"Oh, I turned the music off a long time ago."
It's downright hard to get into any good discussion about music when, y'know, people don't listen to it at all, but I can understand why folks have done this. Heck, I've done this at various points. For me, sometimes the music is far too repetitive when I'm in a zone for a really long time, so I have to turn it off to avoid going mad. Other times I disable the sound because I'm working on other sound-related projects (such as podcasts and listening through other OSTs) while I play.
But even though it seems that a lot of us shut off the music, I want to make a case for why it's important that we turn the music back on -- if not all of the time, at least once in a while.
Getting the full experience
The way I see it, music is just as much a part of the atmosphere of the game as the art style, the locations, the lore, and the sound effects. To disable it is to make you partially deaf to the world that is being presented to you. Maybe we don't think about music a lot in MMOs unless it's absolutely terrific or terribly annoying, but it serves an important function as part of the glue that holds the whole experience together.
Look at movies, for example. Soundtracks often serve the role of telling the emotions of the moment and inviting the audience to come in an feel them, from fear to excitement to depression to romance. You may notice them, or you may not, but if they weren't there, trust me, the movie would be a lot less of an engaging experience than you might think. I cannot imagine, say, Back to the Future or The Avengers without Alan Silvestri's scores. Would Darth Vader be as menacing without the Imperial March? Would we get goosebumps at the end of sports movies if the score didn't start going into overdrive?
Granted, MMOs aren't movies, and there are some key differences in how they utilize music. MMOs take far longer than two hours to fully experience, and chances are that there are no soundtracks that can cover 324 days /played without an awful lot of repeats (although perhaps RuneScape comes close). MMOs also have to take a more flexible approach to integrating music into the narrative as it's not as tightly controlled as the story is in the movies.
Discover new musical landscapes
Even if you've heard a game's soundtrack a lot, I still think you need to get into the habit of turning the music on at least once in a while. For starters, once you start disabling music, it becomes easier to do so earlier on in successive MMO journeys, causing you to miss out on a whole bunch of awesome tunes just because you're making these new games pay for the repetitions of past ones.
Even in a game that you play regularly, there's a good chance that you haven't stumbled across all of the tracks that lurk in the sound directory. I turned back on Lord of the Rings Online's music for the latest expansion and genuinely enjoyed the mix of the new score and several old favorites as I rode across the plains of Rohan.
In fact, it was during this journey that I heard a tune that made me remember my old days of roaming the Shire, and I felt a wave of happy nostalgia wash over me. That's one of the effects of MMO scores that I've seen over and over in the comments of this column: The music serves as a powerful memory trigger, even many years after you've played that title. To disable the music is to block off any potential future memories being linked to the score, and to me that is a shame.
Take control of your musical destiny
Even with my entreaty to flip the switch back on and let the good tunes roll, I certainly don't want you to force yourself to go through an aural experience that makes you grind your teeth. If you can't bring yourself to even occasionally activate your in-game music out of fear that "that song" will play, or if the score is just a little too depressing or oppressive in a particular spot, then there are alternatives.
One option is to do as I do and collect as much of the game's music as possible, putting it into your own music player. This gives you more control over your listening experience while still staying within the sounds of the game. There are a few MMOs that have assisted players in doing just this by giving them in-game players to either flip through the game's soundtrack or easily it access via an out-of-game music player. Another option is to simply lower the music volume in your settings so that it truly takes a background role without fading out entirely.
Say "thanks" with a listen
Give your in-game music another chance, even if it's one day out of every seven that you play. Experience the full game the way the development team intended, right down to the hard work that the composer, the music technicians, and the musicians provided for you. If there's another thing I've learned from doing this column, it's that the people who make MMO music feel incredibly underappreciated for some very hard work that is typically overshadowed by combat systems and fantastic visuals. If listening to their efforts once in a while to say thank you is the least you can do, why not do it?
So if you're one of those gamers who have had the music shut off for a while now, take my challenge and turn it back on. Appreciate it. See what you've been missing. Come back and let us know what you've learned and perhaps a new track or two that you've discovered. We'll be here.
MMOs aren't just about looks; they also have great soundtracks that often go unnoticed. Heroes don't stand for that! Every Tuesday, Jukebox Heroes will check out a game's soundtrack and feature the best tunes to share and discuss. Your DJ for the hour is Justin Olivetti, and the request line is open!