The Meaning Behind Your Podcast Theme Song

All the factors to consider when choosing the music that represents your show and brand

. 5 min read

All the factors to consider when choosing the music that represents your show and brand
As the actor, musician, and artist Martin Mull once put it “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” In other words, it doesn’t make sense to write about music critically — it’s evocative; a perplexing art form, and difficult to bind by logic alone.

So here we go dancing about architecture again…

Let’s talk about theme music.

With some podcasts, the theme song might be the only piece of music used in the show. Our shows usually use music throughout, but the theme song is often the only piece of music appearing in every episode. Music can help propel the story, support the emotional content, or just keep the listener more engaged. Choosing and placing music throughout an episode is an art that can also be a bit of a difficult exercise at times.

But the FIRST piece of music we choose for a show is the theme song. We like to get this process happening at the very beginning of pre-production on a new show. The show’s theme song hopefully becomes a part of the show intro that subconsciously helps the listener develop a relationship with the show. When it starts playing, in a perfect world, the listener should feel like they’re coming home.

So, how do you find the perfect theme song? There are many factors to consider when making your choice:

The Target Audience

Our editorial and audience development teams will spend time working with our clients to identify who the show is for. This work can also inform the musical neighbourhoods that our audience hangs out in. We recently worked on a show about digital civil liberties. We assumed a show about the internet should be supported by electronic music. We were wrong. The audience was described as educated, 40+, west coast, civil rights activists. They wanted Haight-Ashbury instead of synthesized circuitry. A more laid-back 70’s vibe. Understanding exactly who the show is for will help you find the right theme.

The Host

Choosing a theme song before you have a host is practically useless. Without exception, it’s the host’s voice that will be bobbing and weaving around the bars and measures of your theme song. If those two things don’t work together, all is lost. In pre-production, if we haven’t written any script yet, I’ll get the host to read anything at all — copy from the client’s website, a grocery list, or an obscure audio text, just to start playing with theme songs against their voice. Trying to force a trap song to work under a mid-western academic host voice will not provide any cohesion to your show.

Show Tone

Early in the production process, the editorial team will start identifying what the tone of the show will be. Will it be serious or light-hearted, upbeat or reflective, curious or direct, relaxed or agitated? I love when word-clouds start forming that help define the feelings we hope to imbue in the listeners. Those word clouds can be surprisingly useful in finding the right song for the job.

Brand Voice

This factor may be more aspirational. We typically choose the best theme song for the podcast and audience, and since the client/brand is a production partner, their voice is already present based on the show that they’re interested in making. But, as sonic branding becomes more widely adopted, we’re starting to see more clients who are thoughtfully considering how to ensure that every version of themselves has a common sonic musical thread woven into all of their content. This is very exciting for branded podcasts. We always encourage a light brand touch to our clients. The podcast should be a gift to the audience, it shouldn’t feel like an ad. If a company has sonic branding assets, it gives us lots of possibilities for finding subconscious references to the brand. And I don’t mean running the brands’ jingle under the intro.

Mastercard has embarked on a massive sonic branding journey recently. They’ve found a way to expertly weave the key melody from their branding into the podcasts that they make, without making them all sound the same. If a brand has a melody or musical theme that they use in their media properties, weaving that into a remix that fits the podcast is a great way to keep a light brand touch while ensuring that the podcast audience comes first.

Mastercard found a way to weave the key melody from their branding into the podcasts they make without making them all sound the same.

Keeping Up With The Toneses…

And Striking the Right Vibe as a Brand ♪ ♫ ♩

We’ve had a few shows that we’ve done over the years where the series changes focus for a new season. Sometimes it could be that the subject matter shifts, there’s a new host, the format changes, or we’re re-vamping a show that was produced by a different shop. In almost every case, this means we tweak or change the theme. We’ve produced three versions of Mozilla’s IRL over the years. With three different hosts, slightly different show tones, and even different audiences.

Before the first season launched, IRL’s showrunner, Dominic Girard thought it would be more fitting to compose an original theme song for the podcast rather than source the music from a library. Mozilla wanted to be sure the music would be available under a Creative Commons licence, so that anyone could use it or remix it. A move that reflects Mozilla’s mission statement “…to ensure the Internet is a global public resource, open and accessible to all.” Using music sourced from Creative Commons felt right in line with their brand identity.

I worked with two composers, Daniel Byrne and Roberto Angel-Dwyer, to compose a theme. I gave them an inspiration song that we’d found and been using as a place holder, and they went from there.

After three seasons, the host for IRL changed. In this case, the theme that we originally composed needed to be changed to reflect the shift, but we didn’t want to lose the essence of the theme since the audience identified with it. What did we do? We remixed it.

Here’s the original theme we composed forIRL, in context. The lovely Veronica Belmont was the host and we had fun with the show and the theme.

In Season 4 a new host joined the show, the brilliant Manoush Zomordi, and with that change we had Daniel Byrne come back to remix the theme, keeping the same basic melodies but tweaking it to support Manoush’s voice.

When IRL returned in season 6, it wasn’t just a new host on board, the affable Bridget Todd, but a whole new concept. Season is an adaptation of Mozilla’s internet health report. So once again, Daniel helped us by remixing the song a second time for the third iteration of the theme music. The sixth season featured more international voices, so we leaned more into a worldly sound in comparison to the previous two versions.

You can take a listen to the way these themes morphed here in this montage:

IRL podcast themes throughout the seasons

The important point through it all is to make sure that your podcast’s theme song is well qualified for the job you’re hiring your podcast to do. It appeals to your audience, vibes with your host’s voice, supports the show’s tone, and is aligned with your brand voice. Easy, right?

Thanks to Robyn Edgar.

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