Setting the Mood — Top Tips for Adding Stock Music to Your E-Learning

Do you use music in your courses? I’ve found time and time again that a little bit of well-placed music can add a surprising amount of polish and – more importantly – set the tone of the overall experience. Music can take a shortcut through people’s logical brains and tap into their emotions in a way that’s uncommon with spoken or written words.

Take this promo I showed as part of the ID Challenge session at DevLearn a few weeks ago. It actually generated applause in the middle of the session, and I guarantee that wasn’t due to its cutting-edge custom photography, innovative special effects, or vibrant color scheme! The impact came from timing the verbal and visual elements to a music track that perfectly captured the mood I wanted to create.

However, if you’ve attempted to use music before, you’ve probably experienced how time-consuming and frustrating it can be to sort through the cheese and find just what you want. Editing can be intimidating if it’s not already in your skill set. Depending on the source, stock music can be expensive and in a climate in which it’s hard to get any purchases approved, it may be viewed as frivolous.

But I’ve found that most of these challenges can be worked around without too much trouble. Here are my top tips for finding and working with stock music.

Show restraint. Is music always a great design decision? Of course not. Don’t add music – especially throughout the whole course – to try to convince learners that they’re having fun when the course itself could put an actuary to sleep. As Tom Kulhmann wrote a couple of years ago, “If the course is boring, adding [background] audio will only make it boring and danceable.” Sound effects bear a mention here, as well… Need I say more than “Remember the early days of PowerPoint”? Let’s not go back there.

But assuming you’ve determined that using some music is a good design decision for your project…

Try stock photo sites you already use. A lot of stock photo sites also have music and sound effects. So if your company already has credits with iStockPhoto, for example, it may be easy to just get music as part of your regular media budget.

Search for concrete terms. It’s extremely difficult for people to communicate about music… even well enough to enter search terms for what they want. This may be due to our general lack of music education, but even some musicians and music writers say that talking and writing about music is like dancing about architecture. So I’ve started searching for nouns – people, places, and things – that evoke the feeling I want, rather than adjectives like happy, sad, or upbeat.

For example, when looking for music for the ID Challenge promo, I knew that I wanted something to make the learners feel like heroes. Searching iStockPhoto for “hero” brought me to a track called Superhero that fit the bill perfectly.

Review a contributor’s whole portfolio. You may do this for stock photos already, but it’s even more relevant for music because you’re probably looking for a certain feel rather than specific content. Another thing you may find in the portfolio is different versions of a piece you’ve already identified, or even segments of a piece that can be spliced together, making the editing part super-easy.

On sites that don’t have the ability to search by contributor, look for a “Find More Like This” link or button.

Make it a minor deal. When searching for music, some sites display the key signature of each piece; some even let you filter by key signature. When I’m perusing a collection and everything sounds too happy and upbeat, I often hone in on the minor pieces – those in G minor, B sharp minor, etc. – for more of an edgy, hip feel.

Book(mark) it. When you find something you like – even if not for your current project – save it in a lightbox, bookmark it, or, even better, clip it with a service like Evernote. Stock music searches are so time-consuming that it’s well worth it to have a good filing system so that you will be able to find good picks again. You can also use tags to keep track of which projects you’ve already used which tracks for.

Look for collections with segments, lengths, or loops. Not parts as in separate tracks for trumpet, cello, and wind chimes, but segments as in intro, verse, bridge, conclusion, loop, stinger, or jingle. I’ve found a few gems over the years on, and almost all of their pieces have multiple segments as well as complete tracks in various lengths. (And though they’re marketed as music for PowerPoint, there’s absolutely nothing about them that make them software-specific.) has loops and lengths as well, and their Corporate collection is one of the best all-around I’ve found for low cheesiness factor.

Going back to the ID Challenge promo example, one of the draws for Superhero was that it had a great variety of versions, lengths, and segments. I spliced a stinger and a loop together to create the finished product.

Don’t sweat the editing. I’m not a professional audio editor, but I don’t need to be to work with stock music. Segments are made specifically to fit together without fine editing. And there’s no need for expensive or complicated software, either; Audacity (open-source and free for Mac, PC, or Linux), Myna (online and free), and GarageBand (comes free with a Mac) are all perfectly sufficient. One tip that I would offer is that if you’re laying an audio track under narration, the audio needs to be way quieter than you think it does to keep from overwhelming the voice!

Free your mind. Another option in low-budget situations is to find free stock music. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the offerings on, for example, though there are tradeoffs – like a very limited selection and not a lot of segments or lengths to play with. But free stock music may be all you need for a particular project, or it may be a gateway to getting more of a budget for better options in the future. My advice is to be as selective as you would be if you were paying, because there’s plenty of free stuff that’s not worth your time. The Microsoft clipart gallery, for example, has perfectly acceptable sound effects but I’ve never found a use for their music.

Just do it. I’ve never succeeded making the case for a music purchase by presenting an oral or written argument to add music… but I’ve never failed getting a music purchase approved by simply inserting comp audio where I wanted it to go and letting the music speak for itself. Just as it can create a powerful experience for learners, it seems to hold the same sway on stakeholders who hold the purse strings… even ones who want things done as cheaply as possible. And lots of site offer comps for proposal purposes, just like image sites do.

What would you add? I look forward to your thoughts on using – and finding – music for e-learning!

Judy Unrein

10 Responses to “Setting the Mood — Top Tips for Adding Stock Music to Your E-Learning

  • These are great tips – thanks! I’m actually in the midst of looking for music for some “Intro to OpenSesame” type videos as we speak – your post is very well-timed for my aimless meandering through libraries of stock music.

    I did have one thing I wanted to share – Stevie Rocco recommended Jamendo for free music:

  • From my experience I can say that adding audio effects within trainning, makes it much more engaging for learners. There is nothing more boring than a lector reading a text for the whole time. The audio should make the mood.

  • Tracy Parish
    11 years ago

    Thanks Judy. These are great finds and helped me completed something I was just working on. Timing was perfect.

  • Concerned about violations
    11 years ago

    Hi, Judy, great article, but I was surprised to hear the iStockPhoto audio watermark throughout your promo music. It’s pretty cheesy to use a track with an audio watermark; it shows you didn’t purchase the music to use, but instead “borrowed” it, likely violating terms of agreement. It’s the same as using an iStockPhoto image that has the “” watermark plastered on it in a business setting; just bad form.

    • Diane Elkins
      11 years ago

      That’s a great comment. We actually had the very same conversation internally, and we take a pretty strict interpretation of copyright restrictions. In the end, what we decided is that this promo was done as a design “pitch.” This is the exact reason that sites like istock offer watermarked comps — so that you can play with designs and get approvals before committing the dollars to purchasing the assets.

      • Concerned about violations
        11 years ago

        Thank you, Diane! I appreciate the comment and understand the reasoning. I think once the promo is posted online for everyone to view, however, it’s beyond the comp stage–it’s being posted as a final design, versus a testing-the-music and playing-with-designs stage. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a seriously awesome promo, don’t get me wrong!

        • Thank you so much for you comments!

          Intellectual property guidelines are extremely important to us (as Diane said before). So we took the question to iStock and, as a result, have now uploaded a new version of the promo with licensed audio.

  • A new tool for adding stock music is the iFrame from – you can test different music backgrounds over the production in real time before purchase (

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