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January 7, 2014

Free—and legal—music for your projects

If you make an occasional video or slideshow and want a little background music, maybe you just pull something from your iTunes library or a CD in your collection (does anyone have CDs anymore?). Hope you know that's illegal, even if you purchased the track or disk. Copyright law lets you listen to the music, not re-use it in a project of your own.

We can debate copyright for the digital age another time. Right now let's talk about how you can find music that you can legally use, without paying an arm and a leg for the rights. Better yet, let's try for music that's both legal and free for non-commercial work.

Where to look

Many websites advertise "Free music downloads," but that's not what we need. We're looking for music that is in the public domain (anyone can use it), or carries a Creative Commons license. The goal of Creative Commons is "...to help creators retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work, at least non-commercially."

Finding music that's in the public domain can be challenging. There's quite a bit available, but the websites aren't always user-friendly. Try PublicDomain4U or Archive.org, especially for historical recordings.

You'll probably have an easier time looking for audio via Creative Commons. The website sends you to Jamendo.com for music. You can search by genre, mood, instrument and type of CC license. I didn't try this site, but used FreeMusic Archive.org instead.

Screenshot of search results page showing choices available.FreeMusicArchive has a useful search function that I only discovered after spending a couple of hours listening to music by semi-randomly browsing songs by name or genre.

Turns out that when you use the Search box at the top of the home page, your results come back along with many options to fine-tune by length, tempo, type of license, and more. Duh.

Other possibilities

Beatpick.com has a similar search function: Genre, Mood, Topic, Instrument, Tempo, and more. After an hour or so I found the perfect classical piano piece. Unfortunately the licensing fee was $45, more than I wanted to pay. But, had I been a non-profit organization it would have been a very reasonable $4.

I also ran across Mobygratis.com, 150 tracks that the artist Moby offers "for independent and non-profit filmmakers, students and anyone in need of free music." I liked the sound of the track "Hippies", filled out a short online application and a day later got an e-mail giving me permission to download and use it. It would have worked, but I later found something I liked better. If you're looking for electronic music you should definitely check out this site.

Then what?

You're probably going to have to do at least a little editing to adjust the music clip to the length you need. You may be able to do this in your video editing software, or you can edit the sound separately and then import it into your project. The latter is especially useful if you have more complex audio adjustments you want to make.

For this you can use GarageBand if you have a Mac. Another possibility is Audacity, a very competent audio editor that you can download free and use on any computer. As with most open-source software, Audacity isn't as slick and user-friendly as an Apple product, but it's more than adequate, and the price is right.

The folks behind Audacity offer helpful online tutorials, and a quick search on YouTube turns up 250,000 tutorial videos, so you have lots of help in learning how to edit your sound.

And finally

Put everything together and end up with something like this.

Or something completely different.

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