Getting great incidental and background music is difficult, especially if you want it for free.

While there are options, it can take some time to find the compositions that work best for you.

Paying for music gives you greater access to incidental music, especially if you want it composed specifically for your project. However, you can also access previously recorded music for a lower cost through some commercial music streaming services.

Background Music

Background and incidental music are very important genres, as they can create a specific mood in a film, slideshow, storefront, or even outdoor public space. Finding the right background or incidental music for your project can take time, however.

Larger production companies for video games, movies, and television often commission composers and musicians to get incidental music specific to these projects. Fans will often associate songs or scores with entertainment for years, which is a testament to the importance of branding and emotional regulation associated with the right song.

What Is Incidental Music?

Incidental music is a song, score, or soundtrack created to heighten the emotions of a particular scene or performance on stage, in a film or tv show, in a video game, or even in a podcast or audiobook.

Most forms of entertainment benefit from incidental music, which hovers in the background and subtly influences the overall experience. This is different from a musical, in which songs are an important part of the story but at the forefront of the action. In fact, performers interrupt their regular performance to sing, play instruments, or dance, heightening the focus on the song.

Incidental music does not involve performers’ attention; thus, it subtly influences the audience’s attention.

Pieces of incidental music may also be played before or after a show, or during intermission, to keep the audience emotionally engaged in the production in subtle ways.

Productions using incidental music have existed almost as long as humans have created performance. For example, the ancient Greeks used music in their plays, both as foreground like an opera or musical and as incidental songs in the background. These songs drew on ritual liturgy from earlier religious rites that developed into important public performances and festivals dedicated to the god Dionysus. Drama across Asia, from Chinese opera to Japanese Noh theater, also uses incidental music to enhance the performance and action.

Some of the most famous movie and television soundtracks have excellent, purpose-made, mood-enhancing scores. You may be emotionally attached to certain soundtracks, including these:

  • Star Wars
  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Forrest Gump
  • How to Train Your Dragon
  • The Golden Compass
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas
  • Beetlejuice

You want a score as inspiring as these or other movie and TV soundtracks, but you cannot directly use these pieces of music since they are copyrighted. You can pay for a license through a performing rights organization (PRO) if you want to use a song or the soundtrack in a specific setting, but you may want less famous incidental music to help brand your content or business.

How to Find Great Incidental Music for Your Project

If you are producing a stage play, creating a video, making a game, or even producing a short podcast, you may want incidental music to set the tone of various portions of the work for your audience.

How do you get incidental music? Here are the most common methods:

  1. Hire a composer. While major production companies set aside a budget for a composer, this can seem more difficult for smaller artists. But companies like SoundCloud, Band Camp, and even Fiverr can give you access to a wide range of musical artists who offer their work for free, for credit, or for a low cost.
  2. Use public domain music. Previously composed music that has entered the public domain is fair game for everyone to use, but be careful of the recording you choose. Often, popular songs whose sheet music is in the public domain have several recordings that are considered protected by copyright law.
  3. Find royalty-free or Creative Commons music. Since the internet allows many artists to share their work, and several composers and musicians want to build audiences, you can search for music published under the Creative Commons license or as royalty-free music.

    Creative Commons licensing still uses intellectual property laws to protect the work, but you can find composers who offer soundtracks free for specific uses. Royalty-free music often involves paying the artist once up front, which allows you to use the song whenever and however you want after that.
  4. Use a music streaming platform. For a modern person, this is the simplest solution. Many of us use music and podcast streaming services on our phones and other devices. Finding one that navigates appropriate licensing for you means you can get access to the music you want as incidental music for your project, without worrying about finding the right PRO to license from.

Laws Associated With Background & Incidental Music

Intellectual property law in the United States is designed to ensure artists are fairly compensated for their work, including musical compositions. Typically, a piece of music is considered published, and thus protected by intellectual property law, after it is recorded in some way — either through an audio recording or on sheet music.

It must be original enough that it is not a parody or a cover song of an existing work. Often, music in the same genre has similar rhythms, chord progressions, and even lyrics, so the concept of “original” is fairly broad.

In some instances, you can use a piece of music through “fair use” legislation. It is important to note that the term “fair use” is not a specific law or regulation associated with intellectual property, but a legal defense if you are sued by a musician or composer for using their music. Like originality, the concept of fair use is broad, and it is typically considered on a case-by-case basis, so no lawsuit is the same.

If you use a piece of music without paying for it, you are unlikely to fall under any court’s definition of fair use. If the work is copyrighted and you obtained it legally for a dedicated purpose (for example, if you purchased a royalty-free song to play as background music for a slideshow), you can argue fair use in most courts. If you simply fail to realize that you do not have the right licensing or usage rights to a piece of music, you will lose the lawsuit.

Fair use might cover playing a song at a charity event, covering a song live that did not lead to you making any money, or playing a song for your personal enjoyment even though it was in a public space. Since this is such a difficult line to argue, it is much simpler to assume that any song you want has some copyright law protecting it, and you need to find the publisher or composer to pay them royalties.

Let Cloud Cover Music Help

Navigating licenses, royalties, or artist payments can be stressful and difficult, especially if you are a new or smaller artist. Instead of worrying about these problems for one short film or stage production, get a music streaming service like Cloud Cover Music to help.


What Makes Incidental Music Different from a Musical Score? (October 2018). Playbill.

Incidental Music. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

What is Incidental Music? Wise Geek.

Incidental Music: Discovering Film Scores. (March 2013). Wired.

Copyright Law for 30 Seconds of Music. (March 2019). Houston Chronicle.