How to make a set list

January 31, 2009

Making a set list for performance is very similar to ordering songs on an album. You have to take into account the following items:

  • Key signature
  • Tempo
  • Timbre (of voices and intruments)
  • Pacing
  • Energy flow

You generally want to change keys with each song. Everything else in the list should flow from one to the next, however.

Listening to The Beatles’ Revolver recently acted as a great demo of how to create the perfect set list.

  1. Taxman: The first song sets the tone for everything that comes after. It’s usually an up-tempo song, as in this example. The Beatles tell you right away that this album will include social commentary and will have some unusual guitar sounds. Don’t expect She Loves You!
  2. Eleanor Rigby: What at first seems an odd choice (minor key, sad song following the angry Taxman) turns out to be very strong. While we think of this song as a slow song, it’s actually got quite a pulse to it. The strings are in sharp contrast to the guitar of the song before, but the social commentary ties the two together. From an energy standpoint, we’ve gone from rebellious to reflective in a very successful way.
  3. I’m Only Sleeping: The tempo slows a bit more but we’re back in a major key. We also have a pronounced beat, similar to Rigby but slower. In other words, we’ve just made a smooth transition from a social cry to an invocation of mellowness. We’ve also switched vocalists again (Lennon instead of McCartney) and timbre: Lennon uses his most nasal, edgy sound for this sleepy song.
  4. Love You To: And now that we’ve heard enough to fully trust these musicians with our experience, we are suddenly taken to India for George Harrison’s take on Ravi Shankar. We’re also deep enough into the set that we can tolerate a somewhat weak song. It acts primarily as a set-up for more Indian influences to come (these aren’t comments on the revolutionary nature of Harrison’s playing; I’m talking strictly about the piece and its place in the set).

    By the way, this act of trust is very important for audience experience. If you start with a weak or raucous song, you may put your audience at odds with you. I generally shoot for about three pieces of audience-pleasers before going for something a little outside their normal realm of experience. 

  5. Here, There and Everywhere: Wow, that’s a head-twister! How did we get from Harrison’s trance state to McCartney’s traditional ballad? This is something of a jump, but it works due to the diversity of pieces that have gone before it. It’s clear by now that we’re on a journey and might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. And did you notice? Tempo has slowed through each piece on the album so we can be in the right space to hear this lovely song.
  6. Yellow Submarine: Enough already! Suddenly we get the rare sound of Ringo singing to us in this charmingly goofy mid-tempo piece. You can almost hear an announcer say, “We’re going to mix it up a little with our next tune.” And what a tune! How can this and Love You To exist on the same album? By being linked with a slow, traditional ballad to bring us back to a comfy place.
  7. She Said She Said: And we’re back to the guitar sounds of Taxman, but thrown together with harmonies and dreamy overlays to give the piece a touch of otherworldliness. Lennon’s voice is mellower than his earlier sound, which helps add a new dimension to the set. Tempo is a little slower than Yellow Submarine, but that’s overcome by the strong rock-n-roll feel of clashing symbols and wailing guitars. The meter change-ups roll right over us: we trust these guys, remember?
  8. Good Day Sunshine: McCartney’s back with another sunny ballad, but this time it has a bounce to it and a charming piano bit mixed with the more traditional rock elements. While still mid-tempo, and wildly different from the songs previous, there are enough elements in common that the song order is perfect.
  9. And Your Bird Can Sing: We’re firmly back in the realm of traditional rock by this point, with rougher vocals, prominent guitars, and rebellious lyrics. The tempo is faster, which acts as a nice pick-me-up after the mid-tempo pieces we’ve been hearing.
  10. For No One: Here’s McCartney and the piano again, but the timbre is different. Once again, we have the combination of the familiar (piano, vocals, guitars) and the new (French horn?? what’s that doing here?). The piece has several elements in common with Rigby but is distinct and strong on its own. Yet if it had taken the place of Rigby in the set list, we’d lose that strong moral call that the album kicks off with.
  11. Doctor Robert: Clearly, we’ve built up enough trust: it’s time for some changes. We go into country-rock-land with Doctor Robert. The harmonies are familiar Beatles but the twangy influence is outside the ordinary. I find this the weakest song on the album—which makes this a good place to put it. So many good songs have gone before it that we can mentally skip this one and easily forget it. Always bury weak songs between stronger ones.
  12. I Want To Tell You: Familiar piano jangling suddenly cranks into dissonant sound around our beloved Beatles harmonies. This song walks that line between familiar and unfamiliar that The Beatles were masters of. It has a jaunty enough line that you want to listen but it also goes off in these new directions. Again, this is a relatively weak song (see what comes after it) and it’s buried before a breakthrough.
  13. Got To Get You Into My Life: Wow! Trumpet flourish! Could you say any more clearly that it’s time for a new sound? This is great placement, coming right after two weak songs that are heavy on guitar. We once again hear that bouncy rhythm that permeates the songs on this album and McCartney’s smooth vocals, which makes us feel comfy. We tap our toes. We bounce our heads. When suddenly—”Got to get you into my life!” Paul unleashes some raucous vocals that become the hook for the whole piece. It’s a wonderful relief from the dreamy texture of earlier pieces. This song is clear and loud and strong—and really wakes us up!
  14. Tomorrow Never Knows: …which sets us up for psychedelia and the album’s most experimental sounds. Our energy is up from the near-perfect Got To Get You Into My Life, so we’re set up for this up-tempo exploration. Note also that this tune is late in the album. If it had been first, we may have shut off the record player/8-track/CD player (depending on our timeframe) at the first few notes. But we’ve been seduced by Beatle brilliance to give this wacky song a try.

    The only question I have is why this piece is the last on the album. Was it to let fans know that The Beatles were heading in a new direction of more experimental music—in other words, to set fans up for the next album? Or perhaps it was intended as the soundtrack to a pot and acid fest and no one would have to get up and move the record needle (joke!).

In general, you want to close with your most expressive, up-tempo piece. It should be preceded by another medium or up-tempo piece so you help bring the listeners back up from wherever you’ve taken them in the meantime.

Of course, this all depends on the music you’re playing and the expectations of your audience. Just remember that you’re taking them on a journey. Shocks to the system aren’t generally welcome. Yet too much of the same sound will lose them (imagine if all the McCartney pieces were grouped together on this album, for instance).

Think of your set list as a whole, where listeners are taken up and down throughout their time with you. That helps build trust and a better experience. Which all leads to better things for you!