How to use background music in your podcast

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We hear background music all the time — in movies, on TV shows, during YouTube videos, from the funk bands that follows private eyes around, playing their theme songs. As in any other medium, thoughtfully selected, high-quality background music tracks in podcasts can clarify the emotional stakes, add momentum, signal transitions, and just make an episode more sonically pleasing.

Here, we share some tricks for selecting good background music for podcasts. We also offer an overview of music licensing, including how to use copyrighted music in podcasts. Good news: The internet offers an aural feast of royalty-free music for podcasts that you can access for a very reasonable fee.

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Why use background music?

If you got to this page through a search, you probably don’t need to be convinced that you should use background music. Click here to skip down to the how-to stuff. But in case you’re not sure why it matters, here’s the case for using background music in your podcast.

  • It provides a change of pace. Podcasts fundamentally revolve around people talking either at you or to each other, which can get a bit monotonous. A piece of music, whether a score, underscore, or theme song during the intro and outro, injects variety and new sonic texture into your podcast. Musical cues take the listener out of the world of “people talking” and signal to them that something new is happening.
  • It can do some emotional heavy lifting. Just like underscore (the music that plays during the action) in cinema, podcast music can convey emotions and raise the stakes of a situation. Podcast songs, underscore, and sound effects communicate all sorts of subtle messages to the people listening. The next time you cue up a true-crime podcast, notice how often underscore is used to build tension. It happens in nonfiction shows too — investing podcasts, for example, tend to rely on music during market reports to create a sense of momentum and urgency.
  • You can license podcast music for very reasonable rates. If you’re looking for podcast theme songs, outro music, or background music for a segment, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how affordable some of these musical pieces can be. This is particularly true of royalty-free tracks, which only require a one-time licensing fee, or copyright-free tracks, which don’t require fees at all.

Where can I find background music for podcasts?

It is refreshingly easy to find the perfect piece of music for your podcast. Whether you need podcast intro music (aka a theme song), underscore, or an ending jingle, you can find music in a royalty-free music library — or in a Creative Commons music library, which offers songs free of charge. Here are six great sources for sourcing podcast background music in a way that adheres to copyright laws.

  • SongsForPodcasters. SongsForPodcasters licenses copyrighted songs and sound cues using an à la carte model, and specializes in micro-licenses. These are simple, highly limited licenses that only cover the use of music on a certain number of platforms. The service also uses a proprietary search function that quickly matches you to the kinds of songs you’re looking for, and offers transparent pricing so you’ll always know exactly how much you have to pay. If you’re the kind of podcaster who values streamlined processes and minimal legalese, you’ll find a lot to like about SongsForPodcasters.
  • Epidemic Sound. If you prefer a subscription model and are searching for royalty-free music for podcasts, check out Epidemic Sound. When you subscribe, you gain access to a massive library with a multi-platform licensing deal that includes podcasting, plus video platforms like YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitch. If you pay for a year upfront, personal subscriptions come out to $9 per month and commercial subscriptions $19 per month. Month-to-month rates are slightly higher.
  • FreePD. If you have literally no budget for music, you’ll either need to find a podcast song that’s in the public domain or use Creative Commons music. For the latter, FreePD.com is a great resource. Most of the site’s listed tracks are completely free to use and require no attribution. These tracks come with a Creative Commons 0 license, which means the composer and publisher have relinquished any copyright. You’ll find fewer choices on FreePD than you would on other platforms, but it’s hard to beat the price. (Quick note about Creative Commons music: It may be copyrighted music, but it comes with free usage. Just watch out for tracks labeled CC-NC, which stands for “Creative Commons, non-commercial.” As long as the license doesn’t include the “NC” designation, you’re safe to use it.)
  • PremiumBeat. A royalty-free music library that’s curated and easy to use, PremiumBeat offers 20,000 tracks categorized by mood, context, length, and more. You’ll access your tracks via a subscription model, and $65/month gets you five monthly downloads. To help you find the perfect track for your podcast, the site offers dozens of tags that cover musical genres, moods, beats per minute (BPM), instrumentation, and more.
  • Blue Dot Sessions. If minimalist, acoustic sound is what you’re after, check out Blue Dot Sessions. The library — searchable by mood, genre, or instrument — has thousands of tracks composed and recorded by professionals at Blue Dot Studios, plus multitrack stem files (if you prefer to make your own mix). Even better, all tracks are available under Creative Commons license, though stem files require a subscription starting at $25/month. Or, for one-time projects, you can opt for project licenses on a sliding scale, and license only the music you need.
  • Envato Elements. If you blog, vlog, build websites, or direct movies along with making podcasts, you might benefit from a subscription service that offers royalty-free visual resources along with audio ones. That’s where Envato Elements comes in. For one monthly rate, currently starting at $16.50/month, you’ll get access to musical cues, sound effects, photos, video templates, graphic templates, fonts, and more.

Best practices for adding background music to a podcast

When you’re adding music to your podcast, more than anything, you want it to sound good and engage listeners. But here Kevin O’Connell, Product Specialist at Descript, shares a few best practices to keep in mind.  

  • Listen to podcasts with good sound design. Before you dive in, it never hurts to listen and learn from the pros. A few examples that come to mind are Radiolab, which is well known for its innovative sound design as it is for deep-dive journalism; Love and Radio, a first-person storytelling show that’s been experimenting with audio since 2005; and Song Exploder, in which artists dissect a famous songs layer by layer, breaking down every sound and lyric along the way.
  • Less is (usually) more. If you're new to podcasting, don't feel like you have to add a ton of music across every episode. Start with a few seconds at the intro and outro, see how that affects the mood and pacing of your show, and build from there.
  • Use music to break up scenes or segments. If you’re stuck on where to bring in background musical cues, think about transitions between different scenes or segments. Like chapter breaks or paragraph breaks between scenes in books, music can act as a sonic cue between different parts of an audio story.
  • Experiment with how music fades in and out. As you edit, Kevin recommends giving musical choices a chance to enter strong, cut out quickly, or fade in or out slowly, and see what works. Just play around — and trust your ear to find the right transition for a particular segment.
  • Choose music that doesn't compete with the voices. When layering music with narration, an interview, or other tape, go for pieces that don't overpower the voices. “Try music with instruments that live in the high frequency range and bring the volume down a touch to give the story space,” says Kevin.

How to add background music using Descript

You can easily add music tracks to a podcast in Descript. To start, select your music file from your computer, drag it into the script where you want it to start, and that’s it. Music is added to your podcast edit. You can even pre-select some of the script, then drag and drop the music file directly onto that selection to auto-fit the length of your selection. From there you can manipulate the background music — make volume changes, add fades in and out, or even add a feature called ducking. At any point, right-click on your audio clip and choose “Show Clip Inspector” to adjust the volume and panning, or add effects like reverb, EQ, filters, compression, and distortion. Watch this video for more details about how to add music.

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