Sources worth investigating
I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that most of you have a collection of albums by musicians you like. I don't really care what those albums are because that's not the point; the point is that this music can be sort of distracting in the midst of play. Trying to write good dialogue is difficult enough when you aren't focused on entirely different sentences being piped into your ears.
If you really want to assemble some good roleplaying sountracks, I suggest starting by picking up some game soundtracks. Not every game is blessed with a good soundtrack, and there are games with spectacular soundtracks that are almost impossible to extricate from their source (most of the music in Persona 4 just doesn't work anywhere else). But there are several games with vast and sweeping soundtracks that can suit a variety of settings. Most Final Fantasy games offer plenty of mood pieces, for instance, and you can't go wrong with pairing up the Guild Wars soundtrack with almost any fantasy game.
Not enough? Perhaps you should start looking into film scores and soundtracks. Some films make the soundtrack a collection of vocal works with barely any of the background music, but others wisely include most of the score on the soundtrack proper. Movies generally have tighter musical motifs, but the result is a collection of music that works together to set a more cohesive mood. You might not get any tracks for romantic encounters off The Dark Knight Rises' score, but you'll get plenty of tense and ominous tunes for use in appropriate situations.
Last but not least, there are a lot of albums out there that focus on soundscapes, ambient music, and non-traditional tunes. Stars of the Lid became a favorite in my house for roleplaying simply because the group's music creates a mood without any distractions. Mixing in that sort of ambient music will help to create an environment focused on mood instead of specific songs.
Assembling the list
Having a lot of good music helps, but it doesn't actually marry that music to roleplaying in any significant fashion any more than having flour, sugar, and eggs will make a cake materialize. No, you're going to need some playlists, or if you want to be very old-school, some mix albums. (If you want to be insanely old-school, you'd be making mix tapes. The 8-track and any mixes upon it are not supported by this column.)
There are two ways to go about this. The first is to assemble songs purely by scene, so lots of soft romantic pieces for an intimate playlist, lots of aggressive pieces for a combat-oriented arrangement, and so forth. This is the obvious way to go about it, but it also has the downside of requiring a bit more work to switch back and forth during general roleplaying.
Personally, I prefer to put together lists based more upon characters. One of my characters has a lot of strong tunes, brassy anthems, and pieces with aggressive if not frantic instrumentals. Another tends toward slower pieces with a sense of mourning or loss. Another is best matched with songs that have a bit of acid in the edge. Instead of creating a playlist for a scene, I create playlists that reflect the character I'm playing at any given moment, putting me more firmly into the character mindset.
That's not to say that one way is the right way and the alternative is wrong. I just find that having a couple of special playlists and a larger playlist for individual characters generally requires less swapping of lists and keeps me more immersed.
Sharing as needed
Sometimes, songs are important for characters. You hear a song and immediately think of one character that just perfectly fits the tune, to the point that the lyrics might as well have been written about that character. Or it's just an instrumental piece, but every note just brings this individual to mind.
Heck, on occasion it's relevant to actually have a character sing a song from the real world in an in-game context. This is easier in Lord of the Rings Online, I believe, but it still comes up elsewhere.
The point is that sometimes you want to point directly at a specific song. For this, YouTube is a spectacular tool, but you may wish to run through a URL shortening service first. It's easier to transcribe. Also, avoid overusing it. We've all got different tastes in music, and while I'm lucky enough to have roleplaying companions with excellent taste, they're also wise enough to show restraint.
On a similar note, I promise you that there will never be a set of circumstances under which it is a wise idea to share a Linkin Park song as representing your character. Really.
Feedback is welcome down below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, just as usual. Next week we're going to look at the Collector, and the week after that I want to go over morality.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.