Making their homes in the huge, hollow tree trunks that the drummer birds favor, these gnomes have a thriving community in the heart of The Singing Wood. The noise might be a little overwhelming the first time an outsider is exposed to it. Imagine every song you've ever heard going off around you at the same time, and you will begin to get the picture. Another good analogy is the sound of an orchestra tuning up.
Many ages ago, the gnomes of the nearby kingdom of Yuland were embroiled in a bitter war with their neighbors to the south. On the eve of the final battle, the gnomes had been pushed all the way back to the borders of the fey and dangerous Singing Wood, a place of strange creatures and weird magics. Realizing that they were hopelessly outnumbered and unlikely to survive the night, they gathered all of their precious children together and sent them into the forest to await the outcome, with instructions to flee deep into the wood if the battle turned badly. And then the moment of partings came. The children watched as their fathers' line was broken, their bodies trampled beneath the hooves of the enemy. With the screams of their mothers ringing in their ears, the children bolted between the trees, running until their legs gave out and the sounds of the slaughter faded into nothingness. Night fell, and the gnomelings huddled together under the eaves of the woodchime trees, crying until the soft melody on the wind sent even the oldest of them to sleep. When they awoke, they were not alone.
The fairies that were native to the realm took pity on the young ones and helped them to survive those first long years of solitude. Gradually, the children forgot their native tongue, eschewing it in favor of the music taught by the fairies. As they grew to adulthood, they began to understand the whispers of melody in the wind, the tinkling tune of the stream, even the alarms of the drummer birds high in the treetops. The next several generations of gnomes perfected this art, and became as one with the forest as the creatures and fairies that had welcomed them with open arms.
Their language is sung, not spoken, each tone carrying rich meaning. Often combined with rhythmic clapping, snapping, stomping, etc, an ordinary conversation between singing gnomes would rival a tune by the most famous bard alive. Sometimes you will even hear one whistling and humming simultaneously to produce an odd pair of matched tones, the meaning of which is unclear.
Isolated here for centuries, the gnomes do not understand spoken language. Without a tune, the gnomes won't even recognize that you ARE speaking to them, much like a hearing person may miss the significance of signed language when first exposed to it. Because music is capable of conveying universal emotion, however, a traveler may get the gist of what is being said (major keys for happy news, minor for sad, etc).
Attempts to communicate with the gnomes by using music to convey emotion will yield an excited response from all gnomes present. They will begin trying to speak to the PCs as they would to gnome babies who are first learning to sing – simple, repeated tunes while pointing at various objects. If immersed in gnome culture for several months, a musically inclined outsider may learn enough of the gnome's language to understand basic conversation. The gnomes will be patient with such efforts, as they are generally good-natured and find the attempt amusing. Without an astounding vocal range, however, it is unlikely that an outsider will ever be able to communicate with the subtlety of a native.
Gnome voices have an astounding range and richness to them, but the volume they can produce is limited by their small size. Shouting damages their vocal cords, and is almost unheard-of. For long-distance communication, they rely on instrumentation. Marimba-like apparatus are stationed in trees surrounding their villages so that a warning can be pounded out to alert the whole tribe of danger. Large sections of the hollow trees are also cut off and covered with taught animal skins to produce drums reminiscent of timpanis These are placed in groups of two or three separate notes in the center of each gnome village, and can be used to beat out a coded message to far away villages. Drum code is specialized – not all gnomes understand it in its entirety, but most can work out some of the more common cadences.
The nuances of a musical language means that all gnomes must have perfect pitch. A tone-deaf gnome is essentially deaf and mute while living in this society. The poor thing will be cared for to the best of the gnomes' abilities, but will not be allowed to marry for fear of passing on the dreaded infliction. Tone deaf gnomes will sign crudely for things they want, and will watch outsiders with fascination tinged with desperation. They may try to learn the outsider language so that they will be able to talk with someone.
The gnomes have always gotten along well with the fairies, occasionally calling them with them forth with The Lost Flute of Jasloff for trade and festivities. Recently, however, several gnomish children have gone missing and it is suspected that the fairies are responsible. They fairies will no longer answer the flute's call, and several emissaries sent to the fairy rings have not returned. Determined to recover their children, the gnomes are planning to open a portal to the Realms of the Fey using the Grand Mushroom of the woods, and would like to hire the PCs as mercenary guards for their emissary.
There is a tone-deaf gnome child in the village that follows the PCs around, babbling at them piteously. She stares intently at the PCs as they speak, and will try to imitate their speech. Will worshipfully follow any PC kind enough to attempt teaching her more in-depth language. When the time has come to leave the village, the PCs have a choice – will they take the gnomish child with them for a happier life where tone-deafness isn't a handicap, or will they leave her with the village, trapped in a world that she cannot communicate with?