The Importance of Song Order in a Set List

Updated on December 5, 2017
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Bob Craypoe (also known as R. L. Crepeau) is a musician, writer, webmaster, 3D artist, and creator of the Punksters comic strip series.

I have a set list that I use for my solo gigs that has over 80 songs. Those are just the songs that I play guitar and sing on. I also play other instruments and I keep the songs I do on them on different song lists. So, just to make things simple for the purpose of simplifying the process of driving my various points home, I will primarily be referring to the set list I maintain for the guitar songs.

A set list is really more than just a list of songs that you intend to play. Or at least it should be. What I meant by that is that there should be some logical order to the songs on the list. There are various factors that should be taken into consideration when you lay out your set list and decide what order to put your songs in. I will go over those various factors.

Equipment and Settings Factors

When I used to be part of a musical duo with a keyboard player, there were a lot of settings changes that would have to be made here and there. The keyboard player would change his keyboard's sounds from piano and strings to flute and strings sounds and so forth. So, to simplify matters, we would play two or three songs consecutively where he would use the same settings. This reduced the overall time gap between songs.

Also, there would be some songs where I might have a capo on my guitar on a certain fret. I would do a few songs in a row that had the capo on the same fret. Reducing the amount of time between songs allows your show to flow better. There is less interruption and you are able to squeeze a lot more songs into a night’s performance. I like that because if you are able to knock out more songs in a might, it leaves the audience with more of a sense that they were able to enjoy a lot more music. In reality, they are right, simply because you were literally able to fit more songs into the show as a result of less of a time gap between songs.

I have an extensive set list. It consists of a lot of songs. So I am obviously in a position as to where I am able to squeeze a lot of songs into a night’s performance. I realize that not everyone is in that position but it should be something you are working towards.

I have played gigs with more than one instrument. I mostly play guitar and sing. But I have also played mandolin on some gigs. So when I do play mandolin, I will pick it up and play a number of songs consecutively, using the mandolin. It just makes more sense to do it that way.

The Song’s Key

Another thing that may determine the running order of the set list is they key each song is in. Often, I will go immediately from one song into another. I don’t wait for applause. I just knock the songs out. Also, finding creative ways of working one song right into another is both fun and often impressive to an audience. The easiest way to be able to do that is to work a song in a specific key right into another song in the same key. It makes the transition so much smoother and really works well in most cases.

Inversely, trying to blend one song from one key right into another one in a different key is a bit harder to do. That requires a bit more creativity but there are ways of doing it. I even do that from time to time as well. But blending two songs from two different keys may involve a bit of knowledge in music theory. In any case, you should be aware of the keys of the songs you are playing and have enough knowledge of music theory to be able to do various things musically.

The Song’s Tempo and Dynamics

A song’s tempo is always an item for consideration when setting up the song order in your set list. It is often very easy to flow from one song into another when they have similar tempos. On the other hand, it is also nice to mix things up as well. You don’t want to have too many slow songs in a row. Too many slow songs in a row may cause you to lose the attention of the audience. So you will want to make sure you have some upbeat songs between the slow ones.

Dynamics are nice as well. It’s nice to do songs where there are tempo changes. Personally, I like a lot of songs where the dynamics change. Too many songs with the same tempo all the way through is boring to me. It’s easy for a band to put together songs like that but the real test in how tight a band really is comes when there are sudden tempo changes or changes in dynamics. You can’t really get that when all of the songs are the same tempo and/or dynamics all the way through.

Dynamics can also be dramatic. It’s great when a song leads up to a big finale or climax. A lot of show-stoppers are made of those very things. A show-stopper is basically a song that often leaves an audience in a state of awe. Those are the songs that really impress them and the ones they might often talk about when telling some of the people they know about your band or you.

Early Evening Versus Late Night

From playing out in a variety of venues throughout the years, I have noticed certain similarities. I have noticed that the older people generally come in earlier and leave earlier. On the other hand, the younger people have a tendency to come in later and leave later. That should also be a determining factor in the order of the songs on your set list.

What I do as a result is play many of the older songs earlier in the night for the older crowd. Later on, with the younger crowd, I tend to play the newer songs. To me, it just makes more sense to do it that way. It increases the likelihood of the people present at the time you are playing a particular song enjoying the song being played. This is primarily because of the fact that they are more likely to know the song that you are performing.

Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment with Song Order

As a solo performer, I must admit that it is easier for me to devise a set list where songs have a specific logical order. I don’t have to run it by anyone else and that alone makes the whole process much easier. Also there are a lot less factors that will have to do with various equipment settings. That’s because there is less equipment being used due to the fact that there is only one person.

But, in any case, experimentation with song order can be most helpful. This is best done in rehearsals. Practice doing songs in a specific order to see how it works and to see if everything flows smoothly. Some things work better than others. Take note of what works and what doesn’t. Eventually you will get to the point where the song order on your entire list will be optimized for performance purposes. It may take a while, in some cases months, but it will be well worth the time spent.

There Is No Substitute for Practice

Some of this might be more of a reiteration of the previous section of this article but it is important to drive the fact home. Practice is the key to determining what will work best. That is practicing each song individually and practicing the songs in a specific order. Practice, practice, practice. This is especially important when you are basically having one song go immediately into another with no gap in time.

The advantage to practicing it all in your rehearsals is that your live performances will be that much better. I have never really been one to just wing it all of the time. That’s really not my style. I prefer to be polished. Some people might think that’s nitpicking but that’s just how I am. I like the additional confidence I have from being well rehearsed. I also feel that the additional confidence I have when performing leads to a better live performance. I find that I get very distracted when I try something new in front of an audience. And if you think about it, it’s technically not so new to you if you have already rehearsed something numerous times.

Winging It

I know that most of this article basically refers to devising a song order before hand and sticking to it while performing live. However, I do wing it sometimes. I will go out of the previously laid out song order but I will do it for specific reasons, so there is still a purpose behind the song order.

For example, I may play a song by a certain artist that will get a very good response from the crowd I am performing for. So I might just do another one from that group right there with the anticipation of hopefully receiving a good response from the crowd for that one as well. Inversely, if something I play from one group doesn’t really go over well at all, I may decide to not play too many more from that artist for the rest of the night. You have to, to some extent, tailor your performance to the crowd that is present. It’s not always easy to gauge a crowd. In fact, in some cases, it can be difficult. But you should always try.

Length and Diversity of Your Set List

The longer your set list is, the more options you really have available to you. That’s why you could never really know too many songs. It’s also a good idea to not only have a long set list but a very diverse one as well. Admittedly, I do have some groups that I may do a good number of songs from but, overall, I cover a lot of different artists.

At this point in time, I cover over 50 different artists from a number of different genres. I don’t care how many songs or groups you know, though, people will always request something you don’t know. It happens. But it is still a good idea to try to cover as many different artists as you can. Not everybody likes the same bands, even if they may like the same genre.

The Big Finish

Sometimes it’s nice to try to work your performance into a big finale of some kind. That way you kind of leave off on a good note. But in any case, song order is important for a number of reasons and it is something that should be given significant consideration. As I have stated above, a set list is more than just a list of songs. It should also be a list of songs in a specific order for very specific reasons. Even when you deviate from it, that deviation should also be for very specific reasons. To me, song order is that important.

© 2017 Bob Craypoe

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