Tips for Creating the Perfect Music Playlist

There is no better way to give voice to your feelings than to create a custom music playlist. On the technical side, putting a playlist together on your computer and then copying it to a smartphone, an MP3 player, a tablet or even a CD is easy enough; it's picking the right songs and putting them in the right order that turns a playlist from good to perfect.

Know Your Audience

The first step to creating the perfect music playlist is to know your audience. Professional DJ Mitch Matthews compares making a playlist to preparing a meal for somebody. Matthews has played music for events of all sizes, from small weddings to large corporate events and international festivals. When making a playlist, keep in mind the preferences of your intended audience, not your own. Even party music isn't universal, as you'll quickly realize if you think of all the ways in which, for example, a child's birthday party is different from a teenager's graduation party or a senior's retirement party. If you don't know your audience well enough to be sure of the music they like, ask somebody who does.

If you can't find anybody who knows, or the audience is large enough that making everybody happy 100 percent of the time is almost guaranteed to be impossible, you'll have to make an educated guess. For a large audience, find out what music is likely to be popular with people matching the average audience and go with that; if your playlist is for just one person, choose based on what you know about him.

Find the Moment

Knowing your audience is essential for creating the perfect playlist, but it's not all you need. You also have to find the moment—identify when the playlist will be listened to as specifically as you can. As Matthews puts it, "don't just make a playlist for Sarah, make a playlist for Sarah when she's driving home from work on a Monday. How is she feeling when she finishes work, and how does she want to feel by the time she gets home? How do you take her from point A to point B?"

Consider your own listening habits too since you likely listen to different songs when you're happy and when you're sad, or when you're trying to focus on work and when you're trying to unwind after a long day. Think of how your audience will be feeling and, more importantly, how you want them to feel, and choose songs based on that. If you're building a workout playlist for yourself, for example, consider the type of exercise you'll be doing and its pace; even if you do a mostly fast-paced workout such as jogging or running, keep in mind you'll also have warm up and cool down periods.

Get the Length Right

If you're creating the playlist with a specific event or occasion in mind, its length is as important as its contents. In some cases, you will want the playlist to last a specific amount of time and no longer such as a playlist that needs to match the duration and structure of a set of exercises in a gym. In other situations, the playlist should have a minimum length but also have an extra 15-30 minutes' worth of music as a buffer you can use if the event runs long.

If you're putting together a playlist for a party or a wedding, you likely have an end time in mind for the event, but you should make allowances for it ending late, even if you feel like you've run out of perfect songs to include. Having less-than-perfect songs near the tail end of an event, when the audience most likely won't really notice, is by far better than the alternatives: having the music end just before the event does or, worse, restarting the playlist over from the beginning.

Don't Hit Shuffle

A perfect playlist is not just a bunch of songs randomly thrown together. Rather, it's a list of songs that, when played in a specific order, work well together and flow one after another in a consistent, pleasant and coherent manner. "Think of your playlist as a long chat with people," says Matthews, "and think of each track as a sentence. If you shuffle the sentences and put them in a random order, the conversation no longer works; the same is true of a playlist." When deciding the order for the songs in your playlist, keep in mind everything you know about its audience and when it will be played. If you're putting together music for a party, for example, don't throw in dance hits immediately—rather, start with a few fun but slower songs to give guests the time to arrive and mingle. Even when the dancing starts, consider including a few slower tracks every now and then to give people a chance to take a breath and relax.

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