Think about your favorite podcast. Does a certain tune come to mind? Now think about a moment you remember in your favorite podcast. Was it sad and somber or full of hope? Now think about how music helped move that moment forward.
For a lot of us, music is emotion. Studies of the brain will tell you that your mind reacts in so many different ways to the sound of music. So it's only natural that you would want to take all that magic and sprinkle it over your podcast.
Well, not so fast. Music — and composing it — can get really complicated, especially if you're going to enter the NPR Student Podcast Challenge.
So, here's our guide to helping you put great music into your podcast. But first, before you jump into your song, tune or jingle, keep in mind the very specific rules that limit what you can and can't do.
This is a big issue, and there are a lot of legal reasons behind it. In the rules we make it clear:
Submissions may not include any material that infringes the intellectual property rights of any person. Please be respectful of copyright and trademark laws. All material must be original to the persons who create the podcast. ... We encourage Entrants to err on the side of excluding music if the Entrant is not sure whether the music is copyrighted or not. Entries will be disqualified if they contain materials that appear to infringe copyrights, trademarks, or other intellectual property rights of others.
Translation: you can use music, but only if it's originally composed and performed by you or your classmates.
Copyright and trademark law is the legal mechanism that protects your ideas from other people using or stealing them (even if that someone isn't making money from your creation). This is why we (and our lawyers) require that you use only original material in your podcast.
OK, you ask, What songs can I use? It's easy to understand why playing or covering "Hey Ya!" by OutKast might be copyright infringement, but what about "Happy Birthday"? Who was the first to sing it? Or better yet, who owns the song?
Some songs — like "Happy Birthday" — are considered public domain. To be clear, "public domain" does not mean "publicly available;" it means that copyright has expired and the material is no longer under copyright protection. For examples of what is and is not public domain work, you can visit this website here.
So does that mean you can play "Happy Birthday" by Stevie Wonder? No. Can you take the original version of the "Happy Birthday" song and perform an original cover of the song? Sure thing! But pay attention to this line in our rules...
Entrants may include live performances of public domain songs or non-copyrightable rhythm elements if it is relevant to the story.
That means make sure the song is relevant to the story that you're trying to tell.
Using music in your podcast
OK, now that we've got all that out of the way, let's get to the fun part. In this week's episode of the Student Podcast Challenge podcast, we spoke to Ramtin Arablouei from NPR's Throughline podcast, about his approach to using music. Ramtin also writes music for a lot of podcasts around NPR, too.
His biggest tip? Less is more.
"Music being used in audio should always have something missing. You don't want to create a song. You want to create something that always feels like it needs something," he told us.
Your music, he says, shouldn't be too busy or have too much going on. Your goal isn't a song that's going to get all your friends to dance. Your podcast music, or "score," should be simple — something with a beat and rhythm. Ramtin says that playing one note or one chord can go a long way.
Another thing to note: Here at NPR, we don't add the music until we know exactly what we want to say. First, figure out what your story is, write and record it, and then add the score.
Wait, does my podcast even need music?
It's an important question. And the simple answer is no. Ramtin told us that many great podcasts don't use music at all. But, he adds, in the right place it can add a lot of emotion or an added depth.
Here's a good example of a podcast that works without music: Murderous Mary & The Rise of Erwin. This was one of last year's grand-prizer winners of the Student Podcast Challenge. The story the students told was strong and impactful on its own.
As a storyteller, you have an important role in taking people to places that they've never been to. If you're not careful, using tired or cliche music can paint a person or place as being one-dimensional. Kind of like the story told in one of our favorite podcasts from last year, from students in Crow Agency, Montana. They made their podcast about how young Native Americans like them get tired of people thinking they live in teepees and hunt for food when, in fact, they like to do a lot of the same things lots of kids do: like playing Fortnite or Call of Duty.
The key takeaway here is that music should always be intentional. If you're not careful, it could turn a good story into a mess. But done well, good music, in the right places, can really make your podcast shine.
Stay tuned because in next week's episode, Ramtin Arablouei from NPR's Throughline will show us how you can make wonderful music by using cheap instruments.