Filk Music and Really How To Do It

Since I have been chidden (I think that's the word) by a gentle friend for providing "not much guidance" on the previous page, I thought I'd better remedy the omission before some less tolerant visitor sues me under the Trades Descriptions Act.

First of all, a couple of disclaimers. I am not here purporting to teach you how to do music. The musical ability you've got right now is exactly what you'll have when I'm through (which, admittedly, puts me up on some music, best not go there). What you need to know, what I can tell you, is: that's enough. For the moment, anyway.

Also, I'm not going to teach you how to be an sf fan. For one thing, you don't need to be one, particularly. Many filkers aren't. If you hear a song based on an sf book and you like it, you may want to read the book. That's allowed. If not, you don't have to. It's optional.

So, I'm assuming that, a, you derive some enjoyment from music, either making it or just listening to it, and, b, you know enough about what filk is to be interested in doing filk as distinct from any other type of music. With me so far? Good.

Now, a little mental exercise. This is for those people who think they can't sing, or know they can't sing, or are absolutely rock-hard one hundred per cent gosh-darn CERTAIN they can't sing. First of all, you're wrong. All of you. You can so sing. You think you can't because you've been told you can't, and the people who told you were wrong as well.

Try this. Visualise in front of you all those people who ever said I Wish You'd Stop Making That Godawful Racket, or Some Of Us Are Trying To Sleep/Work/Concentrate/Relax/Eat/Drink/Have Sex/fill in verb here, or Don't Give Up The Day Job, Eh, Ha Ha. Anything like that. Now imagine them saying something totally absurd and unbelievable, like The Moon Is Made Of Pink Blancmange, or Every Word In Mrs. Beeton Is Literally True, or There's A Magic Balrog Living Up My Left Nostril And You Have To Do What It Says Or It'll Eat You.

You wouldn't accept it, right? So why did you believe them when they said, on no more substantial evidence, that you couldn't sing?

The fact is that the world is full of sad, pathetic, twisted souls who feel the overwhelming need to shove their walking stick in between the spokes of your bicycle. Some are cursed with perfect pitch, which is a terrible affliction and deserves our pity. Some have been told that they can't sing, and have resolved that right, then, in that case no-one else is going to. (No-one here, I trust.) Some have been told that they can sing, and don't like to hear untutored amateurs sounding better than they know in their heart of hearts they do. It happens. Some are just Puritans, in mortal terror that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.

(What do you mean, perfect pitch isn't an affliction? How many singers and musicians do you think there are who produce precisely the right note every time? How many tape players play at the factory-set speed for more than a week after they've been bought? Imagine living in a world where everything is just a little bit out of tune, and you can't help noticing it. I wouldn't have perfect pitch if it came with a five-figure salary. Would you?)

Anyway, the point is, you can sing. Nobody can tell you otherwise. As long as you have a voice, and can hear a note, you can try to sing that note or something like it. If you don't like what you hear, you can either practice till you do, or you can learn Sprechgesang or talk-singing (think Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady; don't knock it, it worked). If you can live with your voice, that's all that matters. There's always room for improvement, if you want to put in the effort...but nobody ever got better at singing by not singing.

Now, can you play an instrument? No? Not a problem. Filk is full of people who can, and who are happy to teach, or to accompany another filker as long as they either know the song or can have melody and chords written down. Alternatively, if your song is to a popular tune you may be able to find a karaoke tape. This is not cheating. This is being resourceful. And, if you have the confidence (and if not, why not?) by all means sing a cappella, or with your little hat on. That works too.

Okay. Now you can sing. So, sing what? The best way to start in filk, if you aren't used to songwriting, is with parodies. Half the work's done for you, and when the audience recognises the tune you're more or less guaranteed a laugh to start with. The rest is up to you.

I'd be prepared to swear that the impulse to parody is built into all of us to some extent. We're surrounded by parody, from "While Shepherds Washed Their Socks By Night" at school, through "Woad" and various sport-related perversions, to the more individual efforts of the Barron Knights and Weird Al Yankovic, not to mention the subtle permutations concocted by the advertising industry ("Ooh aargh, it's Ambrosia..."). We all know what a parody is, and how it works. If you mishear a song lyric in a funny way (what some people call a mondegreen, after the lady in a famous ballad: "They have brought in Sir Lancelot [or somebody]/And Lady Mondegreen...") that can be the beginning of a parody. If someone sings one of those deadly serious songs about space travel with which filk is so well provided, and you suddenly get the urge to turn it into a slightly less serious song about taking the number 53 bus to North Dulwich, yield to it. Approach the singer and shyly confess that you couldn't quite make out all the words of their deathless ditty and do they have a spare copy? They'll know what you're about, but if they're real filkers they probably won't mind. (Although some filkers do have some songs which they would prefer people not to parody. Usually they'll say so.)

Now begins the interesting part. Scansion and rhyme are daunting words, but they're not as hard as they seem. The simplest and most rudimentary way of matching scansion is to count the syllables. If your version has the same number of syllables per line as the original, then at least you won't find yourself running out of tune with words left over, or vice versa. If you can get the stresses flowing the same way, so much the better. Example: if the original has the words "The king is in his counting house", you only have to say it to hear the stresses: de-dah de-dah de-dah de-dah. Singing "By the shores of Gitche Gumee" to that line won't work. Try "By Gitche Gumee's shining shores" instead. (Now you try adapting the first line to the stresses of the second: dah-de dah-de dah-de dah-de.)

Rhyme is even easier. It's nice if it's exact, but it doesn't have to be. Rhyming, oh, say, "warm" and "dawn", is perfectly acceptable in filking circles. Again, if you want to learn how to do it better, practice is the best way.

So, you have a song, or maybe several. You now know that no-one has the right to stop you singing, and that no-one in filk will (unless, and this is important, someone else is trying to sing at the same time and they started first). So, come to a filk event, a singing WiGGLe or a convention or a housefilk of some description, with instruments if any and songs in hand, and let us hear you. That's really all there is to it.

World peace? Well, it would be a lot more likely if people didn't try to tell other people they couldn't sing...

Created on ... January 20, 2001