Episode 49: How to Craft a Mind-Blowing Playlist

Barry Ennis

There’s more to teaching a class than just choosing “good” music. That’s just the beginning. To create a mind-blowing playlist, it’s not just picking good music, but how all of those songs sound together

Barry Ennis

Fitness Professional

There’s more to teaching a class than just choosing “good” music. That’s just the beginning. To create a mind-blowing playlist, it’s not just picking good music, but how all of those songs sound together, transition from one to another, and are used to express and interpret that part of the class and the movement you’re doing. I consider my music choices just as important as my presence in the room when I teach my classes. So, let’s talk about how to create that perfect, mind-blowing playlist! Throughout this episode I’ll be speaking from my extensive experience teaching and training instructors, and I’ll supplement that with referencing a particularly good scientific study from sport and exercise psychology. Whether you’re a right or left brain listener, I’ll have something for you.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

The science behind creating a powerful playlist

Take your participants on a journey

How to transition between high and low energy sections

Here’s the Complete List of Tips:

– Know your class.

Structure: What are you required to teach?

Intention: Choose a theme that connects your playlist to the feeling you want your class to have.

Episode 33: Harnessing Emotion – Learn to Create an Intention in Your Class references this process (Example at 4:45).

– Consider the journey you are creating.

How do you want to start your class? High energy vs. taking your time, stretching, getting comfortable.

How will you transition from the introduction to higher/lower energy portions of the class?

How does each song make you feel? Is it just a good dance beat, or does it evoke emotion or memories? The latter is what creates a powerful playlist. It’s the beat, the melody, the lyrics, and how it makes you feel that in some way has something to do with every other song you play.

How will you choose what movement to match to the music? You have to be mindful of what kind of movement that song evokes. Does that match the movement you plan or need to do during that part of the class? Does this movement also match what you want to accomplish in that moment of your class structure? You can, again, learn more about this in Episode 33 (8:15).

Too much repetition will cause your journey to feel boring. Create a playlist with textures, depth, variety.

In the sport and exercise psychology study (see references for link!), it states that in order to have a stimulative effect, the music should be up-tempo (>120 bpm) and possess prominent percussive (meaning percussion, drums beats) and rhythmical features. In order to sedate, the inverse is true in terms of percussion and rhythmical features, and tempo (<80 bpm) are recommended. Abrupt changes in style or speed should be saved for transitions between exercises.

How would you describe each part of your class in terms of an emotion or feeling? How can you express that through the music that you play? Don’t ever forget this when making your fitness playlist. This music really really MEANS something other than just a good beat.

– Consider the artists and genres you include in your playlist.

Be mindful to pick a variety of voices. You want to have a healthy mix of female and male voices. It’s a little thing that adds more texture and depth to the playlist.

Make sure you play music from a variety of genres. If you play all pop music, it gets repetitive and boring. Too much rock? Hard on the ears. To give your playlist depth and texture, give the ears a variety of sound textures.

Can you hear the different instruments and sounds? Make sure that every song doesn’t have the same sounds, but, DO make sure that those sounds flow and connect in some way to the song you play next.

If you use cross fading (like I suggest you do in Episode 13: 12 Hacks to Supercharge Spotify for Your Classes), you want to make sure that when one track transitions into the next, it sounds like a DJ professionally mixed it. Take the time to listen to your song transitions.

The study reads: music selection for exercise is concerned with the entire programme of music, not just individual pieces (e.g., DeNora, 2000, pp. 89–103; Priest & Karageorghis, 2008). For example, selectors should consider the congruence of musical pieces that appear in close proximity on a playlist and aim to achieve variety in terms of churn (i.e., varying selections from session to session). With specific reference to congruence, taking into account factors such as beat matching, style matching, artist matching, era matching, etc. is important in terms of formulating a cohesive music mix.

– Take your class through different levels of energy with your music.

Having high energy music does NOT automatically make your class harder. It doesn’t make it more powerful.

A softer, emotion evoking song can be just as powerful (or more) than a hard-hitting, EDM song full of crazy drops.

Think about how it feels when you get in the shower after a really long day, or crawl into bed when you feel utterly exhausted. Those moments are just as powerful as the ones when you have a first kiss with someone or are out dancing.

– Note that your participants will all have different tastes in music.

This was proven in the same study. “Participants will yield stronger effects if the music selected as an accompaniment for exercise is congruent with participants’ personal characteristics (e.g., age and socio-cultural upbringing), the exercise environment and desired outcomes. When working with a mixed group in terms of age and/or sociocultural upbringing, practitioners might consider democratising the music selection process so that all participants’ musical predilections are accounted for and reflected in the music programme.”

With that being said, don’t just pick music that you think your class participants want to hear. Pick music that YOU are moved by. Your class participants will FEEL if you are into your music, and that will change the way they hear it. Pick music that moves you.

– Don’t be fearful of the quiet moments.

When we’re pounding sound through the speakers, it’s easier to control what everyone is feeling. When you play something softer, you all of a sudden leave it up to their interpretation a bit more. This is where you come in – it gives you an opportunity to drive home the intention you have for your class.

– The music you play before your class is very important!

The study argues that the music you play in the room before your class is just as important as your playlist. Don’t just put on any music, but actually make a “pre-show” playlist that matches the feeling of the experience you’re about to bring everyone through. The study states that, “pre-task music has been shown to optimize arousal, facilitate task-relevant imagery and improve performance in simple motoric tasks.”

– No shocker here, but the lyrics make a difference.

Try to pick music with lyrics that matches the moment, or the theme of your playlist. You can learn more about that in Episode 33.

The study suggests music containing affirmations of exercise or inspirational references drawn from popular culture should be selected in order to promote motivational imagery and self-talk. Positive affect is thought to be consequent to the harmonic and melodic features of the music and its lyrical content.

-Finish strong. Consider the power of the music you choose to end your class.

Be mindful when you pick your cool down music. Let it match the journey of your class.

The study suggested a few guidelines to support this decision making process. It argues that it should possess sedative qualities, such as a tempo in the range 60–70 bpm (around resting heart rate), a simplistic rhythmical structure, regular pulsation and repetitive tonal patterns based on a limited number of pitch levels. In terms of emotional tone, the music should be neutral or relaxing, while the instrumentation might be comprised of soothing, ‘warm’ instruments, such as strings, oboe or gentle piano. The inclusion of natural sounds, such as breaking waves, bird song or a babbling brook, may also be effective for this purpose.

Putting all of these things together may seem overwhelming, and the goal of this is to not make play listing harder, but to make your playlist better. Making a playlist can be hard enough as it is, so don’t put pressure on yourself to put all of these elements into your playlist right away. Making a mind blowing playlist is just like any other art- it takes a lot of practice. Try just keeping these things in mind as you make your next playlist. It may feel very uncomfortable to teach in a way to music that you’ve never taught before, but trust me, these things WORK- and it’s backed by science too! Keep practicing and implementing more and more, and watch the class experience you create change, watch your participants’ feedback change. Having a mind blowing playlist in a fitness class can literally change someone’s life. And that’s what we’re all in this for in the first place, right?

Other References in This Episode:

Episode 13: 12 Hacks to Supercharge Spotify for Your Classes

Episode 33: Harnessing Emotion – Learn to Create an Intention in Your Class

Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part II)

Show Note's Index