It’s all about narrative
Design the perfect setlist and take your performance to the next level!
How can the perfect setlist improve your live performance?
There are so many different factors that make up a great live performance, but one of the most crucial, and yet simultaneously most under-appreciated, is the order in which the songs are played, also known as the setlist.
A well-constructed setlist can guide the audience on an engaging musical journey, while an ill-fitting setlist might confuse the listener or prevent certain songs from having the right impact. With that in mind, here are a few tricks I’ve honed over the years to help you come up with the best order for your songs!
1. Set the tone
We only get one chance to make a first impression, so we need to make the most of it. The first song of a setlist is among the most important, as it sets the expectation with the audience for the rest of the show.
Whichever song you choose, it should be representative of the rest of your set, while also standing out and grabbing the listeners’ attention.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean you need to come on stage with all guns blazing and bowl over the crowd with noise and high energy. Indeed, there’s a lot to be said for an understated or even quiet opening song. What matters is that the choice is intentional.
2. Identify the extremes
When planning a set, it’s important to recognize which songs represent the biggest outliers. Which songs are the highest energy (loudest, fastest)? Which songs have the lowest energy (quietest, slowest)? Which have the happiest mood?
Which are the most uncomfortable? Once you’ve identified the key characteristics, it’s important to distribute them across the setlist.
You don’t want to have all the loud and happy songs in one part of the show, then all the quiet and sad ones in another. It’ll feel too unbalanced. At the same time, though, you don’t want to just ping-pong back and forth between upbeat and downbeat, high energy and low energy, etc.
This will give the audience a sort of emotional whiplash, and the listeners won’t have any time to ruminate on the message or atmosphere of the song you’ve just finished before being sent into an opposite headspace. This brings us to the next tip.
3. The “average/medium” songs are the key
So, if you can’t group all the “extremes” together, but you also can’t just bounce back and forth, what’s the solution? Glad you asked! The answer is simple: the “medium” or midtempo songs will glue it all together.
Songs that are closer to the proverbial “average” mood of your set can go before or after almost any song, and can serve as effective bridges from one extreme to the other (high > medium > low), or even as a respite between songs on one side of the spectrum without having to go all the way to the other end (high > medium > high).
Midtempo songs are like wild cards or blank Scrabble tiles; You can use them just about anywhere to fulfill whatever purpose you need. Don’t be afraid to use them!
4. Keep some tricks up your sleeve
The longer your performance is, the more crucial it is to plan ways to keep your audience engaged. If you reveal all of your set’s dynamics earlier on, you’ll find yourself with nothing new to offer the audience while still needing to maintain their attention for the remainder of the show.
The same goes for playing the hits if you’re lucky enough to have some. If you play everything the audience knows they want to hear in the first portion of the set, they may feel like they might as well leave to go get some food.
The key to an attentive audience is to make them want more, so make sure you don’t exhaust your bag of tricks until you’re ready to say goodnight.
5. Finish strong
Much like the opening song, your closer is also one of the most important choices for your set. After all, it’s going to be the last chance to make an impression on your audience, and whatever mood you provide them is going to be the one that they take away as they leave.
Many artists will save one of their biggest hits for their encore, ensuring that the audience will leave feeling satisfied after hearing one of their favorites. Similarly, the finale will often be something high energy and upbeat, sending the audience off in a spirited and joyous state.
Also like the opener, however, that’s far from the only effective way to end a show. Sometimes, artists will subvert expectations and end with something quiet and calming, creating a memorable conclusion specifically because it’s contrary to what the crowd is used to.
Another option is to choose a song that’s lesser-known but delivers a message that the artist wishes those listening to contemplate as they return to their everyday lives. Look at all the songs you plan to play, and decide which one contains the most meaningful takeaway to leave with your audience.
6. Bonus tip: Segues
If you want to give your setlist a little extra spice, this is one of my personal favorite tricks (in fact, I’ve become so known for it that I’ve gotten the nickname “Segue” among my peers).
If there are any songs in your set that share some sort of common element (key, tempo, groove, etc.), see if you can find a way to play a couple of them together, transitioning from one to the other without stopping.
This accomplishes two things: First, it’s a cool surprise that catches the audience off-guard, creating a very memorable experience. Second, it creates a shared moment of epiphany among the members of the audience as they figure out what you’re doing.
As they begin to realize your trick and react, you then share in this moment of comradery, because now you know that they know. It’s like sharing a nod and a wink with everybody listening, and it builds a bond between you and them.
The more shows you perform and setlists that you design, the better sense you’ll get of what works for you as a performer, and what connects best with your audience. Be sure to pay attention and watch how your music lands. Your audience is your best teacher, so be ready to learn all you can.