And we thought WE were niche!

Have you heard of ‘filk music’? While Wikipedia says it began in the 1930s, this genre – if so it can be called – got its name from a typo in an unpublished article in the 1950s. Loosely defined as folk music with a science fiction or fantasy theme, filk music is typically sung session-style late at night at science fiction/ fantasy conventions. Filk song are parodies of existing songs, not necessarily humorous, with lyrics about the kinds of things geeks like: computers, physics and cats as well as superheroes, Star Trek and Harry Potter.

I haven’t yet had the privilege of observing this phenomenon in real life, but apparently filkers adopt some very interesting session formats, to deal with the fact that most people coming together to play at a convention won’t have met before and won’t know each other’s songs. An ethnomusicologist has published papers celebrating the fact that filking breaks down the performer-audience dichotomy. Huzzah – filkers and folkies are singing off the same hymn sheet.

According to Wikipedia, ‘The purpose of a filk circle is for musicians to share songs with other musicians, so performing and listening are given equal emphasis. In a filk circle, there is no stage, there is no audience. Those who participate in a filk circle may choose to perform, to listen, or both. Performers may know only one song, or may know an extensive library of songs. Participants are usually encouraged to join in and sing along or play along on their instruments.

So far, so familiar. But these filkers have formalised some interesting session conventions. The following is shamelessly lifted from Wikipedia, because I love that someone has taken the time to spell these conventions out so seriously and in such detail. Makes me wanna filk!


In a bardic circle, each person in the circle (as well as those sitting in concentric circles around the inner circle, if any), go in turns, with each turn moving sequentially either clockwise or counterclockwise around the circle. Each participant is given the choice of pick, pass, or play. “Pick” means they can request a specific song, a specific performer, a general topic or style, or any other similar request from an individual or from the circle in general. “Pass” means they skip their turn and the choice passes on to the next person in sequence. “Play” means they can perform any song they choose, either specific to the current topic or mood, or deliberately different from the current topic or mood.

The advantage of the bardic circle is that it has a clear structure, which enforces politeness. It ensures everyone in the circle gets their turn, so that even shy people can have a chance to request or perform. There are disadvantages, however. A bardic circle with large numbers of participants will take a long time to traverse the entire circle, making people wait too long for their turn. There is less spontaneity in a bardic circle than a chaos circle, and the chance of being able to play a good “follower” song is reduced.


In a chaos circle, there is no sequential organization. Any performer can simply begin playing a song after the prior song is finished, or any participant can shout out a request. Care must be taken to prevent two songs from starting at the same time. Frequently the word “follower!” is shouted in a chaos circle, meaning that a performer believes they have the perfect song to follow the prior song, and they want to play it now.

The chaos circle’s advantage is its spontaneity and energy. “Runs” of songs will frequently get started, with each new song intended to make some sort of connection to or commentary on the prior song’s topic. The disadvantage is that it takes concentration and effort to be polite and respectful in a chaos circle: It’s easy to accidentally interrupt another performer who’s trying to start up a song of their own, especially in a very large circle where one might not be able to easily hear the other performer on the opposite side of the room. Chaos circles thus have a reputation for favouring bold, loud performers who can command attention. One countermeasure to such conflicts is for someone, generally not one of the current/starting-up performers, to shout “Filker up!” and point to the one being interrupted. This alerts the room, and specifically the (usually unintentional) interrupter, to be quiet and pay attention to the filker who has started performing.

Token Bardic

A token bardic circle, also known as a “poker-chip” bardic circle, attempts to combine the enforced politeness of the bardic circle with the freeform nature of the chaos circle. A container full of some type of token such as poker chips is supplied for the circle. Each person participating in the circle is given a fixed number of tokens when they enter the room (frequently two tokens), and can throw a token into the centre of the circle at any time to claim a pick or play turn (see Bardic, above). When all the active tokens in the circle are used up, they are scooped up and redistributed for the next round.

The advantage of a token bardic is that there’s still a chance for spontaneity and followers, yet it’s easy to be polite to other performers because you can easily see when another performer wants a turn. The disadvantage is that, like bardic, in a large circle it may take a long time for you to get another turn after you’ve used up your existing turns.

There are variations of these styles, some of the variants involving a person acting as a moderator. A given circle can change its style mid-stream, if the participants agree. It’s common to see the participants of a bardic circle “go chaos” or vice versa, for example.


The etiquette of the filk circle begins with a respect for all music, including (and perhaps especially) amateur music and amateur performers. Everyone is encouraged to perform, regardless of their skill level. No one is criticized except to occasionally give tips or suggestions.

Although singing along and playing along with instruments (including improvisation) is usually encouraged, filk circles are not like jam sessions. Jam sessions are usually focused on extended instrumental improvisation with everyone performing simultaneously, whereas filk circles tend to be focused on a single performer or group singing an individual song during their turn. Singing along and playing along are expected to be done politely, contributing to the song rather than overshadowing the song’s performer.

Disruptions and distractions are discouraged during a song. This includes walking through the circle, general noise, and conversations. If between-song conversations and noise get out of hand, it’s common to hear someone shout “Filker up!” as a signal to end the conversations so that the next person can have their turn.



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