Narrative Playlists

I don’t know if I’m a hopeless romantic or just a big nerd, but I am very into making mixtape style playlists. Even though they only exist digitally on Spotify, I curate lists of songs intended to tell a narrative when listened to in order, usually inspired by and named after the content of one song in the playlist. Today I’m reviewing the process I use for putting together a playlist and highlighting some of my favorite playlists on my Spotify profile.

1: Personal Inspiration

Like I mentioned, I often start with a particular song, but of course I almost always choose that song because it personally resonates with something I’m thinking about. When I was packing to move, I started listening to “Goodbye” from “Catch Me If You Can” a lot, specifically the version from Aaron Tveit’s live show at 54 Below (I should have put a musical theater warning at the top of this post, but if you know anything about me, are you surprised?). My first step was to pull that song and any songs I already had in my head associated with my hometown and moving.

2: Choosing an Arc

One of my favorite things about playlists is a sense of narrative structure, so I didn’t want to the songs to be a jumble of moving-themed music. Instead I decided that the songs would start with songs about being in a small town and excited to leave, then some bittersweet tunes that tell a more complicated story, and finally resolve with acceptance—the original song, Goodbye.

3: Filling in the Gaps

I had some songs that sprung into mind immediately, largely pulled from musical theater because “wanting to move” is not an uncommon theme. Since this playlist is so short I didn’t have to pull in too much outside of what I already had in mind, but that’s not always true—for other playlists I’ve resorted to googling “best songs about __” to fill in the gaps. I also keep a playlist called “Songs I Could Kinda Be Into” of new songs that I like listening to but haven’t added to a full playlist yet where I can look for potential inspiration.

A really helpful tool for this as well is the Spotify suggested songs that show up underneath a playlist once you’ve added a few. That’s more helpful for lists that focus on a mood, like my “Good As Hell” female empowerment playlist, rather than a more tight narrative playlist like “Goodbye,” but there can be some real gems in there matching theme and tone.

This gets more complicated when you use a lot of songs from musicals, which generally have their own specific narratives attached to them. I have to make a judgment call about what I feel applies and what does. Sure, I’m not moving to Paris, but I do feel the same push-and-pull between dreams and reality that Amelie feels in “Times Are Hard for Dreamers.” Therefore, it goes in. In contrast, I made a playlist called “Bad Ideas” but still didn’t add the song “Bad Idea” from Waitress—while that song slaps, I don’t think that the intense “forbidden romance” aspect of the song resonates with the rest of the vibe of that playlist. I’m also not cheating on my husband with my doctor, but that’s not the true dealbreaker—it’s about if the feeling makes sense, not if the literal plot matches the narrative. There’s room to make it fit.

4: Tightening & Reordering

I listen a playlist all the way through a few times and often will move songs around to strengthen the narrative threads. Often a few more songs will be thrown in at this stage and necessitate extra adjustments to fit them in. While I can always go back and add more songs later, I usually don’t past this point. I like having a set story in place and it’s rare that I find another song later that I feel fits in perfectly.

Everyone should make more narrative playlists. They’re a really fun creative exercise and immensely satisfying to listen to. And to finish this out, here are a few of my favorites:

Goodbye: moving away from a small town

Forget About the Boy: an upbeat breakup playlist from the perspective of a woman getting over a man

Bad Ideas: a relationship that you knew was a bad idea from the beginning

Make Me Feel: good old-fashioned infatuation, from crush to true love

And You Don’t Even Know It: 100% musical theater, 100% motivation