Have you ever watched a scary movie on mute? If you haven’t, here’s a spoiler for you: without the soundtrack, the movie’s not so creepy anymore.

Using the right music in your video can really escalate the emotions you’re trying to display, whether it be an unsettling orchestra track for a thriller, something upbeat and poppy behind an otherwise drab product demo, or a song that plays up the nostalgia factor in some recently uncovered home movies.

Using music in your next video marketing campaign can have a significant impact on sales. Video advertising helps small businesses grow revenue 49% faster by using engaging visuals combined with background music. Music helps business owners communicate in ways that video can’t by conveying a mood and creating an emotional response in viewers. 

That said, finding music you can use legally can seem like a daunting task. So today, we’re highlighting some resources to make the process less risky, and maybe even a little bit easier. 

Most music falls under four main categories

Before we get started, let’s review the four main categories most music you can use in a video falls under.

1. Copyrighted

This covers just about all popular music. DJ Khaled’s record label wouldn’t be too pleased if you used his tracks without paying first, so unless you’ve got deep pockets, here’s a major key: Keep it legal and only use music from the remaining categories below.

2. Creative Commons

Creative Commons songs are copyrighted but can be used for free if you follow the specific terms and restrictions attached. There are a variety of different CC licenses. For an overview about Creative Commons, have a look at our help article. For more specific information, you can reference the Creative Commons website to get a closer look at the types of licenses and what they mean.

3. Royalty free

Royalty free doesn’t mean free music. It means you pay a one-time fee to use a music track and then don’t need to pay any royalties thereafter. Some may ask that you provide attribution or credit in return for using the music, and some may actually charge you to use it. Pro tip: Double-check to make sure.

4. Public domain

This refers to music where generally either 1.) the copyright expired or 2.) the copyright owner deliberately placed the song in the public domain. Most public domain resources usually fall under the former; therefore, a lot of the music in this category is really, really old. Like, made-three-DJ-Khaleds-ago old. Read more about the public domain here.

What are the different types of music licenses? 

The average internet user only has an attention span of eight seconds, and using music in videos and advertising is crucial to help keep audiences engaged early on. However, it’s also important that you know what kind of license is required to use a track before you add music to your next video. 

  1. Sync license. A synchronization license grants permission for a song to be released in video format. Some examples include music that is used in monetized YouTube videos, Blue-Rays, and DVDs. 
  1. Mechanic license. These grant permission for a song to be released in an audio-only format. If you want to release a cover song that is available for download or recorded on a CD or vinyl, then you will need a mechanical license. 
  1. Master license. If you intend to sample an existing recording to use in a mash up, ad campaign, or other derivative works, then you will need to have a master license. 
  1. Theatrical license. If you intend to use music that someone else wrote in a play, musical, or other dramatic performance then a theatrical license will be required. 
  1. Public performance license. A public performance license grants permission to play a song or any portion of a song in a public setting. For example, in order for the song to be used online or on the radio, then you may need this license. 
  1. Prints-rights license. Music-savvy users might need to obtain a prints-rights license if you want to rearrange or display the printed music notes or lyrics of a song that is under copyright. 

Our go-to music resources

The internet is a vast resource to find music to use when creating your own videos. Finding the best resources can be tough, so we did the work for you. Here are some of our favorite resources for finding royalty free, copyrighted, and public domain tracks: 

Free Music Archive: This is a huge database with mostly Creative Commons tracks contained within. You can find just about any genre or style of music you want here.

FreeSound: You’ll find a lot of atmospheric music in FreeSound that would work well as a film score. They also have a large amount of sound effects if you’re looking for those.

CCMixter: This is a pretty awesome resource for Creative Commons songs.

Pond5 Public Domain Project: Pond5 has collected nearly 3,000 public domain audio tracks to explore.

OpSound: OpSound is another nice little resource for some Creative Commons tracks.

FreePD: Everything here is in the public domain and newly composed, but there’s not a huge selection.

PublicDomain4U: This site has a small selection of really old jazz and blues songs, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Incompetech: All of the songs in Incompetech are composed by one guy, span a multitude of genres, and are released under a Creative Commons license.

BenSound: BenSound is yet another great Creative Commons resource.

YouTube Audio Library: Did you know that YouTube has a massive library of free tracks and sound effects? True story.

Before you incorporate any tunes into your project, you should always check the fine print to make sure you’re abiding by their license. Also worth mentioning — if you have the budget to pay a small fee for music, the following sites are great resources: Audioblocks, Soundstripe, Bedtracks, MusicBed, PremiumBeat and AudioJungle.

Whether your music is free or paid-for, it’s always important to double-check and make sure you’re abiding by the license terms restrictions attached to that track, and that you’re following any applicable laws. Music licensing is an ever-changing, complex terrain to navigate. Depending on how you use the music, you may need multiple licenses (one for a public performance and another for synchronization, for example). If you’re ever fuzzy or in doubt, always err on the side of caution and consult an attorney for legal advice surrounding your video’s music needs.

Music and song licensing FAQs

How do you license a song for commercial use? 

Contact the copyright holder and tell them about yourself and how you plan on using the song. They will then contact you to negotiate the price and usage rights. Typically there will be payment required before you can receive a license to use a song for commercial use. 

How much does it cost to license a song?

The costs vary significantly when it comes to licensing a copyrighted song. An independent artist might be able to charge less than $100 for a commercial license while a major label might charge thousands of dollars to license a song. In addition, some licenses can also charge you a percentage of the revenue that you gain through using the song. 

How can I legally use copyrighted music?

To legally use copyrighted music, even short snippets, you must get express permission from the copyright holder and adhere to the conditions stated in the license. There are many platforms available that allow you to browse and shop for licenses without going directly to the copyright holder. 

What is the difference between single song licensing and traditional licensing?

Some artists and labels will only allow their songs to be used for certain uses and under particular conditions. Under traditional licensing, a copyright owner negotiates the terms in which someone can use their songs. Single song licensing typically involves a more simplified transaction between the copyright holder and the person seeking out a license. 

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*original article written in 2019 by Mark Cersosimo, updated in 2021 by Nahla Davies