Thanks to Spotify, the playlist has become the most important organizing device for music. The function that used to be done by albums and radio DJs — namely, grouping songs together — now happens in the playlists we build for ourselves.
So how do you make a great playlist? I’m no expert here, but I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time playing with the concept, so I thought I’d share a few thoughts. First though, a bit of playlist taxonomy.
There are really two different types of playlists, collections and true playlists, and the distinctions are important because they determine the way you create each type. Collections bring songs or pieces together around some common theme. Those themes can vary widely: the artist or the genre are common examples, but they can be more interesting too. Songs that make you feel a certain way, or that you listened to in a particular year. Pieces that come from a particular period of time, or that showcase a particular instrument. For collections, the order of the songs isn’t really important — they’re likely to be played on shuffle anyways.
Here’s an example of a collection I’ve been building for a few years now. All of these songs are relatively new, but they borrow their sound from a past era of rock and soul.
Playlists are different. They’re designed not just to collect similar songs, but to create some sort of arc, to tell a story or create a certain feeling. The order of a playlist is crucial, and the relationship between songs and their transitions are what make a playlist successful. In truth, they’re really hard to do well, and especially difficult as a static playlist.
Today, the masters of great playlist building are DJs and house artists. Good ones push the crowd and feed off of them at the same time, sensing where they are and what they need. An important distinction though, is that they do this in real time, which presents its own challenges but is in some ways easier than creating a static arc. That art also exists within a certain space of music though, mostly house, hip-hop, pop, R&B and all the spaces in between. I think there’s an interesting space for building great playlists with other types of music. It’s really a way to compose without needing to write or edit music yourself.
I didn’t have a great example of a true playlist lying around, so I pulled together a short one tonight just for fun. Give it a listen and let me know what you think:
With that said, here are a few tips for making great collections and playlists:
- This process takes time. Start by creating number of different playlists with different themes. When you hear a song that matches the theme, add it to the collection. See which ones you add to frequently and which you don’t.
- Most won’t get traction and that’s ok. If you don’t find yourself adding new songs to them for extended periods of time, delete them or archive them. You can even repurpose them, changing the focus by swapping out a few songs.
- Once a collection has 10+ songs, you know you’re onto something. You might find yourself adding to them for years. Shuffle and enjoy.
- First, you have to understand why you’re making the playlist, and who the audience is. What do you want your listeners to feel? Or, what feeling to do you want to express?
- For a few key dimensions, you want to maintain a consistent thread. But you don’t want it all sounding the same either, so adding some variation is important. Roughly ⅔ similar, ⅓ variation tends to work well. Consider these dimensions: volume, tempo, instrumentation, tonality (happy or sad), genre, etc.
- Pick a song you like and see where it goes. Listen to it and ask yourself what would sound good next. Once you’ve added a song, step back and think about the structure of the playlist as a whole. Does it flow, is there enough variation? Then add your next song. Repeat the process until finished.
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