To performers out there: What principles/guidelines/methods do you use when you make the set-list for a gig? How do you decide what order to play the songs, when to talk, how to deal with transitions between songs etc.?

  • I'd think that this will depend on the context of the gig; specifying in more detail what your situation is would help to focus the answers.
    – Dave
    Oct 6, 2014 at 18:41
  • As per the above comment, you'd really need to tell us more about what type of music and what type of gigs your playing.
    – Lyrical.me
    Feb 21, 2016 at 13:55

9 Answers 9


First, I mostly play folk, for very small groups. I’m sure a lot will change with your audience and style of music.

The first thing to do is look at your audience. If I’m playing for an audience in a nursing home, I’ll choose more older and classic tunes than if I’m playing for a group of kids. If I’m playing background music, I’ll choose very different pacing than if I’m playing at a concert where the music is the focus everyone’s attention. In either case, I’ll make sure to choose tunes and songs with a variety of speeds and moods to keep the audience’s interest.

Do you want to give your audience jarring moments, where you switch styles or tempos abruptly, and make everyone notice, or do you want to be subtle, and make changes so smoothly that the audience doesn’t even know your'e changing things up to keep their interest? This sort of question will affect your set list, your song order, and basically everything about your performance.

Once you know your audience, think about what you want them to do. As a performer, your goal is usually to get a certain type of reaction from your audience, to inspire a mood or bring out emotions. For me, I usually start of fast and energetic, and keep the pace up for several songs (7-12 minutes), before bringing out something slower and gentler for a song or two. Basically repeat this pattern for the performance time, until the end, where you need to know whether you want to end hard and fast, or slow and easy. I always start and end on some of my best. If I’m going to play something that’s weaker, it comes in the middle, where it’ll get less attention. If I was a better musician, I might not have to deal with that problem.

As far as speaking goes, minimize it unless it is part of the performance. Don't just talk to fill a void, or to hear your own voice unless you can make it sound good. When you are speaking, treat it as much a part of the performance as the music. In other words, practice it, and get people’s feedback on whether it’s fun and interesting or makes them want to crawl under their seats. A bad speaker can really bring down a good musical performance.

  • 4
    One thing about introducing a song is, vary it from performance to performance. If you develop a group of fans, they expect to hear songs repeated but not so much the intros, which should at least seem more impromptu. Oct 5, 2014 at 12:51

The better bands I work with will have a list of all the songs - numbered. (That's one of the reasons they're called numbers !) The bandleader/ frontman will decide what gets played judging by the audience. If they are ready to dance, or just want to sit and chat, or even want to sit and listen. Numbers are often called out in twos or threes, so we know what's coming a little in advance. Sometimes, the vocalist will just sign the next key, and we'll segue into whatever that song may be - often not a clue, but the drums dictate the tempo/rhythm, so off it goes, with the rhythm section modulating to the new key.

Others will have a list, and work through it studiously. This then gets messed about when the front guy realises that the next couple of songs are too fast for the now flagging dancers, etc.

The not-so-good ones finish a number, look at each other, and have a little chat. Not so good.

Some will have numbers grouped in 3s or 4s, so everyone knows the next 10-12 mins, but that can be truncated by the frontman, if needed. The good bandleaders will have some repartee with the audience, tell an occasional joke, or something interesting about the next number,or take the mick out of a band member, which can give time to change instrument settings, etc.

And if a number starts off with a capella vocals, make sure the previous song is in the same key. Need I elaborate ?

One band I really enjoy working with has 3 numbers on the go, and as they come to an end, all segued, we're told what the next 3 are, and so on, the drummer continuing to play and setting the next tempo.Thus, through the entire set, there's no time when the band isn't playing. It keeps the floor full, and us rather busy, but it works well.

  • "The not-so-good ones finish a number, look at each other, and have a little chat. Not so good." <- just wanted to say that's not really an indication of a poor band, just less organised one. Oct 6, 2014 at 9:12
  • @user2808054 - believe me, I've worked with them !!!
    – Tim
    Oct 6, 2014 at 9:20

Depends on the event. I'm in a Celtic folkadelic band so let's take for an example a bar gig on St. Patrick's Day.

First tune is a modal tune that any of the musicians can drop in or drop out of with any settings that they choose. That's the soundcheck tune that we use to tweak the settings for the monitors that the sound engineer has set up for us and that the engineer can use to tweak the FOH (Front of House) sound. Ideally we'd soundcheck before the doors open but in bars that never happens.

St Patrick's Day is very much an audience participation day so we'll alternate tunes and songs to keep their attention. At least half the songs will be stuff that they've heard before, Irish pub songs. I'll teach the chorus to the songs and say a bit about each one. Typically a song is medleyed with an instrumental tune. Each medley is 5-10 minutes long.

Very often there will be Irish stepdancers at a gig like this so we'll have coordinated with them what tunes and tempos they want to dance to.

Typically we would play two sets of 60-90 minutes long. The first set will build to a rouser for the final tune of the set and then we'll take a 15 minute break where we'll have a drink and mingle with the audience. After the break the second set will start with some tune we can all stretch out with and then go back to the song-tune-song format. The second-last song will be the hottest tune of the night and the last tune will be something gentle to chill the audience out.

We talk a fair bit between tunes. Nothing much longer than a minute but it's really important to engage the audience and remind them that we're not just the bar's Pandora tune feed. Speaking is part of the performance and fortunately the fiddler and I are really good at it. We frequently get the audience to toast and remind them to tip their servers. Bar owners and staff like this.

In general a hot song or tune is followed by a gentler tune. But towards the end of the night we may start topping each song/tune with an even more energetic song/tune.

The entire setlist can change based on the circumstances. We stay flexible and responsive to the venue's needs.

The setlist itself is typically written up on the computer in letters big enough so that you can read the printed page on stage when you're standing and the setlist is on the floor. Each entry has the key, type of tune, title and any arrangement cues (order of solos, etc.)

If I've just learned a new song, I'll tape cues to the lyrics on the top side of my guitar so I can read them before each verse when I'm standing at the mic.

A concert gig works pretty much the same way. There's often not a break because we're only playing for 90 minutes in the first place. The choice of tunes and songs will be different, more subtle, more diverse.


I would start with lively and bright tempo songs then introduce a slower tune. Usually a cover band will play three sets with twelve songs each in my experience. We put in one or two slower songs in each set. People want energy and dance in a top 40 cover band so I would play songs that are popular and energetic. In the middle of the perfomance is where the more danceable songs are played because more people are ready to dance after some drinking. The lead singer will greet the audience after the first two songs and transition to a slower tempo from the first two of the first set. If there is a intrument change between songs, the singer will once again speak to the audience.

It really helps to have a lead singer with a lot of personality to make the performance fun for audience and band.


As we use a prerecorded drum track in Cubase for each track, we plan each gig well in advance, knowing exactly what will happen to the microsecond - this has some upsides, in that we can work specific tunes in to fit any set length etc., but means we don't have so much flexibility on the day (we can reorder them on the fly, but it's a bit of extra messing about that we don't want to have to do)

So we begin with some nice crowd pleasers, high energy and increasing in energy.

Then we take things down a wee bit in the middle.

And we like to end on a high - followed by an even higher encore!

The specifics depend on what kind of gig we are playing, whether it is metal, electronic, or even acoustic/folk; and because we have pyro and other entertainments, we make sure the crowd is involved at least every second song.

In terms of tuning acoustics, we have one song we use in soundcheck, as we know exactly how the acoustics should work. For gigs where we have to use the venue's sound guy, we make sure he understands what we need. Where we use our own soundguy, this song lets him see venue requirements, and the first song is his 'tuning' number to dial in the acoustuc response.


In my limited experience with my jazz band, I open and close with our best tunes, and then alternate styles (swing/Latin/rock, fast/slow, different soloists etc.) for the rest of them.

In another band, I've noticed that the band leader usually properly introduces us after the first song (or two if the first is a soundcheck). As well as the set list, we also have a list of spares if we don't manage to fill the time. However, in general, the set list is disregarded after about 10 minutes into the performance.

  • re "However, in general, the set list is disregarded after about 10 minutes into the performance." - lol! I want to play in your band! How do you then decide the tunes? Just from memory or from the list, but different order ? Oct 6, 2014 at 15:51
  • @user2808054 Generally from the list, but sometimes the band leader makes us quickly root through our folders for something (or we do a piece that pretty much everyone knows).
    – rlms
    Oct 6, 2014 at 18:46
  • Sounds nice and relaxed :-) One thing many people I play with have noticed is how hard it is pull ideas for what to play out of your head 'on the spot', particularly at jam sessions. There you are, all set up .. ok what we gonna play.. everyone's mind goes blank. Sounds like yo'uve struck a nice balance of freedom & being organised there. Oct 7, 2014 at 8:50

I play in a band that does covers, as do many other bands around here. BUT, we also choose tunes that the audience will go... "Hey, I know that one. Why don't other bands play that one as well?" I was told by a more experienced player, that the best way to arrange each set is in a W shape: start with a lively, but your biggest one of the set, and maybe a few others that get the crowd going. THEN go to a slower, "romantic" one so the love-birds can swing and sway. Build back up to maybe your kickin-est tune. Throw in another slower one and finish on a high note, so they want to hear more after the break. This seems to work for us... we get lots of gigs and good crowds that last until after midnight. But, remember to prepare, prepare, prepare and have the set list intact, you can throw in an improvised one if needs be, but have the complete list at hand for everyone.


Over the years I have performed at hundreds of events and understand how important a set list is. Here are a few tips I've learnt when writing them.

• Always include a few songs the audience might know.

• Always have a mixture of tempos, slow, medium and fast.

• A mixture of rhythms.

• Alternate the keys, don't have three songs in D minor in a row.

• If you have a soloist e.g saxophonist, why note bring them on after a few songs to change the vibe, audiences love surprises.

• Make sure the band members know the songs inside out.

• start with a strong song and most importantly end with a strong song.

• Always leave the audience wanting more :) walk straight off stage, wait for encore :)

• Add notes to the set list (Drum intro etc)


The bands I play with normally have a 15 min break so the set becomes two halves.

A band member will write a set either beforehand or on the night while the gear is being set up, based on the likely age group and any other hints.. "they look like they like their rock" vs "I think Led Zeppelin might cause an ambulance call-out".

Either way there's a list to work from, often one person shouts the next song and off we go.

How to decide tunes : Depends on the gig - a lot !

A private (eg birthday) party or wedding : The task is to get people moving on the dance floor and loving it, so..

Start with something fun but not blistering. People will want to chat as they arrive, because they may not have seen each ofher for a while etc. So nothing too loud, but not durge so they can bop if they like.

Build a little for the first half, and play maybe one ofr two good groovy songs with a bit of punch so they know what's coming in the second half. This wakes people up a bit :-)

Second half: Start where you left off - mid-weight songs nuce and punch, and raise the bar a little avery few songs so that by maybe the 6th or 7th song in the second half, things are getting quite raunchy.

Sometimes we then bring it back a little and play something gentler more akin to the first set, then build again.

Finally, end with 4 or 5 absolute blasters. If we have to stop (eg the venue had a time limit) but people still want more, then we sometimes play a moody or slower tune like pink floyd or similar to bring the mood down. In the middle of a party set, that would be a party killer, but at the end something like that is just what you want.

For pub gigs: Much more free reign here but there's still that general notion of building up. However, it sometimes works well to start with real stormer to get things moving right from the start.

In a pub, the difference is that the pub would be open anyway even if you weren't there, and the audience is there either to see you or just have a drink- it's not necessarily for a specific event, and they come and go as they please. So the bands I play with in pubs generally do what we please :-)

I guess the notion is that you're not there soleley to entertain the pub clientele- you're there so that everyone in the room has a great time, including the musicians.

Some places we play, the gig might be 4 hours long or more so we split into 3 sets (so 2 breaks). You have to be careful here because if you wear people out by the second break, they see that as a sign that the party's waining and it's time to go, so the middle set is often a mixture of more energetic and softer tunes (eg a nice smooth grove) so the band and the party members have enough in the pocket for the final set.

One thing I have found : I have depped a couple of times with a band which went right through a set with hardly a pause between tunes. This is great and a sign of fab organisation, but I wonder whether it gave the party a rushed feeling for both musicans and revellers. Not only that but there was zero time to stop and have a drink of water etc. It's not always the best thing to nail the tunes to each other like that. Maybe 3 in a row works best.

  • @user2808054-I worked with a bigband for 20+yrs,and the sets invariably went straight through.The bandleader did about 10/12 mins in one tempo, without stopping - the drums changed the tempo/beat - sometimes introducing the next set - went into the next 4 or 5 numbers. When he felt the dancers needed a rest, he'd change to some 'bum-clutchers',or something to just listen to, and vice versa. Every gig worked, amazingly!He would shout out the appropriate numbers as the last one of a set was closing, so we had 10-15 secs to find the next lot in the pad.With 600 numbers available,it was quite fun.
    – Tim
    Oct 7, 2014 at 14:28
  • Fair nuf ! maybe it's as much about how it's done as what is presented ? It;as quite a skill to read the crowd like that :-) Oct 7, 2014 at 17:05

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