How to Choose Music for Your Podcast

Spoiler: It’s not about the music. It’s about the feelings.

Spoiler: It’s not about the music. It’s about the feelings.
The marimba: podcasting’s most over-represented musical instrument. Photo by Arne Eigenfeldt via Flickr

Podcasting is one of the few places where the sound designer/mixer is often responsible for choosing music. In film or television, the music is selected or composed long before the show lands on our desks. This presents an interesting and potentially very fulfilling challenge.

Music is, of course, incredibly subjective. When a radio DJ (or its computer-based counterpart) chooses music, their goal is to keep listeners’ ears tuned in for radio ads. When a club DJ picks tracks, they want to keep the dancefloor bumping. In these cases, it’s the music itself that does all the heavy lifting, and it stands as the only element responsible for success. Well, cheap drinks and flashy lights aside.

In podcasting, it’s about the story. While we labour over our music choices, we have to keep in mind that its purpose is not to entertain the listener or keep bodies on the dancefloor. Its purpose is to support the emotions in the story.

I absolutely love listening to the choices my colleagues at Pacific Content make when it comes to music selection. While our tastes and choices vary wildly, we all strive for, and try to achieve, the same goals.

I never listen to another sound designer’s episode and think, “That’s exactly what I would have chosen!” Still, their musical choices always end up giving me the same feelings that I would have sought to impress on listeners myself.

I would break down the purpose of music in our shows into three categories:

1. Music that engages the listener in the story by supporting the feelings of the moment.

These music cues mirror the emotional sentiment being experienced in the story. This is about what our gut feels when we hear the song choices and is especially important in narrative storytelling. Do we want the listener to feel tension? Sadness? Contemplation? Elation? Even when our shows are more tech driven and explanatory, we can support moments of analysis, concentration, and discovery with music that feels these emotions.

2. Music that subconsciously helps the listener mark a turn in the story, or notice an important point.

My producer colleagues, who know much more about the mechanics of storytelling than I, will talk to me about “chapters”, “scenes”, “the turn”, and “signposting”. While I still haven’t mastered being able to recognize these moments from the script consistently, I do recognize that significant bits of story can benefit from an audio signpost. An effective music cue can serve as a subconscious kick in the ear to the listener, encouraging them to pay attention to this particular moment. It’s like I’m leaning into their headphones whispering “HEY, PAY ATTENTION TO THIS PART.”

3. Music that marries the subject matter and show tone to the desired audience.

While most of the music in a show should achieve this goal in some way, I’m talking mostly about the show theme. This theme or music cue typically sits under the host’s “This is PodcastX EpisodeY” introduction, and often the same cue is used in the “wherever you get your podcasts” ending that you hear on most shows. Remarkably, this is usually the only piece of music that is chosen by committee, before the show is truly in production. The production team will be given a handful of songs that we, the sound designers, think serve the tone and prospective audience of the show. Meetings will be had, and discussions will settle on a choice that represents everything we’re trying to achieve. This choice helps us set up parameters for what the rest of the score should be doing.

The astute reader will notice that I’ve focused exclusively on choosing music, as opposed to composing music. There are many incredible shows in the podcasting ecosystem that employ sound designers to compose custom music. The advantages of this approach are many. When custom music is used, the music is completely unique and all the music cues tend to compliment each other nicely, which helps the show achieve a sound that’s both unique and coherent. The length and pacing of custom music can also be easily tailored, as the composer made the elements themselves.

In our shop at Pacific Content, we use a giant pool of licensed music that we can draw from. And I do mean giant. APM Music has over 800,000 songs in their library. This means that we can be musical chameleons. We can support historical stories with period music, technological stories with electronic music, epic cinematic stories with music made for blockbusters, and NPR-style stories with marimbas.

And as daunting as it is to wade through 800,000 songs, we can use the search function to whittle it down considerably. And my favourite part is that emotional descriptions are embedded in the metadata of the library, so we can get REALLY specific about what we’re looking for. Check out these 8 recent searches by our team:

With the huge library and intuitive searching, we require much less time to get the music happening in a show than we would if we were composing. And since we edit, score, mix, and master an episode in about 3 days, time savers are incredibly useful.

My background is in music production. I owned a recording studio and helped artists make records for years. Music was the story. The goal was getting the audience to listen repeatedly. My studio colleagues and I would obsess relentlessly about the perfect snare sound. Every sonic detail was scrutinized.

In podcasting, the music plays second fiddle to the story. No one exclusively listens to the music, and for the most part, the music isn’t really meant to be noticed or consumed consciously. The goal isn’t repeated listens, and if a listener has to go back and listen again because I distracted them with a sweet snare sound, I’ve failed in supporting the story.

The best part about choosing music is the freedom that we have to play with peoples’ emotions. There is no eye candy, as in video, so our soundscape alone supports the listeners’ mental picture. And as podcast companies are pushing to pitch a bigger tent and draw in folks new to the experience, we gain the freedom of being able to push the boundaries of what is acceptable musically with humans who aren’t necessarily programmed to expect minimalist synth music or relentless marimbas. That’s pretty exciting too.

In the end, if you’re choosing or composing music for your podcast, just remember that finding a piece of music that emotionally supports your story is what matters most. Hopefully, the listener remembers being compelled to stay with the episode until the last second. If they do that (and don’t feel compelled to increase the playback speed in the process) then you will have made good choices about your music.

I chatted with my fellow sound designers (Christian Prohom, Gaetan Harris, and Chris Clark) about choosing music and thank them for contributing to this article. We also chose some of our show episodes where the music does all the things we list here especially well, check ’em out below:

Notice how the music really adds to the horror story opening?
We chose Japanese instruments and textures in this episode to really transport listeners to its setting and immerse them in the story
This episode of Choiceology recalls a harrowing incident in space, so we used space/NASA/astronaut themed sounds and 80s music to set the scene
American football is big, loud and boisterous, so we had to go for something appropriately dramatic in the intro of this episode of Remote Works
We chose creepy period music to compliment the creepy story at the heart of this episode of Why Women Kill

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