Every player has unique gameplay preferences: for instance, you might like motion blur on max, VSync off, subtitles on, your chair fully reclined, and every light in the room (aside from the display) fully dimmed. But in no area is there more room for disagreement than in the sound that accompanies your virtual adventures.
Some people don’t actually like listening to music while playing games, preferring to listen to podcasts or leave YouTube videos running in the background — but if you’re gaming online, you need focus, and non-musical content isn’t going to help with that. But what should you listen to?
What’s the perfect music for the background of your gaming session? Well, let’s look at some contenders, before ultimately detailing why the answer depends on you:
The regular in-game musical soundtrack
Sure, not every game is released with music, but most will have OSTs designed to suit the gameplay. Some are even so memorable that they become entrenched in pop culture, as evidenced by Jeremy Soule’s work on the Elder Scrolls series (bizarrely, he may not be returning for the next one), or, to go back farther, Koji Kondo’s iconic work on the Mario series).
Sometimes you’ll get clunkers resulting from poorly-chosen composers or last-minute scrambles to throw in generic library music, so it depends on the title — but if you’re playing a big budget title with a long development behind it, you might just find that sticking with the intended soundtrack is the best way to stay immersed.
Something high-tempo with pulse-pounding intensity
If you’re playing a heated FPS with obvious character models (imagine a frenetic round of Overwatch, perhaps), or an isometric MOBA-type game, then alertness is key. You need your observation skills amped up as much as possible, which means an elevated heart rate. Here’s why: in times of stress, we’re able to discern images more quickly.
To ramp up the pressure and max-out your focus, you want to listen to something with an urgent tempo and relentless rhythm. Variability isn’t ideal, because it allows your focus to waver. If you’re into heavy metal, or hard rock, then you shouldn’t have issues finding something suitable in your library. The intensity will tire you out, so game in bursts.
Synthwave: bass-heavy, relaxing, atmospheric
The synthwave genre was built by people who grew up with video games, and it now provides perfect musical accompaniment for countless gaming experiences. Synthwave isn’t distracting — it fades into the background, but adds a tremendous amount of atmosphere that helps you compose your thoughts and stay relaxed.
Think about something like the Hotline Miami soundtrack — it keeps your head bobbing, and keeps your eyes fixed on the gameplay loop (which, of course, allows for easy repetition). Why would you ever want to be relaxed while gaming online? Because not everything demands lightning-quick reflexes.
Some games are wars of attrition, and you lose because you lose your composure and make obvious mistakes. Take online casino games, for instance — poker depends that you know when to fold, and if you become tilted, you might start making wild choices and blow your chances. Synthwave will possibly keep you calm enough to maintain your composure.
Whatever you associate with success
We all have different musical preferences, and they aren’t simply sonic — they also depend on our experiences. If you have great memories of times spent listening to a particular song, that song might bring about feelings of optimism and confidence that it wouldn’t evoke in anyone else. If so, lean into it, even if it isn’t technically a great fit for the situation.
For instance, maybe you really like a particular slow-paced song that grants you an intense focus because of some historic association. Don’t give any thought to how it might sound to others. If it gives you the best shot at winning, use it.
No music at all, with game audio cranked up
Some games just don’t go well with background music. The best example I can think of is Rainbow Six Siege. While games can take some time, they can easily end in the blink of an eye — one shot might be enough to take you out for the round. This means you have to be careful, paying close attention to everything around you.
And in-game audio is a massive part of getting a competitive edge. With a great pair of headphones and the quality on maximum, you can hear the enemy moving outside, and lay a trap for them (or simply be ready to ambush them). With music on, you won’t hear that movement, and you’ll be taken completely by surprise. Game over.
So, what’s the perfect music to listen to while gaming? Well, there’s no such thing. It depends on the game, your preferences, and the circumstances. You can make smart choices, though, based on the points above. And remember that it comes down to performance. Test different types of music out to see which one gets you playing the best, then try sticking with it. It might be your new secret weapon.