the art of building a playlist.

by Michael King

About once every couple of months, I devote the better portion of a morning to building a new playlist. The entire process – scouring the Spotify world for new gems, trying to build the soundtrack to life as is, working to encapsulate it all with the right title – takes a fair amount of time and invigorates me for the days ahead. Not all playlists are created equal, however, as evidenced by the dusty ones at the bottom of the list.

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My first Spotify playlist was ‘The Right Now,’ and it serves as the soundtrack to my second year of graduate school. Over 200 songs long, it played over my office hours and under my thesis work. I’ve taken it with me on runs toward the sunrise and long drives beneath the stars.

There have been other ones in the time since: ‘There Are No Words’ for lyric-free background music. ‘Big New Day’ for my coming out. ‘Sun Season 2015,’ ‘The Brave Unknown,’ ‘Lime Green ’15.’ And, as of today, Do More 2016. Each of them feels totally different, despite a few songs appearing in multiple.

I’m not confident in saying I’ve mastered the playlist-building concept. As with writing, building an RA staff, gathering friends, and trying new things in the kitchen, I find that my process is characterized more by shots in the dark than by adherence to science. A little bit of ‘well, what about this?’

So, here it is – my process. Here’s how these things come about:

  • Step 1: Find the right mood and the right time. I can’t put together something excellent when I’m stressed or rushing; to build a playlist that lasts, I need to have space to breathe and to listen.
  • Step 2: Find a first song. Something new, and something I want to listen to again. This is vital to initiating the tone of a playlist. The first song has a tremendous bearing on the rest.
  • Step 3: Find the next two songs. By this point, looking at the three of them and how they interact – tonally and message-wise – it becomes clear to me where the playlist is headed.
  • Step 4: Name the playlist something. I find a phrase or a color or a mantra that captures what this is making me feeling. Maybe it’s got something to do with where I am in my life. Almost certainly it does, in fact.
  • Step 5: Search, and throw in new things. There’s a fine balance between matching the playlist tone and throwing in unexpected twists and flavors. Additions should be neither boring/predictable nor jarring.
  • Step 6: Stop adding when the listening becomes laborious. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are great playlists. The first time I find myself skipping through an entire Spotify playlist and thinking ‘ugh NO,’ I let myself off of the task.
  • Step 7: Make the playlist default for a bit. I figure out what it’s missing by listening, and I add for a week or two. After they’ve stood, change-free, for about a week, I consider them concluded.

So that’s it. My curiosity spikes, I think, at the thought of how other people go about this. The scientific method? The reclaiming of previously built lists? I wonder what our answers say about each of us?