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Stray Thoughts

Music in Gaming, Part 2

by Michael Erb
May 30,2003


Music in Gaming, Part 2

Last time I talked about creating a game or character soundtrack for a campaign, a mix of songs and music that would accurately portray your game, maybe even convey some storylines or secrets while providing a nice bed of sound for

This time around I want to talk about music in gaming, or more specifically, as part of a game. The difference here is I am not talking about the songs your players hear, but more what characters might encounter in the course of their adventures. These songs can, and should, also be played for the players, but they are also considered to be occurring in-game.

Of course, the music you choose will vary dramatically based upon several things: Genre, time, forms of music available ... and of course the gamesmaster's/players' preferences.


When most people think of a medieval game their thoughts immediately drift to renaissance style music. Lutes, mandolins, harp, pan flute, that sort of thing. Basically, if you can hear it at a renaissance fair (ignoring the one bastard blaring Metallica from his "magical music box") it can be considered part of the medieval flavor.

But other types of music can fit as well. Not only orchestral pieces, but practically any sort of solo or unaccompanied singing can be used. From beautiful falsetto ballads to bawdy bar room ditties to religious hymns, any of these could conceivably find there way into a swords and sorcery game.

In fact, adding in the sorcery aspect, other areas of music would likewise open up. Spells could conceivably produce sounds, melodies and tunes beyond the range of historical instruments. Or perhaps a modern instrument could be found by characters within the game, a sort of "artifact of the future" (or past, depending on your game's history).

The Canadian band Rush extensively uses fantasy elements, stories and poetry in their songs. Though the sound might not exactly fit a historical game, some of the melodies are quite beautiful, the images evocative and a few sound very, very fantasy medieval.

Taking it one step further, who is to say you can't add unhistorical music to a game? After all, its your game. The movie "A Knight's Tale" used rock music from the 1980s to add a modern flair to the medieval joust. Some loved it, some hated it, but it did present an interesting twist on the genre, one most people, whether they wanted to or not, wouldn't soon forget.


When most people think of Cyberpunk, their thoughts immediately turn to techno or techno-trance, thrumming beats and repetitive electronica sounds. And any of these work well in the cyberpunk setting. But one of the main ideas behind cyberpunk was the concept of protesting the corporate world, of revealing the dark truths of hidden governments to the masses through song. The group Rage Against the Machine falls into that category, though I'm not sure how many would classify them as cyberpunk.

The sound of cyberpunk iss often heavy, intense, and even sometimes intelligible. But the message was still there. Adding some protest or conspiracy music to a cyberpunk game could give players a good idea as to what their characters are listening to. And it should be pretty easy to find and download some conspiracy music on the Internet, after all, those who create such music obviously want everyone to listen to it. That way they can tell them the truth.

Unless the government finds it first.

But also remember, that music in a cyberpunk game doesn't always have to be lifted from

"Johnny Mnemonic" (cast not your stones) or the "Hackers" soundtrack (ok, cast your stones). Other forms of music could easily fit into such a campaign, though they might not on the surface appear to fit.

For instance, take the here and now. In a room of 50 people, several might listen to a top 40s station, others country music while some others would be into hip-hop or rap or jazz or folk or any of a hundred different kinds of music. The scariest idea in cyberpunk is that we all listen to the same thing.

Folk music often became a part of my cyberpunk games. One rockerboy was heavily influenced in his music by the folk style of storytelling, of using a single instrument and a human voice rather than a dozen different, clashing electronic instruments. And he gained a steady following because his music was both unique and compelling. Not everyone likes Rage Against the Machine. Some would rather listen to Joan Baez (a brilliant anti-war poet and singer) or Bob Marley or Johnny Cash. In the future, I doubt that will change.

Other genres

I think you get the sense of where I am going with this. If your genre is time-specific, such as during World War I or during colonial times, a little research will give you a good idea as to what people were listening to in those days.

For example, in the wild west, anything from old player piano, to banjo to Native American drums could be found. Opera was also a big form of entertainment. Harmonica, spirituals, steamboat music and of course drinking songs also could be considered commonplace and fair game within that setting.

Music should also be influenced according by cultures within the game. For instance, a medieval game with a Celtic flavor could rely more on bagpipes, while an Australian-themed game might have a combination of rock and roll and tribal music.

If your game is less specific, but still has a good sense of genre (such as space opera, in which classical music and the rock ballad would reign supreme) you can either go with the tried and true or mix things up a bit. For instance, what if the rockerboy in your cyberpunk game took the accordion as his main instrument? If he is good enough, would anyone care? Heck, they might become fans just because it is such an odd choice for an instrument.

The idea is to use music to enhance your game, both within and without. Whether you are playing music solely as background noise or using it as an active part of your story (say, a bard singing about the only way to kill the dragon the heroes will later face... "Now what was that third verse, the one about the flower?") it is something worth considering and can greatly add to the feel and realism of the adventure.

A few parting tips

1. Create multiple soundtracks. If you know that your characters will be spending an active amount of time within a setting, and there is specific music you would like to have for those times, have some soundtracks marked and ready. For example, if your characters spend a lot of time in dance clubs, a techno-trance mix tape or CD would be good to have on hand. Or if the characters are going to spend a lot of time exploring a spooky old carnival, a selection of merry-go-round or calliope music could put the players, and the characters, a little more on edge.

2. I am never advocating stopping gameplay to fumble for a CD or tape or to quickly thumb through a list of songs just to find "the perfect tune for the perfect time." But with a little planning ahead, you can have special songs queued up, have a playlist of MP3s ready on your computer, or have the right CD on hand to pop into the player while giving players background information. If the music bogs down your game, you are not doing it right, and should rethink your approach. Also, most games do have periodic breaks, whether for eating, going to the bathroom, or just because there is a lull in the story. Use these times to sort through your music the same as you would to sort through your notes. Again, if it enhances your game, use it. If it takes away, lose it.

And as always, comments and questions are welcome.

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