Have you ever listened to a musical score and pictured a scene that matched the tempo, beat, and tone of the music? I’ve used this technique hundreds of times to create the “beat” of a campaign, adventure, or an encounter/scene. It can be scaled as long or short as you need on a timeline and can be used for things other than games: short stories, novels, comic books, anything that has storytelling involved. And it can be accomplished at times when other methods are not accessible (like while you’re driving).
Movie scores and instrumentals are the best kinds of music to utilize for this activity. I find that lyrics can often be distracting and may influence your imagination too much. However, if you wanted a scene that closely matched a specific song, then by all means use it. Songs sung in a language you do not speak do well for this activity, too. Also, if you pick a score, and all you can imagine is the scene from the movie it made its appearance in, then you should find something else.
When I use this technique, I’ll first pick a song that invokes more than one response from me; something that has a definite drama: lows, highs, and a climax. Then I will listen to it a few time and begin to form a story that coincides with the dynamics of the song. I often plot the emotional highs and lows on a sheet of graph paper, noting the important events of the score and how it relates to the protagonist(s), which would be your players. A high, smooth point is generally good and a low or erratic section is generally bad.
I’ll make notes on that graph about what is happening in my story until I have filled in all the blanks. Now that the story is pretty much finished, I’ll play the song and narrate my story to the music, OUT LOUD. This way I can find gaps in the story or moments that need to be reworked because it doesn’t flow well. I’d like to thank a professor of mine for the idea of narrating to the music. Thanks Matt! The final test of mettle would be to present the live narration to a group of peers for their reactions and critique. This group may or may not include players (if this is for a game), depending on how you deal with how your players deal with out of character information.
Some composers whose work has been generally pretty damn good include John Williams (Star Wars, E.T., Harry Potters), Alan Menken (various Disney: Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, Enchanted), Danny Elfman (all but two Tim Burton films), and Howard Shore (LotR, Se7en, The Cell). A fellow RPG Bloggers Network member, Stargazer has a nice list of very good works.
If this article inspired you to use music in your storytelling, let me know how it worked for you.