Soundtrack Your Storytelling

There is nothing in this world that is a bigger time suck than trying to find JUST the right music to go with that super-important moment in your story.

Seriously. If I could get back all the hours that I’ve spent on this task, I could take myself on multiple, multi-week vacations.

Ahhh…vacation. I miss you already.

We all need to find ways to make our work more efficient. Whether it’s because we’re cramming our storytelling into our spare time, or working with budgets that get smaller and smaller every year, we all need to do more with less.

And, when it comes to finding music to fit your story, I have a solution for that.


Cool retro cassette tape photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

Think of a podcast soundtrack a little bit like an old-fashioned mix tape. Maybe there's a theme? Or a common element?

But there are definitely faster songs and slower songs and happier songs and sadder songs. Every song is different, but they're not so different that they clash.

I started doing this back when I was at NPR’s Only A Game, serving as reporter, executive producer, story editor, interim host and occasional mixer/sound designer.

(That sucked, by the way. I love wearing lots of hats, but there is such a thing as TOO MANY HATS!)

Anyway, the way it worked at OAG is that when you reported a story, you gave the technical director a full script that included music cues with song titles.

This task was usually completed towards the end of a long week, when we were all exhausted. And we were under pressure to hand off to our Technical Director ASAP, because he always always had too much to mix in too little time.

We simply didn’t have the luxury of allowing ourselves to get pulled into the music search vortex.

So, I started making little collections of songs that more-or-less fit together. 20-30 songs each.

The collections were loosely based on genre. So there was a collection that was slightly folksy. A semi-orchestral collection with a lot of strings. An electronic collection with a lot of dark, chill beats.

I actually don’t remember what I called them all. It’s been a while.

It wasn’t a perfect solution, but those collections saved me a TON of time.

Now that I’m working on more multi-part narrative series, I sometimes have the luxury of working with composers to create custom music.

Such a lovely luxury!

But whether I’m working with a composer or pulling songs from music services -- or both -- I still collect all my music at the start of a project, before I mix a single episode.

Only now, instead of calling them “collections,” I call them “soundtracks.”

So…how do you build a soundtrack?

Funny you should ask! Lemme explain.

<insert Princess Bride joke here>

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Step 1: Choose your musical universe.

What does this project sound like? Is it bright and cheery? Dark and murdery?

Does it sound organic? Or electronic?

Is it gritty? Or clean?

What instruments feel right? Does this project feel like it needs a lot of acoustic guitars? Strings? Do you want a more electronic rock sound? Are you feeling a lot of ambient pads?

I love me a good, ambient pad.

The instruments you choose can really affect the vibe of your project.

Don’t believe me?

A friend recently shared an Instagram reel of a musician re-imagining the Imperial March from Star Wars, but played it on a celesta.

(In case you, like me, did not know. A celesta is a piano-like instrument, sometimes called a bell-piano. It sounds a bit like a xylophone…but brighter and more cheerful.)

I don’t want to give away the whole joke. Just trust me…and follow this link!

Often, finding the right vibe and instrumentation are the hardest part of the process.

When we were working on Believable: The Coco Berthmann Story, our composer, Pete Readman, referred to this process as finding our “musical universe.”

The podcast was about a young woman who became internet famous as a child sex trafficking survivor. But after she was arrested for lying about having cancer, people started to wonder if anything she said was true.

And you might be able to see what the trouble was. It was definitely a “true crime” type podcast. But since most of the really awful things we were describing turned out to be lies, we didn’t want to go with the usual “dum, dum, dummmm” music.

We needed something that could carry the really dark moments. But we also wanted something that wouldn’t feel manipulative when you realized that she wasn’t telling the truth.

Pete came up with a “musical universe” that was youthful, girly, whimsical…and maybe even a little bit fantastical.

Sure, it had those dark undertones. But it also had bright notes. And dissonance. And together, they created the feeling that something about this story was just … off.

Listen here if you wanna check it out.

Step 2: Find your main theme.

Even if I’m just scoring a 10-minute radio story, I often will choose one song to serve as the “theme” of the story.

What’s a theme, you say?

Well, if you’re making a podcast, that’s the bit of music that plays when you say the name of your show.

If you're scoring an episode or a stand-alone piece, it might be the song you use at the beginning or the end.

Either way, you’re likely to bring it back, again and again, during important moments of your story.

Finding the right main theme is really much more “art” than it is science. It’s definitely one of those, “You’ll know it when you hear it” kind of things.

But when I find myself stuck, I’ll often do a little mock mix.

Pick the part of your episode where you’re gonna want to use the theme. (Or the part of your trailer, if you don’t have episodes written yet.)

And then do a rough mix, testing a few different options.

What works? What doesn’t work? What might work better?

And yeah, there are going to be near misses here. But that’s okay. Don't throw them away!

Those “almost” themes are going to give you a head start for your third and final step.

Step 3: Complete your soundtrack.

The goal here is to collect a limited number of tracks, but to have everything you need to mix your entire project.

So, for example, I mixed all 11 episodes of Believable using just the custom theme, 9 additional custom tracks, stems and three (yes, just three) songs downloaded from a music service!

Okay, so I think we need one more definition. “Stems” are individual instrument tracks – or sometimes instrument groupings – that can be used on their own or remixed to create new tracks.

So, remember how I said that the music for Believable had dark, moody undertones and bright, youthful overtones? Well, I could split those stems apart and use just the dark bits for the dark moments or just the bright bits for the bright moments. So many options!

But, in order for this whole thing to work, you need to pay attention to the purpose of each of your tracks. Otherwise, you’re gonna end up with a whole bunch of tracks that serve exactly the same purpose.

I have a pretty simple list of categories I usually try to fill. It looks something like this.

  • Light - Sorta happy…but not too happy.
  • Tense - Think anticipation, worry, concern – not murder!
  • Dark - Sorta sad…but not too sad. Extra minimal or even ambient.
  • Explainers - Super neutral songs, often with repeating patterns, to help pull listeners through dense information dumps.

But Michiel van Poelgeest thinks about this a bit more carefully. He’s a composer I met through this newsletter!

He took me up on my offer to meet with anyone who replies to this email and asks to meet with me. That offer is still available, by the way. I love meeting new people!

Anyway, Michiel and I were talking about this one day, and he mentioned that he has a list of categories – in addition to the opening and closing themes – that he thinks about when creating a podcast score. He agreed to let me share them with you. They are:

  • Drones - Creating a tapestry.
  • Tension & Stingers - Great for building scenes.
  • Contemplative - Getting into the narrator’s head.
  • Ominous - Something is wrong here. / What will happen?
  • Heartfelt - Underscoring emotional tape.
  • Journey - Up tempo stuff that pushes the story.
  • Quirky - Helping the narrator be funny or mischievous.

I love this list, because it really does cover everything you’re likely to need to score a narrative project.

I like to keep my soundtracks relatively small. But keep in mind that you’re probably gonna need more than one song for each category. And, depending on your project, some categories might need more options than others.

So, for my most recent project, The Negotiators: The Afghan Impasse, I used three custom tracks from an Afghan composer (thanks, Arson!) plus their stems and approximately 15 tracks from APM.

If I were to categorize those songs, I'd say at least 10 of them fell into the "Tension" or "Drone" category. Because, well, when you're talking about 20 years of failed negotiations for peace in Afghanistan, there's not a lot of room for stuff that's uptempo or quirky!

I know this post is long and link-heavy already, but I have a few more resources for you, if you’re interested.

If you want to know more about how the music team at NYT podcasts goes about finding the right vibe for their shows, check out this episode of Hard Fork. So good that I listened to it a row.

If you’re a fan of Beyond All Repair (and if you’re not already a fan, you should be!) check out this Q+A episode with Amory Sivertson and her producer, Sofie Kodner. Amory briefly talks about how she made the main theme, including spilling the beans on the words she actually says during the theme song. It’s great! But don’t listen unless you’ve heard the whole series. Spoilers aplenty!

If you want to check out a custom soundtrack for a podcast, check out this page the team at Bear Brook put together. I loved the way this podcast used many different versions of the main theme. It really kept the whole thing feeling cohesive, and every time that main melody came in, my brain knew to pay closer attention!

Okay, this has been a long one, so we're gonna go with just one quick reminder this week.

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