You’ve got a podcast or you’re thinking of launching a podcast and you’ve already picked the right equipment, but you’re wondering how to choose music and sound effects for the episodes. This is a common question among new and aspiring podcasters. The good thing is that you’ve probably already heard a lot of music on podcasts and perhaps even understand where and when music enhances an episode. 

Below, we’re going to take a look at where and when a podcast needs music and sound effects. To do this, we’ll look at the structure of a typical podcast and discuss the right moments to deploy these sounds. 

Some of podcasting’s musical and sound effects cues have their origins in radio broadcasts of the 20th century and even films. Other cues are more typical of the last few years of podcasting culture. We’ll get into what works best and why so that as you enhance your new broadcast or launch your first one, you will have a better sense of the world of music and sound effects. 

 Podcast Structure

Two women talking on a podcast
Photo by Kate Oseen on Unsplash

Generally speaking, the podcast structure is not too different from the structure of movies and radio broadcasts, which were influenced by the three-act structure of plays. Like those formats, podcasts basically have three acts. 

The first part, the Intro, begins with pre-recorded heme music and summary and that describes the podcast. The intro also obviously introduces the episode’s story or topic. 

In a true-crime podcast, for instance, the intro features the background of the story. Podcasters can play around with the timeline of a true crime story within the intro, like starting the story in the present, which could be twenty years after some mysterious crime; or they could start it right at the moment of the crime. Whatever the exact starting point, the intro must give the audience an immediate idea of the story and its impact. 

In the middle section or the Main Content, the podcaster really gets into the meat and potatoes of the story. This is the place where the storyteller or the round table/group discuss the fine details of a given episode. Depending on the type of podcast, this is the section where hosts will get into interviews, research, evidence, and so on. 

And in the last section, the Outro, podcasters come to a conclusion. It’s in this Outro, or third act, that the hosts tie up any loose ends or, in the case of an enduring mystery, don’t. The Outro is the place where hosts typically draw conclusions or come to some sort of consensus. And if the topic is really difficult to explore, this final part might be the point at which hosts discuss why the episode can’t be wrapped up in a very tidy way, like in a romantic comedy film, where everything fits neatly into place. 

In between these three acts, for lack of a better term, podcasts will also feature spots for transitions and advertisements or sponsorship nods. Transitions are musical cues that enhance the emotional buildup of a podcast and mark a pivot into a new part of the story. And, toward the end of a podcast, there will also be a block of time dedicated to forthcoming episodes. 

Podcast Theme & Intro Music

Before introducing a new episode, a podcast intro should start with theme music. It’s helpful to think of your podcast not just as a storytelling opportunity, but as a brand. And a brand needs to be instantly identifiable, not just for regular listeners, but listeners checking your podcast out for the first time. 

Listen to the intro of Radiolab, arguably the most popular podcast in existence. Each episode begins with the hosts saying “You’re listening to Radiolab”, along with synthesizer drones and various radio sound effects. To regular listeners, this intro is instantly identifiable as the podcast to which they always tune in. And for new listeners, this intro brings them immediately into the quirky world of Radiolab. 

For your intro and theme music, think of memorable ways of introducing your podcast. And find some music, whatever the genre or style, that fits your podcast’s theme. If it’s a comedy, try to find something quirky, like the theme music to Curb Your Enthusiasm—not a podcast, but the show’s music is iconic. 

In our podcast music collection, you can search for music by genre or style. So, if you want ambient music or something cinematic or funky for your theme music, you can find it there. 

Main Content Songs & Sounds

two women talking on a podcast
Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

For the main section of a podcast, you can use different types of music to convey different emotions and atmospheres. To find the right music, it’s helpful to think about the state of mind you’re trying to evoke in your audience, then search for music and sound effects accordingly. You can use the mood filters on Artlist to refine your search and find the right song for any specific moment in your podcast.

For tense moments, you can have darker, pulsating electronic music, or foreboding a piano melody. The piano music could be composed of minor chords, maybe with long, sustained bass notes, or sharp, staccato notes on the higher keys, like in an Alfred Hitchcock film. For lighter moments, you could opt for an uptempo synth arpeggio with a disco or even a hip hop beat.  

Perhaps you want to create a cinematic vibe for your podcast. In that case, you could experiment by looking for music that is airy, which emulates the sound of wind; or maybe something with a submerged ambient quality, if a part of this section has to evoke the feeling or sensation of being underwater. 

Another reason to find the right music for a podcast has to do with segments that feature guests or interview subjects. Maybe one of your interview guests or subjects didn’t give the greatest comments, or their delivery was a bit flat. In that event, choosing the right music could help in the editing process to make the segment less flat and more compelling. 

So much music exists, from so many genres, styles and regional origins, and for so many different purposes, that there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to find songs and musical cues that fit any kind of moment. Even if it takes a bit of time to find the perfect song, the search should be fun and well worth the effort. 

Outro Music

For outro music, you can do a couple of different things. You could try returning to the intro music if you still think it’s the note you want to end your episode on. 

Alternatively, you could find a different song or musical cue that helps you end the podcast episode on exactly the note you want. The note could be anything—uplifting, revelatory, menacing, foreboding, and many other emotions in between. 

And for your end credits, where you mention the hosts and any contributors or interview subjects, you probably will want to return to your theme music. Remember, the theme music is your brand: don’t be afraid to play that theme music at the end of your latest podcast episode. 

In between these three acts, for lack of a better term, podcasts will also feature spots for transitions and advertisements or sponsorship nods. Transitions are musical cues that enhance the emotional buildup of a podcast and mark a pivot into a new part of the story. And, toward the end of a podcast, there will also be a block of time dedicated to forthcoming episodes. 

Segment & Ad Spot Transitions

when you got the right gear, you can start looking for the right music for your podcast
Photo by Jonathan Farber on Unsplash

At first, you’re going to want to keep things pretty simple. That means just not doing too much, and finding the right music for the intro, main content, and outro. Once you’ve got the hang of these moments, you think about diving deeper into finding the best music for transitions and ad spots. 

While musical transitions aren’t absolutely necessary, you might want to find music that is a note to your audience that the episode is moving from the intro to the main content, or from the main content to the outro. These musical cues can also be used to signal to your listeners that an ad spot or sponsorship shoutout is about to happen. 

Again, it’s your choice to use such musical transitions. The best thing to do is to listen to a lot of podcasts, and see how different hosts use musical transitions in their own episodes. And in doing this kind of research, you will also hear what kind of music works best for segment transitions and ad/sponsorship spots. 

Some Final Thoughts

If your podcast is new or still just an idea, don’t try to do too much with music for your episodes. Keep things simple by finding theme music that introduces each episode of your podcast, and then for various moments of the main content, and then an outro. 

Once you’ve become comfortable with the music selection process, start experimenting with different moments that you can introduce songs and sound effects. And when you’re really comfortable, and when you’ve got advertisers and sponsors, you can tackle music for segment transitions and ad/sponsor spots. 

Find a wide selection of songs and sounds at ArtList’s podcast music collection.


Author Bio

DJ Pangburn is a New York-based journalist, videographer, and fiction writer, with bylines at ViceFast CompanyDazed and Confused, and other publications. DJ records ambient techno and IDM under the name Holoscene.