If you have ever heard a well-known song in a movie, then it (most likely) means that the song was licensed for use in said movie. This also applies for when you hear a song in a show, commercial, video game, or another visual medium. With how many songs show up in movies, you can bet there are a lot of licenses being held and royalties being paid out. But what is music licensing? And what are the differences between the different types of music licenses that exist?

What is Music Licensing?

Music license definition

Learning about music licenses is pretty easy once you clarify that there is more than one type of license (e.g, royalty-free music or copyright-free music). At the same time, a simple definition can also explain what it is in broad strokes, in case someone on the street asks you and you need to give them a quick answer.


What is Music Licensing?

A music license is a right held by someone to distribute and/or use a piece of copyrighted music. Often seen in movies, a music license is also used for commercials, television shows, internet videos, and any other visual medium that wants to use a song with permission. A variety of music license types exist, each with their own nuances, sometimes requiring a person to hold more than one for proper usage in a project.

Music license characteristics include:

  • Music (song or piece) being used in a movie at any point for a notable amount of time.
  • Music used to sell a product in a commercial.
  • Personal video projects using licensed music for creative purposes.
  • Video games using licensed music for in-game entertainment.
  • Record companies and artists licensing their music out.
  • Music licensing companies offering songs for a fee.

Before we dig deeper into what is music licensing, who are music licensing companies, and the different types of music licensing there is, you can take a look at the video below that provides an overview of the topic, along with examples and what to look out for.

A “what is music licensing” Q&A

It can be tricky understanding what is music licensing, though the most important thing is that you’re made aware of it. In this way, you’re prepared and have an idea of what to expect when you want to use copyrighted music in your works. So let’s dig into the different license types you might encounter.

Music Licensing Companies

Master license

You are probably very familiar with studios, artists, and music licensing organizations having control of a master recording, often referred to simply as a “master.” A master license is often given to the rights holder of the piece of music, which can include the artist and/or record company.

If you get your hands on a master license, you have the right to use an original master recording in a work of visual art, as well as a compilation music album of some kind. However, there is a specific limit to what a master license can give you, which is covered in the very next type of license.

Music Licensing for Video

Synchronization license

A synchronization license is one of the most common types for music licensing for video. It permits you to use either a master or re-recorded version of a song in a work of visual art.

Learn more about music licensing for video

The most obvious difference between a synchronization and master license is that the former (sync) allows you to use a re-recorded (or cover) version of the song you have the rights to. This would mean all those movie trailers you’ve seen that use slowed down versions of popular songs had to get a synchronization license.

This would also apply if you want to learn how to shoot a music video for a song without worrying about lawyers knocking on your door.

Music Albums

Mechanical license

Most filmmakers will not have to worry about this, but if you use music the way Quentin Tarantino uses music, then you no doubt have been involved with getting a mechanical license. This involves putting a licensed song on a reproduced item, like a CD or some other format that lets someone listen to a licensed track outside of the visual medium.

Copyright holders and music licensing companies are often the ones you have to go through in order to make this happen.

This is also a unique license you will need if you want to record your own cover version of a song. For example, if you are putting out an album and want permission to cover a song for distribution (such as selling), you will need a mechanical license.

Music in Stores

Public performance license

This might be the most common form of music license that does not involve filmmaking (at least not explicitly). If you have ever been to a car dealership, convention, meeting, or maybe even a fair, and heard licensed music being played, it would technically be an example of a performance license in action.

Learn more about public performance licensing

If you want to play your music in a public place for everyone around to hear, then you will require a performance license. This may not be necessary if you’re filming a movie, but it is possible you will be filming somewhere where “performance” music is occurring. However, with audio mixing, this can often be eliminated, but it never hurts to play it safe.

Music Licensing Organizations

Print license

Do you remember being in band practice and playing the music that was there on the sheet? Well, even if you were never in band practice, you likely know what sheet music is.

If someone ever wants to reproduce an artist's music in the form of sheets, like chords and notes, they will need a print license. Very unlikely that a filmmaker will have to use this, but if you end up making original music that can be reproduced this way, you will definitely want to keep this license type in mind.

You should also know how to copyright a script, even if your movie does or does not have original music, just in case.

Musical Theater

Theatrical license

A theatrical license is very specific to theater (as the name indicates). If you are putting on a production and want to use it in your theatrical performance, you will be needing a theatrical license to do so. No matter how big or small your production, a theatrical license will be needed if you use a licensed song.

No matter what type of project you’re working on, if you plan to use licensed music, you will want to make sure you have the right licenses on hand. And if you are working on your own music for a project, it wouldn’t hurt to cover yourself by protecting your intellectual property.

Music Licensing Companies

How to license music

The act of how to license music usually involves getting permission from whoever owns the recording and whoever made the song (writers/composers). Not too complicated, but it can be tricky figuring out how to get in touch with those entities. Recording companies and music artists can have contact info that would not be too hard to find, especially if they have a website.

There are also dedicated music licensing organizations that have a catalog you can choose from. So when it comes to how to license music in these catalog-based sites, you simply browse, add, and explain what you’re using the selected music for.

The important part is having written consent from both parties — that includes you — that let you use the song for whatever purposes you have in mind.


Royalty-free music guide

Now that we have gone over what is music licensing and the different types of music licenses, it’s time to jump into a similar but opposite arena: royalty-free music! Our guide covers how this works, what to do, what to look out for, and what type of royalty-free music might be best for your project.

Up Next: Royalty-Free Music →
Solution Icon - Shot List and Storyboard

Showcase your vision with elegant shot lists and storyboards.

Create robust and customizable shot lists. Upload images to make storyboards and slideshows.

Learn More ➜

  • StudioBinder is a film production software built out of Santa Monica, CA. Our mission is to make the production experience more streamlined, efficient, and pleasant.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copy link