Ask any group of course creators how to make e-learning more engaging and you’ll get plenty of creative suggestions for using images, videos, and animations. While visuals and interactive elements are great solutions, there’s another engaging element that’s often overlooked: audio.

When used effectively, audio helps draw in learners, focus their attention, and fuel their imaginations. The most common use for e-learning audio is voice-over narration, but in this article, we’ll explore five other creative uses for audio in online training and share some helpful tips and inspiration. Let’s dive in! 

1. Audio Interviews

If you’re an e-learning designer, chances are you use your clients, customers, and subject matter experts (SMEs) to help craft your e-learning course. But have you ever considered including their actual voices in your content? The voices of experts, specialists, and employees performing tasks can lend credibility and authenticity to your course.

That’s where audio interviews can really help! You can record audio interviews over the phone, Zoom, or in person with a digital recorder or app—just make sure you have the interviewee’s permission to record. Then, use single recordings or a series of clips throughout your course. You can even use the same questions you ask during the analysis phase to record sound bites for your course.

So how can these interviews enhance a course? Here are a few examples:

  • Customer service: Ask top-rated employees in customer-facing roles how they would handle specific customer interactions. Use their responses as examples of best practices for learners to follow.
  • Legal and compliance: Find out if a new law impacts how your company conducts business. Ask legal and compliance staff how it affects employees and customers.
  • Sales and marketing: Seek out salespeople who always exceed expectations and interview these superstars on their secrets of success.

Including real-life testimonials and perspectives helps to humanize your e-learning courses. And allowing experts to share their thoughts in their own words—rather than via text on a screen—is a great way to engage your learners.

2. Natural Sounds

Sounds from the location or place where the real-world performance takes place can complement ambient sounds and draw learners' focus and attention.

Similar to audio interviews, these can be easily recorded in the actual work environment using a digital recorded or app. Appropriate uses for natural sounds could include:

  • Workplace safety: Including examples of a fire alarm or tornado warning alarm can help prepare learners to identify the sounds in real life.
  • Machinery: If you’re training a mechanic to diagnose engine issues, including audio snippets of specific sounds that are diagnostic clues could be helpful.
  • Music: Providing audio snippets of the different sounds made by varying musical equipment or instruments can convey much more meaning than text alone.

Natural sound effects should be louder than ambient sounds but should not compete with the primary narration. Ambient noises can play concurrently with primary narration, but natural sounds work best when they're filling gaps in the narration.

3. Ambient Sounds

The background noises you hear everywhere you go create a sense of atmosphere and location without relying on visuals or interactive elements.

These types of sounds can go a long way toward making your scenarios feel more realistic. When creating or searching for ambient sounds, look for the common, repetitive noises that exist in the environment you’re creating in your course.

Consider the following work environments and their associated ambient sounds:

  • Warehouse: The sounds you’d hear in a warehouse could include forklift backup beeps, palettes being stacked, and people walking up and down truck ramps.
  • Legal office: The sounds in a legal office are likely more subtle than in a warehouse. Common sounds would include quiet office chatter, printers, paper shuffling, and keyboard typing.
  • Restaurant: In a restaurant, the sounds you’d likely hear would include food sizzling, background talking, and receipts printing.

Here's a good use of ambient sound effects to pull learners into a dark, mysterious cave.

Gamification Using Ambient Sounds

View the project | Learn more | Jonathan Hill

The key to using ambient sound in your e-learning courses is to look for the common, repetitive noises that exist where your learners perform their job functions, then layer those sounds below your primary course narration.

And remember to keep volume in mind. You should always play ambient sound at a very low level so it doesn’t become the primary focus. And if you’re using ambient sound and voice-over simultaneously, follow audio accessibility guidelines by making sure the narration audio is four times louder than the ambient sound so learners can hear what’s being said. Or even better—allow learners to turn off the ambient sound if they prefer.

4. Sound Effects

Sound effects that occur as a result of interacting with an object or system used on the job can complement ambient sounds and draw learners’ focus and attention. For example, training that simulates a grocery store checkout could use sound effects like the beeping of a scanner each time the learner scans an item, the sound of a cash register drawer closing when the learner completes a transaction, or plastic bags rustling as the learner bags purchased items. 

Adding sound effects creates a more immersive experience and amplifies the realism of the course. But as with all types of audio—it’s important to use sound effects wisely—they should be louder than ambient sounds but should not compete with the primary content. 

It’s also important to only use sound effects when they add to the context of the course. For example, a ringing sound effect during an office simulation that signals to the learner to pick up a phone can be useful, whereas a noise that plays each time a learner submits an answer to a quiz question is not. 

It’s also important to note that when sound is used to convey information—like whether an answer is correct or incorrect—you should also include a visual representation of that information for learners with auditory disabilities.

5. Background Music

This one’s a bit trickier. In many cases, music is more distracting than beneficial to a project. That’s in part because there's no universal agreement about what music means. People hear music differently.

For most projects, music probably isn’t appropriate. If you must use it, then do so sparingly so that it never competes with the primary narration.

That being said, the right project can benefit greatly from a music track.

Consider the example below. The background music combined with button sound effects and audience “oohs” and “aahs” help simulate a game show quiz.

Try viewing the quiz with and without audio to get a feel for how the effects bring this interaction to life.

Trivia Time

Explore this project


So there you have it: five creative ways to effectively use audio in e-learning. Just remember, you don’t want the audio to distract from your course. Practice the “less is more” principle so your audio helps focus your learners and enhance the learning experience. And when you’re unsure whether audio is appropriate for your course, ask yourself the questions in this article: Things to Consider When Using Audio in E-Learning.

Do you have any tips or favorite methods of using audio in your courses? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. And to learn even more about using audio in e-learning, check out these articles:

And to practice using audio in your e-learning courses, share your own examples in the following e-learning challenges:

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Jennifer Valley
Kim Hannan
Mike Jones
Douglas Audirsch

I have used a variety of sounds in our courses depending upon the design and style of the course. A few examples have been: - course designed like a talk show with a musical intro and announcer - course designed with correct/incorrect scenarios, with office sounds (typing, machines humming, phones ringing) very lightly in the background. - ambient sounds on slides related to the graphics and narration. E.G. A slide explaining a "deep dive" into a topic - the slide background is an underwater scene with a scuba diver and it is paired with a soft bubbling sound that only lasts a few seconds. We did this to establish the concept but then faded the sound out as the narration took over. Same course later referenced this same topic and we animated a scuba diver silhouette behind the... Expand