You’ve gotten THE gig, and you’re super excited. You’ve been rehearsing, but now you’ve kicked rehearsals up a notch or twelve. You’ve also come to the place that most musicians dread but every musician must deal with: You have to make a set list.
Some bands don’t bother with set lists, but they are important. Why? A bad set list can ruin a show. A good set list can take a decent band and make it sound like a good band. A great set list can reel a listener in, keep them with you for the entire show, and win you new fans.
There are many different things to consider when creating a set list, but we are going to focus on five key elements for creating and using your set list to its fullest potential. These five elements are:
- The Technical Stuff
- The “Feel” of the Song
- The Art of Spontaneity
Before we send you off into the world of set list creating, we should go over a few basic concepts.
- For the purposes of this article, a “set” is going to be 12 songs. Depending on your songs and what kind of set you are playing, this number will vary, and that’s okay. Once you’ve looked at the five key elements of creating a set list, and you know how much time you’ll have for your set, you can adjust your number accordingly.
- Generally, a good set is divided into three or four parts, with each part having its own peaks and valleys. Let’s call them “set-sections.” The number of set-sections you will have will depend on the length of your set, but even a two song set needs to have contrast within it.
- Not all sets will look the same. You may have a gig where it’s appropriate to play an album in its entirety. Or, you may have a gig where you only play covers. These rules are not one size fits all. Don’t be afraid to experiment and fit the set to the gig, whatever that may look like.
Now let’s look at what you can do to craft a great set list.
Purpose and Audience
When you create a set list, you need to determine the purpose of your set.
The first consideration is the setting or venue. A set for a coffeehouse will probably look different from what you would play at a wedding, and a wedding set list will look nothing like a set for a summer festival. The venue itself will help determine some of your decisions—a small stage with only enough room for two people might not be the best time to play a song that sounds best with your full band.
The second, and perhaps most important, consideration is the audience. At each of the places I mentioned above, the audience will react to you in very different ways. This is why you should create your set list with your audience in mind. They are, after all, the people who are (hopefully) paying to see you. If you are in a small room and people are paying attention, it might be all right to bust out the B-side from your second release that no one but your mom has heard. But, at a busy festival or in a crowded bar, you may want to play songs that are known attention-grabbers or fan favorites that have stood the test of time.
When you have a general idea of the audience you will be playing for, you have another factor to consider: How do you want the audience to respond? You are onstage and have a microphone to carry your voice across the murmur of the crowd. People will be listening to you, even if it’s only for a moment. There is some authority, however small it may be, that comes with your position. Do you want your audience to get up and have a good time? Great! Plan your set so they can get up and dance, and give them a couple slow songs to grab a drink. You want to raise awareness for your favorite cause? Use your music to put people in a frame of mind that will allow them listen to you when you talk about that charity. You can’t force people’s responses, but if you have a purpose for your set, you can help guide your audience in the direction you want them to go.
The Technical Stuff
Okay, so you’ve identified your setting, your audience, and your purpose. Now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of creating your list. There are a few rules to keep in mind that deal with the details of your songs.
Though the average listener might not know what key you’re playing in, if you play too many songs in the same key consecutively, the audience will likely think everything sounded the same and lose interest—even if the songs have different tempos and a different feel. A good rule of thumb is to never play more than two songs in a row that are in the same key.
As with key, it makes a difference to vary the tempo within your set list. Try to categorize your songs into slow (60-80 BPM), mid-tempo (80-110 BPM), and fast (110 BPM and above). Then, in each of your set-sections, try to have a variety of tempos. You can also group tempos or have one slow set-section that has some tempo variation with its broader “slow” category. Maybe try slow-mid-slow in one section, or come way down and do a slow-slow-mid and ramp back up into a more energetic set-section. This variety keeps your audience from losing interest.
Complexity and Energy
If your drummer has gone crazy playing over 140 BPM for the last set-section, you may want to slow down a little bit and give his muscles a break. Really, it’s the same no matter what instrument you play. The lead singer may enjoy nailing those difficult high notes, but—if you don’t bring it back to their comfort range—their voice will begin to tire, and your sound may suffer. Try to keep your more challenging numbers separated to give you and your band a break. Bring them back in when you need to re-capture your audience.
The “Feel” of the Song
In the same way that you don’t want too many songs in the same key played together, you also want to pay attention to the “feel” of the song. Though the term “feel” is subjective, there are a few concrete things we can look at.
Is the song shuffled? Does it have more of a dance beat? Are all the choruses played half-time? Try to separate rhythmically similar songs, or only play two back to back.
In the same way that you can tell the difference between a flute and a trumpet, your lead singer’s voice has different timbres, or sounds, that fit together in different ways. Likewise, you can switch effects on an electric guitar or switch to an acoustic guitar to further vary the timbre of your set. Keep these differences in mind from song to song, and use timbre as a way to bring diversity to your set. By experimenting with timbre in a set-section, you may create a whole new feel that you and your band love.
Mix in these experiments with a tried-and-true song to keep your audience engaged.
It’s important to consider how you are going to get from one song to another. Are you going to tell a story? Introduce your bandmates? Go straight from one song to the next? Planning your transitions will help your show run smoothly.
Transitions are also the main distinguishing factor between an amateur musician and a professional career musician.
- Know who is going to start the song. Is you drummer counting off? Is the guitarist starting out with a riff? Assigning responsibility for the start of the song lets everyone be on the same page and helps eliminate empty time between songs.
- Have an instrument play behind spoken transitions. This prepares your audience and your band for what’s happening next. It also adds sonic interest to the story.
- Carefully craft a musical transition between songs. This can be difficult, but, when done well, it can impress your audience and keep them engaged with what’s happening onstage. It’s best to do this with songs that are in related keys. For example, if your current song is in C, and the next song is in G, a musical transition will work well since G is the dominant chord in the key of C.
The Art of Spontaneity
It’s important to have a plan for your set and transitions as you prepare for your show. But what happens when life throws a curve ball your direction? Perhaps your audience isn’t paying attention to your well-crafted set, or the sound man gives you a 10 minute warning 20 minutes from your big ending. What do you do then?
When a wrench gets thrown in the works (because sooner or later it will happen), you don’t have to be afraid IF you have rehearsed well. Being unprepared when challenges arise is when real problems begin. Knowing your whole set so well that you could play it in your sleep helps you recover quickly when things don’t go as planned.
If the audience isn’t listening the way you would like them to, try rearranging your set-sections or the individual songs in those sections. If you have to cut your set short, know what you want to eliminate and where you want to pick back up.
You may even find that a change in your set leads to something marvelous. If you forget a song in the middle of the set, you might find that the audience actually responds better without that song.
I can promise you that you will have problems, but they only stay problems when you don’t learn from them. If you can recover well and take stock of what happened, those problems become opportunities for you to play an even better show next time.
Creating a great set list is a skill that takes practice and lots of trial and error. The more shows you play, the better your sets will be. Don’t be afraid to get out there and try different sets, but pay attention to people’s reactions. Figure out what works for you, and you will be on your way to having a great live show.