Good background music is a lot like salt. Salt enhances the flavor of any dish. It shouldn't overwhelm your dish, but if you don't add enough, your dish will taste off and you might not quite know why. That's because background music doesn't just fill a void—it creates an atmosphere. And creating the right atmosphere for your channel is more an art than a science.
In this post, we'll give some tips on what to consider when choosing YouTube background music, where to find YouTube background music and more.
Music Licensing 101
Before we get into how to find and choose music for your YouTube videos, we need to have a little conversation about music licensing.
Can You Play Music on YouTube?
Yes, you can absolutely play music in your YouTube videos. The catch is that you need permission via a license to use that music. Thankfully, there are dozens of music libraries that make it easy to find great music that fits your video’s vibe and your budget while keeping your channel safe from take-down notices.
What is Copyrighted Music?
With few exceptions, all music released after 1924 is copyrighted. A songwriter’s music is copyrighted the moment they create their song, and most songwriters who professionally release their music register their creative work with the U.S. Copyright Office or their country’s copyright office.
Recorded music has two copyrights: the song itself (which would be the sheet music or a chord chart) and the recording (what you hear on the radio or streaming service). So, even if you want to use an old song that isn’t under copyright, you’d still have to obtain a license to use a modern re-recording of the song.
What Music Can I Use on YouTube?
You can use any song in a YouTube video if the recording and song itself aren’t copyrighted (i.e., they’re in the public domain), if you’ve purchased a license for that music or if the use is covered under “fair use” (more on that below).
Music in the Public Domain
A piece of recorded music enters the public domain when its copyright expires. Songwriters can also essentially donate their music to the public domain by publishing it with a Creative Commons license.
It’s fairly rare to find music recordings in the public domain, partly because there just isn’t a lot of recorded music from before 1924 (all music released before then has entered the public domain). And, to be honest, it’s unlikely that music from that era will be suitable for your YouTube background music unless you’re committed to scratchy ragtime or classical recordings.
Music You Have the Rights to Use
For music that’s currently copyrighted, licenses to use that music can be obtained, usually for a fee.
Most YouTube content creators opt to use stock music, which is music that was created for the purpose of licensing for YouTube videos, TV shows, commercials and more. In these cases, you’d visit the stock music website and purchase a license that suits your needs (e.g., a YouTube video).
Copyrighted Music in Fair Use cases
U.S copyright laws allow for copyrighted music to be used under certain circumstances without a license. This is called “fair use,” and it protects using parts of copyrighted songs for educational purposes, satire and criticism (like playing clips of songs during a review). If you’re looking for background music for your videos, fair use likely doesn’t apply.
What Happens if You Play Copyrighted Music on YouTube?
If you play copyrighted music on YouTube without permission, the owner of the copyright can issue a notice with YouTube. In fact, copyright holders and enforcers like major labels use tools to scan YouTube videos for potential violations.
If you believe you have the right to use that music despite the notice, you can present your case to YouTube via a process outline in their violations notice. The strongest proof you can offer is written permission to use the song, such as a license agreement.
While YouTube is considering the case, you won’t be able to collect revenue from the video with the infringing material unless you remove the music (which YouTube can do for you).
If you fight the infringement notice and lose, you might put your entire YouTube account at risk. One or two violations probably won’t have a huge impact on your channel, but frequent violations could cause YouTube to disable your account.
How many seconds of copyrighted music can I use on YouTube?
There is no cut-and-dry answer as to how many seconds of copyrighted music you can use on YouTube. Length doesn't really matter—YouTube will pull even short clips if the copyright holder files a claim. With your YouTube account hanging in the balance, it’s probably not a risk you want to take.
Choosing the right YouTube background music for your videos is a lot like sorting through stacks of vinyl records.
What to Look for In YouTube Background Music
Now for the fun part—choosing YouTube background music. But choosing the right songs isn’t just about picking music you personally like.
When selecting background music for your YouTube videos, there are a few things to keep in mind. Setting the right mood for your video is important, but you should also consider the music’s versatility, cost and the availability of flexible licensing.
Background music is all about setting a vibe. So, what mood are you trying to create with your background music?
If you’re not sure, put on some of your favorite TV shows and listen to how they use music. They might use classic hardcore to build excitement or indicate a character is upset. They might use a soft ballad to give a romantic feel.
Think about the vibe you want to set, then try to match the music to that vibe. Stock music sites like Artlist make this easy by letting you sort their catalogue by moods such as uplifting, epic, carefree, tense, scary and sad.
Length of Track
The tracks on stock music websites tend to vary enormously in length. Some are just over a minute long, while others can be seven minutes or longer. If you’re looking for a clip to fill a short amount of time in the background, length probably isn’t very important to you.
But, if you’re looking for a track to put in the background of a much longer video, you might want to consider a longer track. Otherwise, you’ll have to go into your audio and video editing software and loop the track so it plays throughout the desired section.
Vocals or Instrumental?
Many stock music websites offer both instrumental tracks and tracks with vocals. Whether you want one or the other is largely up to you. However, if your video contains dialogue, lyrics could distract viewers from what’s being said in the video. On the other hand, highly relevant lyrics can help drive home the emotion and vibe you’re trying to achieve with your video.
Licenses to use copyrighted music can be obtained, usually for a fee. Licenses for music can range from a few dollars for stock music to $500,000 for iconic tracks from bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Stock music sites will either charge a one-time fee per license or an annual membership fee. Annual fees can include a certain number of songs from the catalog or unlimited songs.
There are also free options for stock music, and some of it is very good. However, there’s a lot less free stock music than there is paid stock music. You know how when you buy a car, you start to see it everywhere? Well, the same is true for stock music. If you don’t want to pay for stock music you absolutely have options, but you’ll likely be sharing that stock music with thousands of other videos.
When using stock music, it’s important to make sure your license covers all of your use cases. This is the case whether you’re looking at a standard stock music website or are browsing Soundcloud and Creative Commons for free music.
Different types of licenses have different stipulations for how you can use the music. For example, sometimes you need to credit the artist and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you can use the music for commercial purposes, and sometimes that’s either prohibited or costs extra. If you need to adapt or change the music (such as adding your own instrumentation), some licenses allow modification, while others prohibit it. Some licenses even limit the type of content you can incorporate the music into.
Where to Find YouTube Background Music
Now that you have a basic understanding of copyrights and licensing and know what to look for in YouTube background music, where do you find it? There are dozens of stock music libraries that cater to YouTube content creators and budding filmmakers alike! Here are a few of our favorites.
Let’s start with YouTube. That’s right, you can find YouTube background music directly on YouTube. And you can add that background music to your videos after you upload them, too.
To add background music directly from YouTube, first upload your video. After your video is done uploading and processing, navigate to YouTube Studio and click “Editor” in the side panel for that video.
From there, click the plus sign next to the music note (highlighted with a red box in the above screenshot). YouTube will then pull up their free music library. You can sort tracks by title, genre, mood, artist name and duration. Click the “play” icon next to a track to preview it, then simply select the song you want to use and place it into the timeline. Then, you can set the mix level so it doesn’t overpower the rest of your video.
YouTube’s audio library is the easiest way to add background music, even if attribution is required. Per the terms of their license, “YouTube may credit the artist and link the Audio Library from your video.” In other words, they do the work for you.
Though YouTube Studio’s music library is fairly limited, YouTube as a whole has tons of free and paid royalty-free (aka stock) music options. If you search “Royalty-free music” you’ll see channels like Royalty Free Music - No Copyright Music pop up. Similar accounts exist on sites where musicians can upload their own music, such as Soundcloud.
Those channels provide background music that you can preview through YouTube and download links so you can add them to your own videos. Once again, every license is different, so make sure you’re abiding by their terms. The above channel, for example, offers free music for commercial use, but you must credit the source in your video description.
The Free Music Archive (FMA) positions itself as the top resource for free music and royalty-free music. But that doesn’t mean it’s always free. Yes, you can search Creative Commons music, but that doesn’t always mean the music is safe to use as YouTube background music—that’s because some Creative Commons works will let you download and enjoy the music for free, but the creator might limit use beyond personal enjoyment. Read their FAQ before using the FMA search for YouTube background music.
Musopen offers a similar service. You can browse their collection by available licenses, genre, mood, instrumentation, time period and more. You also have the ability to search by license type, so you can filter out music with restrictions like “noncommercial use only.” However, most of their music is at least a century old.
Another site that collects and shares music with a Creative Commons license is ccMixter. You will have to review whether or not each individual track can be used in a commercial endeavor if you plan on monetizing your video. Per the ccMixter about page, “Many tracks on this site ... are under some form of noncommercial license, which allows file-sharing and sampling but prohibits any commercial use whatsoever. Many other tracks on the site are under licenses which allow noncommercial file-sharing and even commercial use of samples.”
FMA also has a paid service for safe-to-use royalty-free music for videos, called Tribe of Noise Pro. You can search by genre, feeling/mood, energy, duration and vocals vs. instrumental.
The price of each song depends on the use, starting at about $50 if you’re just using the song in a podcast, on social media, or in online-only videos and other creative projects that aren’t major commercial releases.
Incompetech’s site might look a little dated compared to others on this list, but offers a truly free royalty-free license for use in YouTube videos for their non-premium songs. Their free license doesn’t allow for WAV download, email support, an official license document with your name and you have to use attribution.
Unlike Tribe of Noise, the free license for Incompetech covers all commercial and noncommercial uses, including major productions. You can also buy an extended license to use the music without attribution, receive support, download the song in high-quality WAV formats and more.
Creatives have turned to the Envato Market to find everything from website themes to stock audio and visuals for years. Their royalty-free audio service AudioJungle lets you choose from over 1.5 million songs and other audio tracks for as little as $1. You can even subscribe to get unlimited downloads of their royalty-free music starting at $16.50 per month. Plus, they offer free audio files every month, which is handy if your budget is especially tight.
AudioJungle is unique because it allows you to choose from individual songs, genre-based music packs and even access the multitrack files (known as stems) of songs if you want to modify a track or remove vocals.
If you have a frequent need for YouTube background music, Jamendo Licensing allows you to pay per track or pay a monthly subscription fee of as little $49 for unlimited access to their entire audio library of over 240,000 tracks. The $49 tier covers all online uses (including online ads), YouTube background music, podcast music and more. Ready to add new background music to your YouTube videos? It’s easier if you have great video editing software! Check out our top video editing software picks.