The Power of Podcast Music
When creators are making a podcast, they've probably thought long and hard about subject matter and content, and hopefully have come to a perspective that is uniquely theirs. But regardless of the subject matter or genre, there is one addition that really lifts podcasts, and that's music — the right music, of course.
The right music can make a podcast:
- Better paced
- More energetic
- More emotionally engaging
- Clearly located in a time, place, or genre
- More professional
Good music does several things at once, and the effects of music are intertwined. Ideally, podcast music will do everything listed above. Nevertheless, it's worth considering all these elements separately. Let's look at the details of each category.
One of the most important aspects of choosing music for a podcast is deciding what kind of a pace its creators want. Music provides much-needed variation for listeners who can easily tire of nonstop dialogue.
Particularly if a podcast involves a lot of information, the best podcast music lets listeners reflect on what they've been listening to and then move on to the next topic. If it involves different segments or a balance of interviews and monologues by a host (or dialogues, if it has co-hosts) then music can act to help sandwich those segments together.
There is an art to finding music that is both a palette cleanser and a subtle introduction or bridge to the next segment. Too much transition music and listeners can quickly lose the thread of the show and — worst-case scenario — stop listening. Suspense and continued interest are critically important in pulling listeners through longer podcasts. This is particularly true if the podcast needs to sustain listeners' interest in an interview topic through ads or if a guest takes some non-streamlined conversational detours.
Sometimes, it's just a bar of melodic, simple music that's needed to stitch interview segments together. Even a single guitar chord or percussion solo can be what keeps things moving.
The podcast, Mayim Bialik's Breakdown, deals with heavy issues like mental illness. To keep the show bopping along, it uses short bursts of retro-sounding, upbeat vocals between segments. That helps keep the show's tone sunnier, but it also keeps it moving along at a brisk clip. This is helpful with subject matter that could threaten to get too heavy or slow-moving.
Additionally, the show's interviews are slightly edited, but part of the show's charm is its comprehensive in-depth interview approach. The downside to that approach is that the pace could potentially dip. That's where breezy, well-paced music ups the show's tempo and keeps it bopping along, balancing meaty interviews with entertainment value. Part of the show's promise is that it can make difficult subject matter accessible and easy to listen to.
Similarly, the NPR show Radiolab is an educational science-based show. It uses music and sound effects to keep the audience's interest engaged and keep things moving, lest listeners feel overwhelmed by all the information. In information-based podcasts, it's all about a balance between being challenging but also inviting. Music can make all the difference in keeping audiences engaged.
In fictional podcasts, the same imperative to keep the pace up applies. Not everything needs to be "fast," but it should be engaging. Every story should have moments where it slows down to let listeners contemplate or pause to take in the subject. But it should always feel controlled by the storyteller as they guide listeners through the experience.
Popular narrative shows like Edith! use music in a number of skillful ways, including pacing. Edith! is a funny take on the true story of First Lady Edith Wilson. It's a period piece, which can be alienating to some listeners, so its musical choices are geared to making the show feel contemporary and well-paced.
Ominous, mysterious shows like Gimlet Media's Homecoming use music to create an air of suspense. Pace is of equal concern in shows like these, playing an enormous role in generating mystery.
Regardless of a podcast's genre, good music — and its occasional, judicious absence — can be used to keep listeners thoroughly engaged. It helps to modulate listeners' emotional reactions and keeps them on the hook to get to the next twist.
The right, brief selection can give a lot of energy and mileage to a podcast, letting information sink in while also keeping the mood bright. Studies show that music can boost dopamine levels, making listeners happier. But dopamine is also associated with focus and concentration. Keeping the energy up could lead to an increased number of engaged and responsive listeners.
Radiolab is excellent at using music to add energy to subject matter that could feel subdued or heavy.
Similarly, the popular New York Times podcast, The Daily, uses a short, jazzy, percussive number at the start. The Daily is a summary of the day's news events, which can be bleak or depressing. It uses short transitional passages of music to make the show listenable and provide compelling energy. It can be difficult for listeners to absorb a litany of unmodulated depressing world events. The Daily uses snippets of light percussion to keep things moving, which fits the show's tone of engagement and curiosity.
Two points are relevant here.
1. Shows don't need a lot of music to keep their energy up.
Sometimes less is more when it comes to transition music for podcasts. Transition music acts as a short, punchy bridge between segments, to let information sink in and provide a breather before the next piece of important information.
Too much music can swamp a show rather than support its message and raise its energy levels. If you're wondering how to make it your own, the answer usually has to do with the way the music is edited and placed, so that it interacts with spoken content in a fun, energizing way.
2. Transition music should support, not fight a show's tone.
It would be ridiculous (or at least highly unusual) for news shows to use heavy metal or punk rock as background music. Context always matters, so in a news context, "high energy" means using genres like light classical or jazz. Most podcast music tends to be fun but unobtrusive. Some shows use music with lyrics, particularly in introductions, but most podcast music is instrumental and simple.
The music on Mayim Bialik's Breakdown is sunny and upbeat with a retro vibe. It allows the show to maintain a certain level of cheer and energy while navigating potentially darker subject matter. The use of such high-energy music assures listeners that while the show may navigate some darker currents, it will ultimately resolve them optimistically and provide an affirmative moral.
"High energy" is relative to a show's desired tone and focus. My Favorite Murder is a popular chat podcast focusing on true crimes and the two hosts' funny takes on them, but it starts with a brief snatch of a folk-inflected song played by one of the hosts. It gives the show an intimate, reflective feel that grounds it before it takes off into more out-there subject matter. Other shows may be more subdued in their approach but even if they're ominous mysteries or hard science-fiction speculative fiction, they still need to sustain energy.
"High energy" can also refer to the way a podcast sets its tone and pace in its introductory theme. Good podcast theme music — particularly in the introduction — helps orient listeners and provides a little thrill that their favorite show is starting. Ideally, it also makes them want to tune in and look forward to the next installment. Listeners love hearing brief, familiar music every week when they tune in. Well-chosen music can get them in the mood to enjoy a podcast well before its content begins.
Studies suggest that music becomes memorable based on the associations it invokes. When selecting music, podcast creators should consider their audience and the kind of music that could evoke meaningful associations for them.
Energy is closely related to the next topic, the bullseye every podcaster is aiming for — emotional engagement.
Anyone who goes to the movies, watches TV, or listens to podcasts knows that music is key to emotional engagement. Music engages at least 13 distinct emotions, which have been mapped by scientists at UC Berkeley. These run the gamut from "dreamy" to "outraged." Even if creators are determined for their podcast to be as mild and informative as possible, it's still out to engage emotions, like "calm, relaxing, serene," or "beautiful."
No matter what a podcast's nominal subject or genre is, it has to be emotionally engaging.
In an interview, Ira Glass, creator of the long-running hit podcast This American Life, said:
The story is a machine for empathy. In contrast to logic or reason, a story is about emotion that gets staged over a sequence of dramatic moments, so you empathize with the characters without really thinking about it too much. It is a really powerful tool for imagining yourself in other people's situations.
"Story" includes more narrative formats than podcast creators might initially realize, but ultimately every podcast is telling a story. Even The Daily is a show that presents the news as a kind of narrative, making listeners feel as if they understand the psychology of the biggest characters in the daily news, as well as identifying with the show's host, Michael Barbaro.
Every podcast hinges on characters that listeners get attached to as they follow the character's journey — whether that journey is fictional or real. And every podcast has to draw listeners in, making them feel like they understand a story's stakes (i.e., what its characters stand to lose or gain).
In a good podcast, every element is used economically, whether that's spoken information, sound design, or music. It's always worth experimenting as a creator to see how much music — or how little — a podcast needs to create an emotional connection to listeners. The right music can create an immediate bridge to listeners and make a show much more engaging. Minimal, elegant use of music that can draw listeners in is ideal. It just has to cast a spell.
On Being with Krista Tippett uses haunting, repetitive, simple cello music by Zoe Keating, which is emotionally engaging and invites listeners to enter into a spiritual frame of mind. That's perfect for the show's subject matter — "deep thinking and moral imagination," per its website, a show that encourages its listeners to tune in and consider big questions. The music helps to cultivate a tone of mystery and wonder.
Ideas around spirituality can be discussed, but sometimes it's better to conjure an atmosphere of spirituality through music first. That gets listeners in the right mindset, taking their thoughts off the traffic they're stuck in or any other distractions that might prevent them from getting into the world of the show. Zoe Keating's music preexisted the show, but clearly the show's producers thought it was an excellent choice to set the podcast's tone: searching and meditative. A few bars are all that's needed to establish the show's feel.
Great podcast music also helps transition listeners in and out of the world of the show, which On Being does well. If podcast creators are unsure about how to execute transitions, they might consider the question, "What is the best track-to-track transition on an album?" Back when albums were themselves complete artworks, part of the art of creating one involved moving listeners smoothly from one track to the next, creating an organic whole.
Great artists like The Beatles and David Bowie were particularly attuned to such transitions. So when looking for inspiration, listen to a complete classic album. They're masterful at shifting mood and emotion so that each piece stands out but also contributes to a seamless whole. Podcasts can manage a similar trick, with each episode (or segment) standing alone, but contributing to a bigger picture of their subject, a la This American Life.
Clearly Located in a Time, Place, or Genre
Even though every podcast is unique, good music helps situate it simply and clearly in listeners' minds. As mentioned above, there are typical kinds of music associated with genres like news and current affairs. For more searching shows, it helps to cast a bit of a wider net to see what works. Maybe spare techno is right for a show about the challenges of 21st century life, or maybe it's Zoe Keating's cello.
It's not always worth fighting expectations. Rather, it can be better to know what genre a podcast fits into and then find ways to distinguish it within that genre.
"Time" and "place" may at first seem more relevant to the world of fiction than non-fiction, but if a podcast were set in France or Asia, for example, it could be helpful to use music to set the scene. Similarly, if it were a period piece, or taking a rapid detour into the past, music could be used as an economical bridge to make that transition work.
Given that many podcast listeners tune in while they drive or do things around the house, there's a chance they may need to be oriented to the podcast's genre and setting. Some short, highly evocative music can be the way to economically bring them into the podcast's world.
Every listener has a shorthand of music that conveys "western," "sci-fi", "comedy," etc. Just as every picture is worth a thousand words, every well-chosen bar of music can evoke time, place, and genre.
Sometimes it's not just about making a podcast perfect. Improving potentially rough vagaries of production is also important.
Particularly during the pandemic, many podcasts have been produced from home studios, perhaps with less than optimal recording conditions.
These conditions might include:
- Zoom conversations or cellphones used for interviews
- DIY editing and mixing
- Consumer-grade mics
- Poor-quality Wifi with blips and delays
- Outside noise like traffic and passing planes that can't be tuned out
While listeners are forgiving of such technical missteps, they still want some assurance that they're listening to a professional-grade podcast. Polished, professionally-recorded transition and introduction music plays a large role in making podcasts sound smoother and as though they have a higher budget.
In the case of a news show, technical imperfections are unavoidable, so music is necessary to make a show feel smooth and coherent.
Go-to genres for these purposes are instrumental tracks, usually classical, light bossa nova-type beats, or smooth jazz. Other kinds of music and instrumentation could also be considered. Ultimately, creators will likely undergo a process of trial and error to find what makes their podcast really pop, while bearing the needs of their listeners in mind.
Podcast Sound Design: Another Possibility
Sometimes, the best podcast intro music is not music at all. Podcast intro sound effects can be a great way to lead listeners in. The line between music and sound effects can be a fine one. Percussive beats or xylophone dings could fall into either category.
If time is short and listeners need to be brought in as quickly as possible, consider spare but evocative sound effects to set the tone rather than music. For example, if it's a tech-based show, some blips and computer sounds could be just as effective as conventional theme music.
The Worst Podcast Music
Without naming names, the worst podcast music does the opposite of everything described above.
- Instead of bringing listeners in, it repels them.
- Instead of improving a show's pace, bad music slows the podcast down.
- Instead of making its genre and tone clear, it's confusing and inappropriate.
- Instead of making it feel emotionally engaging, it's distancing.
- And instead of covering technical issues, the music is badly produced, slapdash, and poorly mixed.
In the end, a podcaster's ears are their best tool. Audio creators should beware of music that simply doesn't feel right for their show. Maybe it signals the wrong genre, maybe it's poorly produced, or maybe it's just hard to listen to.
How To Find the Best Music for Podcasts?
By now, it should be clear that a great podcast without great podcast background music simply doesn't exist.
Hopefully, this discussion helps creators answer the all-important question of when to use music, as well as how to make it feel unique to their project. Above all, the best podcast music helps a show create its own identity and encourages listeners to keep engaging with it. And judicious use of music helps podcast creators make that music their own.
But where can an audio creator find the best music for their show that helps with pace, tone, and emotional impact without being unaffordable or being tied up with copyrights? The answer lies in the royalty-free selections available on StockMusic.net.
The tracks on StockMusic.net have been created by top musicians under a royalty-free license. for creators. For creators to license music for podcasts, they just need to pay a one-off licensing fee, after which they can use the tracks as many times as they like.
These tracks are searchable by genre, tone, tempo, and instrumentation, making the search for great podcast music a pleasurable one. So don't wait — get looking today, and find the music to help you craft a podcast that's truly memorable.