Background music in podcasts

I listen to a podcast which started on a forum I read called Atomic Trivia War 9000: The Podcast: The Game. It’s a lot of fun, though a lot of that fun comes from chatting with many of the participants on the forum for the last few years, so I already know and like their personalities.

Anyway, on the latest posted episode:

Posted By: JasonYou may notice right away that we’ve added some ambient music to the background. I’m torn about whether it works — let us know what you think.

Below is my impassioned reply. I think I might collect all my blog posts about podcasting together to make “Luke’s Guide to Making Podcast Luke Likes.”

I’ve not listened yet, but as soon as there is background music on a podcast, I generally stop listening. It isn’t needed. Your podcast is a lot of fun already, and the quality is in the guests and interactions. The editing is fine. You don’t need background music.

When background music works:
a. when it is specially composed or chosen to reflect and enhance the mood or emotions or themes of the content it is accompanying.
b. no other times.


So between writing the above and going online again to post it, I began listening to the podcast. It is worse than I imagined it would be.

For a start, I have an infection in my left ear at the moment, and can’t hear anything on that side, so I’m only using the right ear bud. The music is making it way harder to hear everything. It’s so bad I may listen to the rest on my laptop.

Second, while I was listening to the program I was walking around the promenade deck of the ship. At one end some music was playing, and the music playing under the chat on your podcast clashed with it constantly. I can’t always control other music in the background, in real life, when listening to podcasts, radio or audio books. If the real life background music was constant, I wouldn’t be able to listen to your podcast at all.

Third, I don’t listen to your podcast for your taste in music. I listen for the banter and geekiness. I really enjoy electronic music, and techno and drum and bass and all that, but music bland enough to work as background music is just that. Bland. (That said, the final credits music in this podcast is pretty cool, though I’m not sure I could deal with more than 10 seconds of it.)

Fourth, it constantly sounds like you are either still introducing the podcast, or are about to wrap it up.

Fifth, the music is setting the pace, in the listeners mind, of the conversation. Every comedic pause and pause for thought is filled with beats and bass, and is simply killing the energy. In a typical quiz show, they use music behind the question rounds for real effect, as the music builds or gets faster in some way, to create tension. In between the questions, when the hosts or contestants are just talking, there is no music.

Sixth, going back to my pre-listening points above, the music choice just doesn’t fit with the content. At one point you are discussing the history of Metropolis, and you guys are actually being interesting and informative, not just joking about comics. But the music is just bleeping away in the background, undermining the current level of conversation. Then there is a round about Greek Mythology, and compared to that the music is just trite.

And even worse, when someone makes a joke about learning the myths from anime or something, it isn’t funny. The tone has already been destroyed by the music, so a joke that was designed to be self-deprecating, when spoken over shitty techno, just isn’t funny any more.

Seventh, see points one to six again.

Music accompanying spoken words is amazing, when done well. You mention Bladerunner in this podcast, and a while ago I listened to a radio show where they discuss the movie. There they played a clip from the very end “… like tears in rain…” and with the music playing, I teared up myself!

Also I listened to the every episode of A Life Well Wasted in about a day and a half, and the music in that is amazing. Like I said, normally if there is background music in a podcast, I just don’t bother, but his podcast kept me enthralled, even if I didn’t particularly care about the subject matter.

I kept thinking “How has he managed to find all this music that matches the content and tone of interviews so perfectly?”

And then, of course, I found out he produced the music himself. Of course the tone of the two mediums fit perfectly, he designed it that way from the start! Of course, it takes him months to record and edit his shows. But you can tell! The care and attention and craft and skill and heart he puts into each episode is way more than I’ll ever fit into ten of mine.

But then, I don’t have to use background music I wrote myself (though I did write the theme music to my own podcast) because that isn’t why people listen. And you don’t have to use music either, because people listen for the banter and fun. You use of music is killing that. People here won’t point that out, because they are used to the personalities and format, and this change won’t put them off. But if this was the first episode I listened to, I wouldn’t have made it through, because I don’t know you, and the music is just a reason for me to turn it off.

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