Music is the black sheep of external tools for immersion.
In the endless pursuit of immersion we often bring elements to the game beyond our words and imagination. To engage other senses we provide portraits, maps, miniatures, and sometimes even costumes or props. Some people even select special dice to represent specific characters.
Visual and physical elements are the easy part – the true challenge is Audio. Perhaps the single most common audio element brought into the game for the purpose of immersion is the various theatrical voices given to characters. Frequently this is limited to an accent rather than a true character voice, but that is a subject for another post.
Music is the black sheep of external tools for immersion. Ambient noises such as rainfall have the advantage of being emotionally neutral. They can communicate their ideas without us paying attention to them. The sound of rain simply communicates “rain” regardless of if we listen to it purposefully or not. Ambient noises do not need your attention, and they do not directly interact with the characters. The sound of thunder in a stormy recording would not cause a character to be suddenly hit by lightning, only that the noise is somewhere in the background far removed from the actual action taking place.
Music is active. Even in it’s most subtle forms the purpose of music is to inform you of theme and tone. When describing major and minor keys we do not only describe their mathematical qualities, but their emotional and psychological associations. Arguably background music demands an understanding of sonic emotional tone that goes far beyond typical songwriting.
In other words background music must convey an idea. Bombastic brass instruments are often used to represent imperial ambitions, grandiosity, and military triumph. Flutes often represent open natural environments when in a slow context, or a youthful playfulness at faster tempos.
(These are of course only common interpretations, as any instrument can be used in a wide variety of contexts just as colours can have many different meanings.)
Music will always fail on a fundamental level when applied to roleplaying games, because the music is not responsive or specific to the events being described. Take for example combat. If it were a movie you would expect intense music with a fast tempo, but combat in a TTRPG is almost always slow. Without the events having any relationship to the rhythm of the music, a sense of misalignment and awkwardness is inevitable.
To review, music falls apart in a TTRPG setting because…
#1) It was composed to represent or suggest a particular idea, and importantly that idea was not your specific game session. The sound track for the Lord of the Rings movies was carefully composed to represent The Lord Of the Rings and not your D&D characters.
#2) The rhythm of gameplay and storytelling does not have a direct correlation to the rhythm of the music.
At one point in my life I had a friend who played the guitar. He watched my group play AD&D, and would casually strum along to our action. This was the only time in my 10+ years of gaming that the music actually felt appropriate – and it was! Because it was written and composed (in improv format) based on the action happening at the table in real time.
Note that none of the above is to say bringing music to your table is somehow “wrong” or bad taste. However it’s important to recognize the inherent limitations a soundtrack has in the context of tabletop gaming. These problems do not exist with ambient noises, which I have always had a great deal of fondness for.
If you want to bring music to your table, take a minute to ask yourself “What is this song meant to convey? What ideas and emotional associations is it calling upon to craft it’s visual narrative? Is there a larger context that would chance how it is interpreted?” You will find that the best choices are those with the broadest and shallowest messages. Having a song that simply expresses “Sadness” in a generic sense is more valuable than one which expresses “The grief you feel after a lover has died.” The more generic the music, the more available it is for game purposes.
The ultimate goal of universally applicable (or generic) background music is to get as close to the neutrality of ambient noises without fully losing it’s musical quality. This type of music requires a masterful subtlety, the likes of which are often exceptionally boring from the perspective of a composer who would like to (in almost all circumstances) produce something that is engaging.
So bring your speakers and your soundboards, but think twice before putting on a soundtrack that was written for a specific piece of media – movies, symphonies, video games, or otherwise.
Harp illustration generated by Craiyon.com