Music, Narrative, and the Boogie-Woogie

piano-keys-1090984_1920Music is a powerful thing. In the classic Animorphs novel The Ellimist Chronicles, music is the thing the Ellimist uses to defeat the moon-spanning creature known as Father, who was keeping it captive. Music is used as a source of motivation, a way of communicating, a voice for the voiceless, and much much more. It can completely redefine a scene, turning it from serious and gritty to amazingly fun and goofy.

Here are two examples of using music to make a scene fun. The first one is from Chuck’s Season 2 finale.

This entire scene could have been played serious with Chuck and friends fighting for their lives. But by overlaying ‘Mr. Roboto’ over the scene, it makes for an exciting and fun and NOT scary battle. At no point do you wonder if the protagonist and his friends are going to be horrifically killed. It puts you at ease and mixed with the jams of ‘Mr. Roboto’, it pumps you up.

The other example is from iZombie (a personal favorite of Angela and myself). This scene takes place between Ravi and Blaine in season 2, episode 5.

Just before the fight breaks out, the music begins to build with an eerie hum. It sounds like this could turn into a very brutal fight – which wouldn’t be surprising. Blaine had already shown he was a murderer. As soon as you hear the build up of the string instrument, you wonder if Blaine is just going to knife Ravi… and then ‘Friday I’m In Love’ begins. And that entire atmosphere changes. It’s suddenly fun and goofy and NOT STABBY!

Music can reshape an entire scene which is why Hollywood spends billions a year with getting it right. And much like Hollywood, you too should spend billions of… er, okay… you should spend time considering what sort of music you want for your games. If you’re looking for a game that is more humor than gritty-dark, then you can’t go wrong with the type of music that those two clips above chose. Maybe you do want the grittiness? Well, look for music that was created during times of great ‘grittiness’. Music is a representation of its time so use that to your advantage.

As for places to find music, here are a few great choices:

  1. Youtube.com – Seriously, Youtube is a fantastic source. Create a playlist of your favorite sound bits and songs and go from there. Of course, if you’re recording like us, you need to be careful with songs you use because copyrighted music typically is bound with producer agreements. While unlikely, you could always receive a cease and desist and have to pull the entire episode from your site.
  2. Freesound.org – This site is a fantastic collection of sound effects and music. While not all of them are creative commons licensed, they are easy to use in your podcasts. Just make sure you double check the requirements if you use their songs (you might need to say who made the song, etc).
  3. Freemusicarchive.org – Another great site that hosts millions of free songs either through public domain or creative common licenses. And you can always donate to their site in order to help them keep up with the costs of running the site!
  4. Pdinfo.com – The website looks a bit dated, but this is a great place to find public domain music that you’re free to use. While not a personal favorite of mine, it’s good for finding those old and creeptastic songs for the Billyverse games!

Music is an important aspect of narrative. And while you can tell stories without music playing, it’s an added bonus that can really give the atmosphere the jump-start you need.

What song should Fandible have played during one of our scenes or battles? Tell us in the comments below! Or tell us about a time where you’ve used music successfully in one of your roleplaying games.


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About the Author
Billy started out his roots like many roleplayers - D&D. Playing it and then Vampire all through highschool and college, Billy picked it all up again when he made the move from Michigan to New York. Now working in publishing, Billy does what he can to view roleplaying games through a narrative's lens. Does that sound classy as balls? It should.

2 comments on “Music, Narrative, and the Boogie-Woogie

  1. Fairystail says:

    How could you forget the most important one from jaws?
    Also we once did a war type role-playing game as a group of orcs and our gm played tribal music with a lot of drums, fit the game perfectly and made it feel more real

  2. MDMann says:

    The ride of the valkeries for a heroic chase, the birdie song for a fight, colonel blimp for something martial or war of the world’s for tension. The Brandenburg concerto for a love scene. Boris the spider for a haunting. 4 seasons because.

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