The Sound of Music

How music can be a part of roleplaying

“Music is a part of us, and either ennobles or degrades our behavior”
(-Boethus, De Institutione Musica)

Music is almost an inseparable part of our modern lives. In this article I will present several way music can be incorporated into roleplaying, and some tips on how to do so.
If you have any questions, suggestions of your own, or you just want to share the experience you had with your own group, I’d be delighted to hear from you. Just drop me an e-mail
One final note before I start – This article is about how music can inspire roleplaying. The music you use to gain inspiration does not necessarily have to be from your favorite band, or even from a band you like. Keep that in mind as you read through this article.

Music as a Source of Inspiration

Music has an amazing power to inspire inspiration. Although this applies both to the music itself and to the lyrics, in this section I prefer to concentrate on the lyrics and leave the sound to the next section.
If you’re creating a fantasy campaign (or scenario, or a character concept, or whatever), the sources to seek inspiration from are almost unlimited, especially nowadays.
First of all, the recent few years has seen the rise of Power Metal (or Fantasy Metal, or Symphony Metal, or Viking Metal. I don’t presume to understand enough in metal to pick up the fine differences). This musical genre takes the framework of heavy metal (strong vocals, electric guitars, high pace rhythm kept by a strong drum beat) and incorporate fantastic and mythological elements (both in theme and in sound) into it. Using these lyrics for inspiration is the easiest trick in the book – just use he songs as is. Nothing can inspire epic fantasy better than a good Power Metal album.
And even if you don’t venture so far away from the (easily found in record shops) mainstream, the realm of Metal can still satisfy you. Metal, as a genre, tend to use fantastic imagery and create larger-than-life characters. All you need to do is take their idioms as is instead of delving into the meaning lying behind them, and walla! Instant fantasy characters! This is exactly what I did in The Black Project, which did come out pretty cool, if I may say so myself.
The next easiest genre to cater to is gothic horror. Again, if you delve into the darker side of music, you can find Goth, Black Metal and Doom Metal albums full of personal loss, endless darkness and horror beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Perfect for a good gothic horror campaign.
If you play science fiction or cyberpunk, you’re might be a harder to satisfy. I would guess that your best bet would be in eighties punk and punk-rock music. They may not deal directly with technology (although some rare albums do), but you can definitely find songs that deal with alienation, polarization, ethnocentrism and the rest of the ailments of modern human society – the most basic ingredients for a good science fiction or cyberpunk campaign.

Background and Theme Music

One of the greatest issues in roleplaying is getting the players into the “mood” of the scenario. One of the most obvious ways of doing this is by using background music, just like a good movie soundtrack does.
Combat, chases, and any high speed event can really be spiced up by some good fast music, be it rock, metal, hard core or even sufficiently aggressive electronic music. Likewise, emotionally charged scenes such as seductions, romantic encounters, funerals etc. can easily be augmented by soft jazz blues, or folk. On that note, I’d recommend leaving roleplaying-intense scenes such as important conversations, speeches and such should be left silent, as to not cause a distraction from the words themselves.
Fantasy campaigns can benefit from “original” music like CDs of Celtic, Irish or Gregorian music. Tribal or ethnic music could also be appropriate, depending on the specific campaign system. Depending on the nature and the mood of the campaign setting, classical music could be very appropriate (for epic campaigns), as can Fantasy Metal (for even more epic and/or more brutal and aggressive campaigns).
Gothic and horror are settings that take an individual and confront how small he is with the larger-than-life moral dilemmas (in Goth) or situations (horror). Their background music should display that – Gregorian chants are very appropriate, as is symphonic classical music and larger than life Goth Metal or Prog Metal.
Cyberpunk is a genre based on rebellion and non-conformity. It is also a genre that takes nowadays tendencies and exaggerating them to the Nth degree. The way music is going nowadays, as it seems, is breaking down traditional definitions of music and freely combining styles. Good cyberpunk background music can combine elements of traditional rebellious rock or punk, rap-style singing and electronic sound effects and sampling which seem to have penetrated every genre of music recently. The best example would probably be Rage Against the Machine that sound more or less like that and incorporate a strong social message, which is the core of what cyberpunk music should all be about.

And one final note – in a lot of cases, movies and TV series have already done the job for you. Almost any new movie or TV series that respects itself comes out with a soundtrack CD full of music intended to get you in the mood the movie or series is aiming at – exactly what you are trying to achieve yourself. As the saying goes – “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”