How to go viral on TikTok with a trending sound
The ultimate primer on how to use a trending sound to make your TikTok video stand out
With some hindsight, we’d all largely agree that social media is a corruptive poison — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some apps that retain a carefree and earnest joy. Like millions of people, I joined TikTok during the pandemic — albeit at first reluctantly, as a Millennial who could finally scoff at a juvenile social media platform like an old man on a lawn — and quickly fell down its rabbit hole of major vibes and quick dopamine hits.
But TikTok can also be overwhelming if you don’t understand its particular language. As users know, the fun of the app often comes from videos that play with the inside joke or format of a trend — often, specifically, a TikTok trending “sound.” If you’re a creator looking to capitalize on a trending sound, how do you do it? And how do you make it gain traction or, just maybe, even go viral? I spoke with TikTok coach Jonathan Betournay to get the lowdown. Here are his tips on how to make a successful TikTok based on a trending sound.
What is a TikTok trending sound?
So what exactly is a TikTok “sound” to begin with? Simply put, a sound is the audio behind a TikTok video — like music, a clip from a TV show, or a funny noise. But most importantly, the audio from an uploaded video is usable to others who can then create their own videos from that same audio, either in a unique way or by playing off of the original video’s format or conceit. A trending sound, then, refers to any specific audio that’s being used many times over by other creators in their videos — essentially, it’s a sound that has gone viral on the app.
For example, this audio was used over and over for a period a few months back as creators put their spin on an old-school homemade Adult Swim commercial:
How do you use a TikTok sound?
To use the sound from a video on TikTok, click the small strip of scrolling text toward the bottom left corner of the video. This should bring you to another page where you can see all the videos from other creators who have used the sound. At the bottom of this new page, click the floating red button that reads “Use This Sound.” You will then be taken to your camera’s view; and upon hitting the record button, you’ll hear the sound that will back whatever you choose to film or upload.
Pay attention to numbers
If you’re looking to make a video specifically with the intention of getting views, you’ll need to pay attention to some key signs that indicate a trending sound is at an optimal point for virality. For instance, when you click on a particular sound that has been popping up on your For You Page (aka your main feed), take a look at the other videos being uploaded. If there are already tens of thousands of TikToks using the sound, or if many were uploaded weeks ago; Betournay says, you’re likely looking at a trend that’s dying down, meaning your video will languish according to TikTok’s algorithm.
So what numbers indicate a ripe trending sound? Betournay typically flags sounds that are just starting to bubble up on his feed but that only have around 1,000 or so videos. “I keep it aside, and I just wait 24 hours,” he says. “In the next 24 hours, (if) I've seen a good movement, then I know this is an upward trend.” It’s all a numbers game: “There's no magic to it,” Betournay says. “It's work.”
Use hashtags and creator resources
You can also streamline the numbers game by simply searching specific hashtags on the app and following creators like Betournay, whose page is often full of posts identifying individual sounds that are just starting to trend. The hashtag “trending alert,” for instance, can help narrow down your search for what sounds are on the upward swing.
Make it short
A simple rule to ensure any video you post on TikTok — whether it’s utilizing a trending sound or not — will actually be watched is to make it short. Over time, TikTok has allowed for longer videos on its platform (you can now upload videos as long as three minutes), but shorter is still better. “Once you're past the 20 second length, it's really hard to keep the [viewer’s] attention, unless you're very entertaining,” Betournay says.
Follow the format, but throw in a twist
Most trending sounds blow up because a very specific format is being played with over and over across the same videos. One of TikTok’s latest big trends, for instance, is the controversy of “couch guy”: a boyfriend who seems suspiciously unexcited (and may or may not be exchanging a phone with another woman) about getting up to greet his girlfriend who has made a surprise visit. Other TikTok creators have jokingly recreated the “couch guy” scene using the same audio, a version of Ellie Goulding’s “Still Falling for You.”
It’s imperative to use a trending sound to fit the format of the trend. But the hard part, Betournay says, is to do so while adding an idiosyncratic twist to it — something that unexpectedly flips an inside joke on its head, like for instance, a version of the couch guy scene, but with a bride and groom playing the parts on their wedding day. “If you can have some sort of creative visual that comes along with the same soundbites, then you've differentiated yourself,” Betournay notes.
Find your style
Hopping on a sound, though, also means knowing how you might appeal to certain audiences. “The most effective way of using trending sounds is if it's generational — if it fits your generation, if it fits your style in front of the camera,” Betournay says. “And it's really hard for someone that starts to really determine [their] style in front of the camera, because we see ourselves one way, but our audience sees us a different way.”
That means potentially playing with different personas and lanes of content before finding out what clicks and drives engagement to your videos. When Betournay himself started out on TikTok, he says he made videos of himself being a funny dad before almost unwittingly finding success with TikTok tutorials and running with that.
Tap into a niche
If the style you’ve settled on is specific enough, it can also give you an edge within a trend. The format of a trending sound can resonate particularly if you make it in a way that caters to a niche corner of the app — like, say, candle-making or “filmtok” (the movie buff corner of the app).
“Following a trend for the sake of following it — it's empty. It's like air,” Betournay says. “But if you're doing it and adapting it to your niche, that's where you're going to find lots of success.”
Persistence is key
Let’s be honest: Even if you take all the right notes, do your research, and hop on a trending sound in the perfect way, the odds of your video going viral are stacked against you. The key instead is to just lean into the app as a long game and stick with it. “The reality is that if you don't post videos, if you don't make videos, if you get scared about making videos, you won't go anywhere,” Betournay says. Expect nothing, have fun, and along the way, you just might hit the right buttons.