Listen to the Sound of Music | Tool Time with Musical Instruments in 5E D&D
In our continuing discussion of tools and proficiencies in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons it’s time we talked about a craft many appreciate and even more confuse with the existing Performance skill. Grab your kalimba and take a seat in the orchestra because we’re talking about instruments. As a quick note tool proficiencies are generally nebulous in 5E D&D and their applications vary depending on your Dungeon Master. These posts are meant as guides for those who don’t know where to start but many DMs already have established rules for how tools proficiencies work in tandem with skills. So make sure to ask how tool proficiencies work in your own games.
5E D&D tool time – musical instruments
As the elf brings the flute to his lips the tavern fills with haunting sobriety and he recounts his wordless ballad. The dwarf drums a complex beat on nearby tables and objects, freestyling a rap to disarm the haughty noble. A halfling strums a folksy earworm on her guitar, spinning a song of friendship as the crackling fire and surrounding forest quiet to listen.
Instruments are instrumental when it comes to music and if there’s a musically gifted player at the gaming table they might even perform in character. Being able to play an instrument is one of those secret talents people possess more often than I tend to expect, and every time it’s a pleasant treat to hear the person’s expression through music.
Whether recounting the ballad of the party’s current foe or simply spinning a somber tune like Uncle Iroh’s Leaves on the Vine from ATLA, incorporating music and performance into characters is a great way to showcase their individuality even if the player can’t actually play an instrument. Words and descriptions can do just as much to convey music when describing an instrumental performance.
Unlocking new prospects for Performance
One of the first things I hear when people argue tool proficiencies are superfluous in 5E D&D is DMs pointing to the Performance skill. Why can’t a character trained in Performance do just that: perform? Isn’t this all that’s involved when it comes to the skill?
In short, no. If you want to see how I treat performance in my own games, check out our D&D Skills 101 post on Performance. The gist of the post is Performance involves a lot more than just music. Oratory to vast crowds absolutely counts as performance as does acting, cultural ritual, polite manners and many other things. Music is only a single aspect.
While it’s true training in Performance implies a character can carry a tune in a bucket it would not dictate they can, say, play the piano proficiently. Playing an instrument involves a degree of hand-eye coordination far less intuitive than adjusting the pitch of your voice. Proficiency with a musical instrument allows a character to play instruments of that type proficiently. This goes beyond singing and general performance. Therefore a person trained in Performance might be able to sing or even make noises with their body to mimic use of an instrument but they would not necessarily be able to use the actual instrument.
For my own games I group instruments by types — percussion (drums and such), woodwinds (meaning flutes, piccolos, etc.), brasswinds (saxophone, trumpet, etc.), keys & hammers (pianos, pipe organs, dulcimers, kalimbas, etc.) and strings (guitars, basses, viols, etc.), allowing for choice outliers like bagpipes and whatnot. The reason for this is players of one type of instrument can generally intuit how to play instruments of a similar type due to their previous training. This just makes sense in my mind as I’ve never met someone who plays the violin who couldn’t also figure out a viola or a cello.
The main idea with instrument proficiency is it grants new options for an existing skill, much like how a character who is good at Sleight of Hand wouldn’t necessarily be good at using thieves’ tools. It’s all about expansion of a skill.
Instrument proficiency can also grant proficiency bonus without necessarily being proficient in Performance. This would probably look like someone who can play the piano but cannot sing or someone who might be able to make a rhythm with drums and rap but they would never be able to do something like speech. A character could probably also compose or improvise music with proficiency in an instrument simply because they understand the nuances of harmony and likely understand how to make a particular tune sound better with embellishment.
Musical instruments and skills
Animal Handling. While it could be argued the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin was of a magical bard it can’t be denied music has an effect on animals. Perhaps a character uses music to relate to animals in new ways, or possibly a character can mimic animal calls using their instrument? This skill and tool combo can get wild really quickly — pun intended!
Arcana. More than merely Performance, proficiency with musical instruments would likely grant a character insight into bardic magic using their instruments and they would probably even understand at least peripherally why bardic magic works the way it does.
Athletics. Yes, Athletics. You know those marching bands that play instruments while performing complex choreography or traveling long distances? This would absolutely apply. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: Alternatives for this might see a DM calling for a Constitution (Performance) check, or a musical instrument check using the character’s proficiency bonus and Constitution modifier.]
History. Obviously this one would likely let a character know more about the history of the invention and evolution of instruments they can play. The character might also have knowledge of the history of a particular piece of music or a history of techniques for playing their instrument.
Investigation. Another fairly universally useful skill Investigation would likely let characters find secret compartments in instruments, identify a particular instrument upon hearing it or even let them recognize wounds caused by instruments.
Nature. This might grant knowledge into how an instrument is made, what materials are used, where to get said materials and how to acquire them without ruining them.
Religion. Many religions utilize instruments and for more than worship. Gongs and bells might be used to evoke a spiritual atmosphere for meditation. Choirs might attempt to inspire holy warrior on the field of battle, all to the beat of war drums, and what Trickery Domain religion wouldn’t thrive off of musical pranks?
Stealth. With Stealth a character might know how to play their instrument subtly or quietly, without attracting attention to themselves or they might even be able to hide amidst a band.
What do you think?
What part do musical instruments play in the cultures of your 5E D&D world? Do any races have instruments or other tools unique to them? Let us know all of your thoughts in the comments!