The Dornish


Most people who have never ventured south of the Red Mountains imagine Dornish music to be as barren and forbidding as the land, lacking the freshness and richness of the neighbor kingdoms. Most people who have actually been south of the Red Mountains know Dornish music to be just as seductive, spicy, and multifarious as the Dornishmen who create it. Nowhere in the 7 Kingdoms of Westeros exists such an amalgamation of Westerosi and Essosi musical traditions, including King’s Landing and the rebirth of Valyrian music that took place after Aegon’s conquest. Dornish music is not a monolithic and unified tradition, but rather an meld of many traditions that made it the motley that it is today. In Sunspear one is as likely to come across an Andal or First Men tune as it is to hear the last remnants of the Rhoynish lullabies from across the narrow sea. But just as Dornishmen drawl their words in the Common Tongue so do they drawl and lilt their music, making their renditions of Andal and First Men tunes too spicy to digest for those not accustomed to it. Just as I went to great lengths to rectify southern ill-informed views of northern music, I turn now to redress the situation on the other end of our continent, for it is a sad state of affairs when the most varied, impassioned and sophisticated music in our continent remains the most misunderstood and least heard outside its borders.

In order to understand how Dornishmen add their own spiciness to the well-known Andal and First Men music one must understand first the influence of the Rhoynish who migrated from Essos more than a thousand years ago. After years of fruitless searching for a new home, women, children and old men reached the Dornish coast with nothing else but hope… and a few of their Rhoynish harps, their exotic scales, rhythms and strange traditions they made sure to pass on to their descendants. Thus, Westerosi and Essosi joined together in peace instead of war ensuring the survival of both peoples and their traditions. The name Dornish music covers all types of music played in the region but here we will distinguish three different varieties according to the tradition of origin: First Men music heard near the Red Mountains; Andal music further south into the desert areas; Rhoynish music heard east near the Scourge, Vaith and Greenblood rivers. All three traditions are equally present in Sunspear with the aforementioned characteristic Dornish lilt present in all three traditions.


In the musical systems of the Andals we saw how the interval of a fifth was used as a reference to create scales simply by stacking the fifth upon itself 7 times. First Men employed a similar system of stacking intervals but with the important difference of alternating major and minor thirds as the building blocks. The Rhoynish scale system doesn’t use this stacking method but rather uses the octave as a reference (fig. a) from which to split it into two parts: the lower structure encompasses the interval of a fourth from the lower root up (fig. b) with the upper structure encompassing the interval of a fourth from the upper root down (fig. c) (a common misconception is that the upper root is created with the fifth above the lower root as a reference, but it has been pointed to me by many Dornish musicians that this is indeed an Andalosi approach to the Dornish system and not in fact the preferred way of looking at the scale system in Dorne). Thus, the lower and upper structures have the exact same size and both are connected to the root, and when put together the lowest note of the lower structure and the highest note of the upper structure are exactly one octave apart from each other (fig. d).

This leaves an interval of a whole step between both structures that is common to all Dornish scales, making it impossible to play the note in between the fourth and fifth notes of the scales as it is possible in other Essosi traditions. This is a fact that surprises many people, as this most dissonant interval found in First Men music and Andal music (usually associated with the fervor and passion of the Maid) makes Dornish music the only musical tradition in Westeros where this type of interval is not found in any of its scales. However, this is not to say that this interval can’t be found can’t be found in Dornish music, quite the contrary, as a feature of the so called Dornish spiciness comes having more than one of these intervals in a scale, but never from the root.

With the root (and its duplication at the octave above), the fourth, and the fifth notes in place scale construction is quite simple: the structure is divided into five roughly parts where a note may be added depending on how these parts are arranged: one to four (fig. f); two to three (fig. g); three to two (fig. h); four to one (fig. i). This subdivision of the structure into five parts is also applied to the upper structure in the same manner, and when the two structures are combined a pentatonic scale emerges (fig. j).

The same process can be used by adding two extra notes to the structure instead of one. This time the subdivision of the structure into five parts stays the same (fig. k) but the arrangement can be as follows: one to two to two (fig. l); two to two to one (fig. m); two to one to two (fig. n); one to three to one (fig. o). The same process can also be applied to the upper structure as done before thus creating a heptatonic scale (fig. p).

It is important in Dornish tradition that the only group of three parts can be found in between to single parts, and that arrangements such as one to on to three (fig. q) and three to one to one (gif. r) are prohibited.

With four different trichords and four different tetrachords to choose from for the lower and upper structures there are a total of 16 pentatonic scales and 16 heptatonic scales, as although combinations of trichords and tetrachords are possible in theory, once a trichord (or tetrachord) has been used in either the lower structure it is assumed the upper structure will feature the same trichord (or tetrachord). All 32 scales are listed on the appendix but here we will focus on the eight most important scales, known as “Pure”. These scales use the same type of trichord in the lower and upper structures for pentatonic scales (fig. s), and the same type of tetrachord for lower and upper structures for heptatonic scales (fig. t). This symmetry makes the structures perfect copies of each other at a distance of a fifth, a feature that plays an important role in music making in Dorne.

Overall, this system of pentatonic and heptatonic scales is quite easy to teach and learn. Children are usually started with the pentatonic system until they are proficient enough to move on to the heptatonic system. Most popular music relies heavily on the pentatonic scales while court and religious music usually employs the heptatonic one (Andal influence is partly responsible for this, especially at the Septs).


The Dornish melodies rank among the most sublime in Westeros, with a blend of long and short notes that gives them their so-called spiciness. Notes of this length are possible only in the Dornish double-reed flute; which requires incredibly strong cheeks to force the air through the tiny hole between the reeds, and stamina to maintain it. This instrument double-reed flute is the backbone of Dornish melodic music and we will use the common name of Dornish flute as it is the only woodwind instrument played in Dorne. The following example is one of many pieces we could have taken from the Dornish flute repertoire to analyze some of the key features of the Dornish melodic style of playing (fig. u).

Accompaniment is usually provided by a string instrument and it is always simple and never written down, as they follow strict patterns based on the scale used. Any of the notes of the lower structure can be used to begin the piece, with the accompaniment providing the relation between the melody and the root of the scale. When there is no accompaniment and the melody starts on a note other than the root, the player usually plays the root of the scale for the shortest of times before playing the first note of the melody. This is done to avoid ambiguity of the scale, but some pieces leave out this quick grace-note to add a sense of mystery and suspense to the melody.

As seen in the first eight measures of the example the melody stays close to the lower structure, reinforcing its sound and color before jumping to the higher structure where a very similar or identical melody is usually played as contrast. It is important to point out that the lower and upper structures are named so after the scale construction process, but in practical use the lower structure can “descend” to the higher structure if the range of the instrument allows it.

Most pieces traditionally signal the ending of the melody by playing all the notes of the the lower and upper structures in the direction of the root of the scale, as seen in the last 5 measures of the previous example.

~Turn the page to The Giants~