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 those created for Star Wars, Beetlejuice, or Casablanca.
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 have plenty of options, but know that you’ll need to do a little digging to find the right songs.
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.
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:
- 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 at a low cost.
- Use public domain music. Previously composed music in the public domain is fair game for everyone, but be careful of the recording you choose. Popular songs with sheet music in the public domain often have several recordings considered protected by copyright law.
- 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 composers can offer free soundtracks for specific uses. Royalty-free music often involves paying the artist once upfront, which allows you to use the song whenever and however you want after that.
How to Use Incidental Music Legally
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's tempting to find incidental music you like, download it onto your player, and stream it for your project. While this method is free, it's also probably illegal.
You must pay artists for their work unless you have express permission from them to use the music without a fee. Don’t be tempted to take shortcuts. If you use a piece of music without permission or a fee, you are likely breaking the law.
Incidental Music: Discovering Film Scores. (March 2013). Wired.
Incidental Music. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.