Creating the perfect wedding reception playlist

Bringin’ the funk



I take a lot of pride in curating good music. Discovering it, compiling it, and sharing it with friends.

So, I was incredibly honored when my sister asked me to select the music for her and her husband’s wedding reception. Not only was I happy to play such a pivotal role in their special day, but I was eager for the opportunity to create a new playlist.

Suffice it to say that I took this thing pretty seriously — some would probably say too seriously. Nevertheless, I dug in to what it would take to really make this playlist great in every aspect. This is my process of analyzing, compiling, and creating it from scratch.



The brief

Client: 20-something couple getting married

Objective: Develop the perfect playlist to celebrate the marriage with a magic evening of dancing, singing, and carrying on.

Requirements:

  • Approximately 3 hours of music
  • Must facilitate dancing and celebration
  • Should be appropriate for all audiences, including children
  • Mix of genres: Hip hop, country, pop, rock
  • Avoid anything overtly negative or non-romantic
  • Requests: John Legend, George Strait, Bruno Mars, Pharrell, Trey Songz

Audience:

  • 50% 20-30 year olds
  • 10% 30-40
  • 20% 40-50
  • 20% 50+



Playlist structure

Ebbs and flows

Before I could go out and start picking songs, I first looked at how I should structure my playlist. What is the ratio of fast to slow dance songs? How should the music progress?

Dance floors are an interesting beast. Your first impression may be to just play smash hit after smash hit and get people up and moving. But, great music sets rely on fluctuations in tempo and energy to maximize participation. No one (unless they just popped some ecstasy) goes out and dances non-stop for three hours.

“Ideally, you want people to groove to your music for as long as possible, but you don’t want to wear them out. Along those lines, we like to think of rhythm as a landscape with peaks and valleys. At the peaks, you’re telling your audience when to get excited; at the valleys, you’re giving them a chance to breathe.”

-Beyond Beatmatching

The music needs to rise and fall; not only to mix fast and slow songs, but to create natural times for people to rest, use the bathroom, grab a drink, etc. As with all things, this moderation also intensifies the high points and helps people recoup some energy for when “their song” hits.

✓ Playlist should be played in order, not on shuffle
It was my original intention to create a list of songs and let them play on shuffle throughout the night. But, with this in mind, I wanted to create a much more controlled experience. This lead me to the decision to make a static list of tracks. Since I won’t be actively DJing, I’ll instead create mini sets that are meant to be played in order to shape the energy of the night.

I used different genres and eras of songs to let the energy build before coming back down with slow songs. The idea is that with faster songs, people will likely dance for about 20-30 minutes before needing to take a break. That’s 4-5 songs of build up before going into a slower song for the break.

My pattern looks like this (don’t mind the weird line shape, Google’s charts aren’t as smooth as I’d like):

track-series

Hitting the apex

In addition, I know that at a wedding reception, people will be coming and going. Some may arrive late. Others may leave early. People may not be ready to dance right away (give ‘em a few cocktails).

To capitalize on this, I also built in a steady progression over the course of the entire night. The playlist is meant to build toward an ultimate high point near the middle of the set, and then gradually come back down as the night comes to a close.

With the 4-5 song sets arranged on top of the overall progression, I get a set list that looks something like this (again, ugly smoothing):

series-progression

The golden ratio

✓ 1:5 slow-dance to fast-dance ratio
Lastly, this also tells me a rough ratio of slow-dance songs to faster songs: about 1:5. I’ll also want to build in some overlap (slower dance songs) that will help me transition out of valleys toward peaks.



Playlist composition

Bey’ to Bright Eyes

The genres here were pretty simple. I knew that I wanted to appeal to the widest audience possible. Since my sister and her husband are both fans of mostly popular music, I wanted to stay pretty well mainstream with my selections.

Now, I did want to throw in different style of popular music, though. So, I hit each of the major genres. Including — begrudgingly — country, per the bride’s request.

Booty shakin’ vs Love makin’

Venn diagram explaining the distribution of love tracks and dance tracks.Despite being a wedding, not all of the tracks on the list can be love songs. After all, you need a few club hits sprinkled in to get the place up and dancing around. But, it certainly seems that a large chunk should be at least some form of love song, even if it’s also a dance track.

To balance this, I decided that I would shoot for a 33%/33%/33% split, with a third of tracks being love songs, a third being fast dance tracks, and a third fitting into both categories. This means that overall, the playlist will be composed of about 66% love tracks (both fast and slow), but still a decent number of just-shake-your-thing kinda tunes.

Erra-erra-era
One of the most difficult components of this project was scoping out the eras of music that should be included and striking the right balance between “classic” tracks and newer music.

✓ People follow popular music for about 30 years after their birth and are familiar with music from 30 years prior to their birth as “classics”
Of course, I approached this too in an analytical way. I wasn’t able to find any studies or other data that would provide a hard benchmark for with which decades/eras of music each of the audiences may be familiar. But, I made an assumption that I think makes sense:

Most people follow popular music until they’re approximately 30 years old before their knowledge and interest in new music tends to decline.

Each generation is likely to have been exposed to much of the music from their parents’ formative years and other songs that are now considered “classics”. Because of this, each generation would have an increasing knowledge of popular music going backward toward the beginning of the modern music era. (This is illustrated by the fact that millennials are probably not as familiar with 1980′s music as they are with many of the well-known 1960′s tracks.



music-by-decade


All told, I created a scoring system that allowed me to rank each decade of music by how popular it was likely to be amongst each group. Decades are weighted based on the percentage of the audience that they make up and their familiarity (e.g., 20-30 year olds are very familiar with 1990′s-2010′s music, but only slightly familiar with the 1960′s and 1970′s, but since they make up roughly half of the audience, their familiarity still scores high across the board.)

I gave some bonus points to the 1990′s-2010′s as the bride (my sister) specifically requested that we include songs from these years.



Getting to the tracks

All this f*cking work and I haven’t even picked out a single track? Heh. Yeah.

But, now I have a framework for not only what kinds, genres, and eras of tracks to look for, but also how to order them:

  • 6-8 high-energy dance songs (“peaks”; estimated at 1 every 20-30 minutes over 180 minutes)
  • 6-8 slow-dance songs (“valleys”; estimated at 1 every 20-30 minutes over 180 minutes)
  • 12-16 slow-er songs (building up from valleys; estimated 2 songs every 20-30 minutes)
  • 12-16 building songs (leading into peaks; estimated 2 songs every 20-30 minutes)
  • 5-6 songs from each the 1960′s, 70′s, and 80′s
  • 8-10 songs from each the 1990′s, 2000′s, and 2010′s
  • 15-20 each of love songs, dance songs, and both

At this point, it becomes a lot less science and a lot more art.

playlist-sheetChoosing the actual tracks is inherently a subjective exercise. You may loathe “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis, but I tend to like it. If you are one of those people (cough, haters, cough), then there are plenty of other songs that would meet the criteria for this slot on the playlist you could use. Maybe a little “The River of Dreams” by Billy Joel is more your style. And it checks a lot of the same boxes (1990′s anthem, karaoke-friendly chorus, non-love song, droning and building style, and pretty repetitive.)

Since I’ve laid out such definitive metrics for the playlist and slotted in my tracks based on the above criteria, analyzing my actual list is pretty straight forward. I created a grid to keep track of tracks as I added them and recorded properties for each one.



Final scores

With a few tweaks (and last-minute requests), I was able to get the playlist into almost perfect sync with my earlier analysis of what the playlist should look like. Here’s how my final list shakes out in terms of the data:

actual-track-speeds

actual-tracks-by-type

actual-tracks-by-genre



The perfect wedding playlist

All of this analysis and planning comes down to a final playlist. I created the playlist on Spotify so I could share it (and I’ve already had a few people find it and subscribe.)

How’d I do? Check it out below.

The Perfect Wedding Playlist by Tyler Hakes (Click to open/subscribe)

Note: Before I get a bunch of hate mail, I realize that this won’t be the perfect playlist for every wedding. Obviously, if you’re into certain styles and genres of music, this may not be right for you. But, I created it to appeal to the broadest possible audience, focusing on well-known songs, hits, and classics.

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