I used to play with a GM who used play a lot of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Mostly Murder Ballads. I might not like it as much as I like some other albums by them or as much as certain other people I know, but I like it. And there lies the problem.
Sure, the album matched the mood of the game, but the problem with an album like that is that I, as a player, will be distracted by it. It might not be pop exactly, but definitely uses songs that are meant to capture your attention and get you to go along with it. That’s not something you want at the game table. You don’t want players losing their immersion, because they hear a song they like.
Lets take an opposite example. Lets take a movie. Not any movie, but something like a James Bond movie. We all recognize the theme immediately and we are supposed to. When we hear it during a movie, we know Bond is up to something charactristically Bond-y. It works. Its a pretty cheap trick, but who cares. Its a key component of the movies.
The problem from the GM point of view is that you can’t sit there ready to play a track when one of the characters goes into their own Bond-y mode. Even using your attention to change the track when the mood changes is pretty awkward and immersion-breaking.
So, what should you do?
I think using music is a very good idea. Just refrain from using any music that will seep into the consciousness of the players. Anything with comprehensible lyrics is immediately out. If anything captures the attention of the listener, its a song they can sing along to (even if they aren’t going to sing). Also, poppy tunes they know are very bad.
So what’s good, then?
Well, anything instrumental is quite good, as long as its not too poppy. Film scores are always a good place to start, but there’s plenty of other music out there. You can always try Häxan Cloak, for example, which is very atmospheric and sounds like a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist.
Of course, if you do go with movie scores, you should use ones that correspond well with your chosen mood. Well, obviously. Also, just keep it quiet. Your players don’t need to hear it consciously for it to have an effect. Actually, it might even work better that way. If the players only hear the music barely, it will do its magic without them even realizing it.
Don’t put too much thought into it. Its hard to control during the game anyway and you don’t want to spend you time DJing. Just find a couple of good albums and put them on loop.
Maybe pull that one rock song out in very specific places, if you think its appropriate.