Welcome to our guide to music and ambient sounds in D&D 5e.
In this guide, I’ve put together some of my favorite tracks, albums, and compilations to use at the gaming table, organized by situation – Town, Wilderness Exploration, Dungeon Exploration, and Battle – and grouped into two “Moods”: High Fantasy and Low/Weird Fantasy.
I’m not the first dungeon master (and I certainly won’t be the last) to sit down before a session and think “right… Dice? Check. Rulebooks and notes? Check. DM Screen? Check. Snacks? Check… Music? … ah crap!” before going to YouTube and hitting play on the first generic fantasy playlist that comes up.
Usually, this approach is… fine.
The more generic and harp-laden a backing track is, the more it fades into the background and lets everyone focus on, you know, actually playing D&D.
As long as your choice isn’t wildly off base, some smooth tavern jams are going to help everyone get in the mood and focus.
Unless you’re on some Brenden Lee Mulligan levels of production stuff or you’re Griffin McElroy, it’s really easy to slap on pretty much anything with a harpsichord (here’s six hours of French Harpsichord music – you can stop reading this guide now) and be good to go.
However, if you do want to make music a bigger part of the experience you create as a dungeon master, it’s remarkably easy to go from “Generic Elf Pop Compilation #3” to an adventuring soundtrack that engages your players, makes the wilderness come alive, makes the dungeon feel ominous and deadly, and turns every battle into a titanic struggle.
The goal of this guide is to create a resource that you can have open when you sit down to run D&D and be able to meet 90% of your ambiance and soundtracking needs by just following the links and hitting play.
Also, because I know some people like a very classic fantasy tone and they don’t necessarily mix with the people who got into the hobby because they secretly hoped the Satanic Panic was real, I’ve divided all the music situations into two “moods.”
My High Fantasy selections are more classic D&D, aka medieval inspired. We’ve got harps and harpsichords and songs about how merrily-we-shall-go. Hey nonny nonny, etc.
Then, my Low/Weird Fantasy selections veer a little further off the beaten track into the realms of dungeon synth, drone, and metal.
Soundtracking, Ambience, and Admin: Some Tips
Being a dungeon master is hard enough without becoming an amateur DJ on the side.
You’re already trying to respond to player questions, describe the world, keep track of monster stats, read densely packed paragraphs of lore, and keep from muddling up all your NPCs’ stupid accents; having the right track ready for every conceivable moment can feel like a lot.
Thankfully, you don’t have to constantly be scoring your session like you’re Hans Freaking Zimmer.
Here are my top tips for effectively running soundscapes while you’re also running the game.
Tip 1: Take Your Time
There’s an undeniable impulse to panic when the encounter begins and you know you don’t have the right song cued up.
When this happens, steal the dungeon master’s most valuable trick when you don’t know what to do: remain calm and pretend you’re reading some very important notes.
Taking a moment to gather your thoughts is a great way to build up some tension before a scene.
Likewise, because the song you put on is going to give your players some hint at what’s about to happen, you get to watch them get seriously scared as you scroll further and further down the playlist, muttering to yourself about Acererak.
Tip 2: Ambience Is Your Friend
You don’t have to have music playing at all times to create a mood. Wizards of the Coast has released a ton of ambient soundscapes for virtually any scenario you could want for free on YouTube.
Some of the most commonly useful ones have been grouped into playlists and include…
If you’re running a pre-written D&D 5e adventure, Sword Coast Soundscapes also has tailored ambient playlists for some of the more popular ones, including…
- Curse of Strahd – Click Here
- Waterdeep: Dragon Heist – Click Here
- Ghosts of Saltmarsh – Click Here
- Tomb of Annihilation – Click Here
Just hit play and enjoy about 3 hours of ambient footsteps, dripping water, horses’ hooves, and all the other incidental noises from the adventuring life.
Then, when something exciting happens, you can hit pause and cue the music.
You can cut and splice it up however you like and find music for day, evening, and storms. In fact, Rainy Night is my favorite “vaguely mysterious with a hint of creepy” music.
For paid, if you’re not already aware of it, you should check out Syrinscape.
They have a ton of options, sound effects, music, voices and more. Even an integration if you play online that everyone can connect to.
Syrinscape is great for people who just want everything in one spot that’s easy to get to.
Last thing that is semi-related… if you’re considering playing a game online, I have to say FoundryVTT is awesome for music and sounds.
I made the switch from FantasyGrounds over to Foundry, and that’s one of the biggest perks: Playlists and ambient sounds that can be triggered when someone gets to a certain spot, opens a door etc. It’s super cool.
Okay! Back to Harry!
Tip 3: Let Someone Else DJ
As I said before, DMing is a full-time job. If you’d rather focus on the important stuff and have a player who you think would enjoy it, you can let one of the other people at the table DJ the session.
This is akin to whoever calls shotgun in the car picks the songs. Just remember, you’re in the driver’s seat and the driver has veto privileges.
Consider giving the player who volunteers for soundscaping duty Inspiration or perhaps some bonus XP.
While there’s a lot of difference between a humble starter town (a Keep on the Borderlands, if you will) and a bustling city like Waterdeep, there’s a good chance that you can get away with the same backing track for either end of the spectrum.
High Fantasy Town Music
If you’re after a light, relaxed, and slightly whimsical soundscape for your town, try this playlist from Blue Turtle.
It feels like a mixture of an indie video game about interpersonal relationships and a modernist take on a Ghibli score.
For a very, very traditional medieval town feel, try this. This is a great channel for “authentic” medieval European folk music, but they also delve into other flavors, like China and Japan, and Steampunk.
And lastly, for a slightly more left-field pick, Fleet Foxes eponymous album is rich with choral arrangements and folk instrumentation and is absolutely the sort of thing you might hear sung at a festival in town.
The vocals might be a little intrusive, but I’d be remiss not to mention it.
Low/Weird Fantasy Town Music
For a slightly less lively, definitely bleaker take on medieval living, try out this excellent album by Aindulmedir, a “music project for bibliophiles and hermits” by Swedish musician Kammarheit.
It’s haunting and bleak, which could be the perfect score for a half-forgotten town at the edge of the world.
Then, we have a dungeon synth classic that walks the line between high and slightly stranger fantasy, with albums I-IV by FIEF. Think slightly upbeat elvish town music played on a synthesizer from the late 90s.
Third, I’m recommending another dungeon synth classic, the album Dauði Baldrs by Burzum.
It really captures the creepiness of medieval society (if you can imagine a very straightforward take on living conditions in Monty Python and the Holy Grail or perhaps an alternate soundtrack to The Green Knight, this is it) with extra weird lashings of grainy choirs and an inexplicable saxophone.
I’m also shoving a few additional links in here, which range from Scandinavian “neo darkfolk” (they said it, not me) to 10 hours of Russian folk music and the original soundtrack to the essential folk-horror film The VVitch.
Trekking through the wilderness is a journey into the unknown.
Characters who venture forth into new and dangerous lands (even if that means taking a few steps off the beaten trail) should feel how small they are in contrast to a huge, untamed space that doesn’t care if they live or die.
Alternatively, if you want to go down a less-existential route, trekking through the wilderness should feel badass, like Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli tracking Uruks across the plains.
High Fantasy Wilderness Music
For an epic, Howard Shore-inspired journey through sweeping vistas and past snow-capped mountains, we have a genuinely great playlist from Skoompa Scamp.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a journey of exploration through a fantasy world without throwing in some of the Skyrim soundtrack with all of its beautifully orchestrated strings and brass.
And lastly, we have another playlist by Blue Turtle for yet more epic tinged with whimsy.
Low/Weird Fantasy Wilderness Music
Taking a slightly darker, stranger approach to the wilderness means we are firmly in the realm of dungeon synth and ambient metal now.
There’s a bunch of great music out there on the r/dungeonsynth subreddit, but one of my favorites is The Rise of the Spectre by Old Tower.
It’s just dripping with spooky organ synths and minimalist percussion that makes creeping through a dark forest or across a desolate moor all the spookier.
Also, we have the OST for The Green Knight by Daniel Hart, which might as well be a dungeon synth album. Haunting, desolate, amazing.
Then, we have some seriously atmospheric ancient Slavic folk music and creepy ambient synth by Burzum.
And lastly, my favorite thing to slap on while I’m running these days: Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull by Earth – some great, plodding stoner metal, perfect for uncharted terrain.
Heading down into “the dungeon” is your chance to amp up the tension and the weirdness to really emphasize that your PCs are somewhere very unfriendly.
High Fantasy Dungeons
For the high-fantasy section, we’ve got a few great pulls – some excellent, dark, ambient playlists that are reminiscent of all the best incidental orchestration from films like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Mummy.
Low/Weird Fantasy Dungeons
Ok, now onto the truly creepy stuff. We have the original soundtrack from the excellent side-scrolling, permadeath-riddled lovecraftian dungeon crawler Darkest Dungeon to kick things off.
Then, for something a little stranger, we have Sentinel of Dark Rituals by Galgenbach – a great, anxiously exotic dungeon synth album from earlier this year.
From the vaults of more classic dungeon synth we have the charmingly retro blend of chiptune synths and pulp fantasy weirdness that is Elric – perfect if you want to give your dungeon a real taste of the 1980s, not to mention early FPS games like Doom and Quake.
Lastly, dipping into the world of drone and ambient metal, we have the fuzzy, grimy, ethereal alien landscapes of Pyroclasts by SUN 0))).
Perfect for caverns filled with psychedelic fungus, howling winds whipping through demon-infested demiplanes, and tombs housing the restless dead.
Because combat in D&D 5e (or whatever edition of the game you’re playing – B/X till I die!) tends to last for just four rounds on average and is probably the most changeable state of gameplay, I’m going to do my soundtrack recommendations a little differently.
I’ve got long compilation recommendations for both High and Low/Weird fantasy moods, which you can happily just stick on at the start of a boss fight or long combat encounter and let it ride, but I’ve chosen a few specific, shorter songs to suit each mood.
In Praise of Taiko Drums
Seriously, if you ever need to soundtrack a combat and don’t have a song picked out, hit the link below for 1 hour of frenetic, high-energy Japanese war drums.
I’ve used a similar compilation of Taiko drumming before, and it’s a virtually guaranteed way to get your players hyped without drawing focus away from combat.
Dance of the Demons | 1 Hour of Japanese War Drums (鬼の踊り) – Click Here.
Alternately, any of the original soundtracks for Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies are pretty much perfect for a fight.
High Fantasy Combat Music
Channeling all the best bits from classic fantasy films like Lord of the Rings and Conan, high-fantasy combat music is all about sweeping orchestral arrangements and powerful percussion.
If your players don’t mind a very recognizable theme for their battles, some blessed soul has extended the Helm’s Deep battle theme from The Two Towers to be an hour long.
For some archetypically D&D battle music, the YouTube channel Adventurer’s Music Pack has some great stuff, too.
Speaking of recognizable themes, the Agni Kai track from Avatar: The Last Airbender is some of the most perfect duelling music that exists.
And lastly, there’s a great playlist someone made by combining all the combat music from Lord of the Rings, The Witcher Three, and Darkest Dungeon (as well as a few others) for hours of high-octane battle.
Low/Weird Fantasy Combat Music
And now we’re basically in the realm of awesome metal and 80s psychedelia.
For starters, my favorite playlist that hits all the right, dark, riffy notes that I want from a good combat song is the WARPLAND (another tabletop RPG that’s unabashedly heavy-metal inspired) playlist.
There are two original songs by the game’s creator, Gavriel Quiroga, and then just a huge pile of great tracks by everyone from Electric Wizard and Los Natas to Hawkwind.
Be careful though; the playlist dips into ambience in a few places that are better suited to dungeon exploration. What I would do is have a listen through the playlist and follow tracks you like back to their original albums.
I’ve also got a few recommendations of my favorite songs for dark D&D combat here too.
And there you have it.
Hopefully, this guide can serve, at the very least, as a jumping-off point into the wonderful world of soundtracking your next game of D&D.