Magic: It's what separates the guys like us from those other people. You know -- the ones with no magic. Now, what spells you choose for your bard may be a matter of personal taste or what the campaign dictates or a mixture of both! With that in mind, let's go over the bardic spell list spell level by spell level and touch upon what spells your bard character may want to add to his repertoire!
Prestidigitation and Other 0-Level Spells
A 1st-level bard begins the game with a +0 attack bonus and access to the wonderful world of 0-level spells, which are also called cantrips. Not the strongest combo in history, but you do get better at both spells and attacking. (Of course, so does everybody else.) Beyond the fact that prestidigitation is cool (a single casting of prestidigitation is good for an hour of minor magic tricks that can impress the townsfolk or kill time on a rainy day) and fits the bard theme really well, there's just not much to be said about 0-level spells. So, let's look at the other spells!
As a 2nd-level character, the bard finally begins to see some real magic, and that's when he gains access to his 1st-level spells. The bard spell list has six levels of spells (gained at levels 2, 4, 7, 10, 13, and 16), or seven if you count the 0-level spells, which some people do, but I generally don't. As a 16th-level bard, you've topped out the bard spell list with access to 6th-level bard spells.
Second Bard Level (1st-Level Spells): A 2nd-level bard picks up 1st-level bard spells, and you'll find that there are a ton of good ones. Charm person, expeditious retreat, feather fall, mage armor, message, and sleep are all great spells with a load of uses. Indeed, as a 2nd-level bard your biggest problem will be picking which ones to take. I like charm person and expeditious retreat, but not having feather fall or mage armor when you need it is always frustrating (and usually damaging). Also, sleep, depending on what kind of campaign you're in, can be devastating and rather hard to pass up. Beyond these spells I have found a few that are almost as useful and worth picking up later as you gain more spells. Alarm is great, but given that you're a 2nd-level bard, its duration of 2 hours per caster level means it won't last a full night. So, you may want to put this one off for a few levels. Cure light wounds is also useful, but hopefully you have a cleric somewhere nearby doing the healing for you. The party relying on a bard for healing may not be doomed, but they're not in particularly good shape either.
Fourth Bard Level (2nd-Level Spells): While this level has some nice stuff, you won't find a lot to jump up and down about. Blindness is a good spell that I think gets overlooked a lot, and you gain access to hold person before the wizard and sorcerer do. Invisibility, glitterdust, and mirror image are all good spells but for the most part they're just stuff you do while you're waiting to get 3rd-level spells. The exception to this is sound burst. First off, it's sound burst, and you're a bard: the two are just made for each other. Second, the cleric class is the only other class that has access to it, so there is some uniqueness to it, which is always fun. Third, it is the first direct attack spell that you get as a bard. Fourth, it's pretty potent. Sound burst hits a 10-foot radius area causing 1d8 points of sonic damage to all creatures. The creatures then need to make a Will save or be stunned for 1 round. A wizard at the same level has no spells that do damage to multiple targets and her most damaging spell, flaming sphere, allows a Reflex save to avoid all damage.
Seventh Bard Level (3rd-Level Spells): This should be the glory level of the bard. The bard 3rd-level spells are potent, including such favorites as haste, invisibility sphere, displacement, slow, and wind wall. The bard also gains greater magic weapon, which he can then cast upon his arrows, giving them all a +2 bonus, which allows him to become something closely related to a legitimate threat in combat. Yes, these should be good days for the bard, but unfortunately seventh level is a little late to be coming in to your own. The wizard has had access to haste since 5th level, sorcerers pick it up at 6th, and the same is true of all the spells listed above, and a few others. While this is one of the best bard levels and the point where he really comes into his own, a lot of the thunder gets stolen from that accomplishment because, in comparison to the other classes, it feels more like the bard is catching up.
Despite that, 7th level remains one of the best levels for the bard. It's only drawback being that it's . . . not quite as good as 7th level somewhere else. The only other spell I'll mention specifically for this level is summon monster III. This isn't really a bard specific thing, because bards progress up the summon monster chain of spells just as clerics, sorcerers, and wizards do, but it's my opinion that at summon monster III the spell turns the corner and the creature you get starts to become as valuable as the spell slot it is taking up. Of course, this is largely a matter of opinion and personal taste since many arguments can be made either way, but for me the clincher is that this is the level where you can summon celestial dire badgers and fiendish dire weasels, both of which are fun to say and even more fun to find miniatures for. By the time you get summon creature IV, the creature is worth it, but your cleric, sorcerer, and wizard friends will all have summon creature V. Which brings us to . . .
Tenth Bard Level (4th-Level Spells): Some great defensive and counter abilities come into play at this level: Break enchantment, detect scrying, and dismissal are good spells. Improved invisibility is great because it allows you to attack from invisibility, and you also gain access to the spell shout, which creates a cone that deals 2d6 points of sonic damage and deafens for 2d6 rounds. While not as cool as sound burst, and thought it comes six levels later, it is a sonic attack, and I do like to stay in theme. Another spell you pick up at this level is modify memory. This is a bard-specific spell and that's reason enough to pick it up, but its effects are pretty impressive, as well. In addition to the things you might expect, such as it allowing you to erase or change the details of up to 5 minutes of someone's memory, it also causes someone to recall accurately the exact details of something they've experienced, like the exact words of a conversation they heard or details about something they've seen. Adventurers like your bard and his companions sometimes need details about conversations, castle defenses, dungeon layouts, and other kinds of stuff like this. There are a million uses for this spell, and every bard that makes it to 10th level should pick it up.
Beyond 10th-Level (5th- and 6th-Level Spells): The 5th- and 6th-level bard spell lists are shorter than the levels before, so I'll cover them both at the same time. In 5th-level spells, you're really looking for something to stand out, and it's just not there. Nightmare is the only spell that deals damage (1d10), and even it does so in a somewhat roundabout way (through nightmares). Mislead, mirage arcana, persistent image, and false vision are decent spells, but only mislead is likely to see use all that often. I'm not sure when it was the bard became an illusionist, but that school is where a big chunk of the 5th-level spells come from. For 6th-level spells you can find a good number of popular, powerful spells. Geas, mass haste, mass suggestion, plane shift, project image, and repulsion are all powerhouse spells. This should be another level where the bard should really shine, but again it's dampened by the fact that he is getting these spells so late in the game. Many of these spells were available four or five levels ago to other classes, which while it doesn't make them any less impressive, is a little depressing when I look at it from that perspective.
Wide World of Magic
There's a stack of supplements out for the d20 system, as you all know. Many of them contain spells, and some of those spells are for the bard. Song and Silence has a 1st-level spell called joyful noise, which negates silence, and as all bard spells automatically include a verbal component, this seemed like a worthwhile spell to mention. Magic of Faerūn includes a 2nd-level spell called cloud of bewilderment, which stuns and blinds targets for 1d6 rounds. Some DMs allow spells from supplements, and some don't, but if yours does, these are a couple of great spells to pick up.
Bard fan J.R. wrote in to point out the 5th-level bard spell improvisation from Song and Silence is worth a mention, and I couldn't agree more. The spell grants the caster twice his level in +1 "bonus points" that he can add to any attack roll, skill check, or ability check that he makes over the next few rounds (1 round/level). J.R. points out that a 13th-level bard can cast this spell and add a +26 to his next performance roll, in addition to his ranks, ability, and other modifiers, and really wow the crowd. I'd go one further and recommend casting this spell before making a Craft check to write a truly epic song or poem that other bards will be singing for years to come.
About the Author
Erik Olsen has read your home-brewed game, he has heard about your character, he has seen your LARP costume, he didn't touch your dice, he has painted miniatures just like yours, and he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.