with more richness than seems possible at first.
Let’s continue with our analysis and see what happens right after the first 8 measures (fig. e). After 4 measures of the main pentatonic scale and 4 measures of its lower pentatonic counterpart, measures 9 and 10 send us back to the note where it all began, F# and thus a return to the main pentatonic scale of the piece, 1st Position D. But this return is short lived as measure 11 begins a new section B introducing a completely new secondary pentatonic scale this time 5 notes above the root of the main pentatonic of the piece. Section B is 4 measures of a simple descending scale of the upper pentatonic scale, 1st Position A, where section B’ takes over and moves back to the main pentatonic scale 1st Position D. The ending of section B’ is identical to A’ except that the fast upwards-moving scale is in the main pentatonic scale instead of the lower pentatonic scale. In 18 measures the tune moves seamlessly across 3 different scales, beginning with 1st Position D, then 1st Position G, back to 1st Position D for only 2 measures, 1s Position A for 4 measures and back to 1st Position D for 4 measures. This richness of color and nuances are completely lost to the untrained southern ear and yet it seems to my dismay that the condescending attitude towards the music of the North will not stop anytime soon.
Only by willfully ignoring the musical context (and tuning) can one claim that these scales are not different from one another. Every single northern musician I asked about this topic during my stay in the North expressed their frustration when it came to southerners nonchalant failure to distinguish between the correct uses of the pentatonic combinations: from inserting extra notes belonging to a pentatonic scale when that pentatonic scale is not in use to not tuning the notes according to the correct usage.
Now that we have seen an example of a piece using the major 1st Position pentatonic scale and its upper and lower counterparts, we will take a look at a tune using the major 2nd Position pentatonic scale and its upper and lower counterparts (fig. f)
After so much explaining it is a good moment now to listen to the whole suite of Northern melodies we started the chapter with, this time with a bit more appreciation of the types of scales involved and their complexity . The name of the form we have been studying is ‘Summer and Winter’, as it reflects harsh reality of Northern lifestyle where winter is always coming. The keen ear will be able to perceive yet another little unknown feature of Northern music which perplexes Southerners unfamiliar with it; a subtle and barely noticeable slowing down of the speed at which the music is played. Northerners have many names for this technique: “the approach of winter”, “dusk”, and “the slow death” are some I heard during my time in the North but I am quite confident there might be even more. ‘Winter’, as the second half of the suite is known, can vary from as long as ‘Summer’ or as brief as a few slow bars to serve as a coda, it usually depends on the occasion. The following is a standard ‘Summer and Winter’ suite (fig. g).
Aside from popular forms there are mannerisms exclusive to the North. The most well-known is the slow but unstoppable slowing down of the music to mark its ending, its Winter, as they call it. The fast-paced tunes begin to lose notes slowly, and these begin to last longer and longer with each repetition. What was once a full tapestry of color becomes a dull memory fading to one shade of dull grey. Needless to say, I was quite shocked when I heard it for the first time when, expecting a triumphal climax I was served a long and cold ending.
Northern musicians have adopted the musical notation style of the South with very few modifications, although it is important to remark that not many use it for their traditional music as it seems to be of use only to learn music coming from the South.