How to Curate the Perfect DJ Playlist: Tips for Selecting the Best Songs

Written by: Cody

Updated: Mar 5, 2024

Being a DJ is about so much more than just playing music for a crowd. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into crafting the perfect playlist, and much of it starts long before the day of a gig arrives.

Putting together a list of tracks requires creativity, patience, instinct, adaptability, and, of course, a wide breadth of music knowledge. But all of these things are skills that can be learned, and with the right strategy, anyone can curate an incredible DJ playlist, regardless of skill or experience level.

So, if you’re new to the scene and you get hired for a gig, keep reading. Our guide takes you through creating an exceptional DJ playlist from start to finish. Plus, we focus on four crucial elements of a DJ playlist so that you can produce amazing sets time and time again.

What Makes A Great DJ Playlist?

When it comes to making a great DJ playlist, there are certain benchmarks you need to hit. The set needs to be cohesive enough to make sense within the context of the crowd but not so rigid that it prevents true dancefloor magic from occurring.

But getting that balance right is a nuanced process, which is why it helps to aim for certain criteria when curating a fresh playlist. Our top four are as follows:

  • Variety – A diverse selection of music allows for more flexibility and adaptability throughout your set. It keeps your audience engaged and prevents a repetitive sound.
  • Confidence – Crowds will respond to the energy you put out. If your playlist is strong and confident in how it flows, people may be more receptive to it overall.
  • Adaptability – Keeping your playlist flexible is important because it allows you to adjust tracks in real time depending on the mood of the crowd. Without an aspect of adaptability to your setlist, it may be at risk of becoming too rigid.
  • Memorability – Ultimately, you want your playlist to have a lasting impact on the dancefloor. Don’t be afraid to add tracks that you feel will put your unique stamp on the set.

If you can look at your DJ playlist and recognize some of the above qualities in it, you’re probably already onto a winning set. But if you’re new to DJing or are looking for ways to deepen your skillset, learning more about how to create a stellar playlist is always a good idea.

man playing DJ turntable

7 Tips For Curating A Show-Stopping DJ Playlist For Your Next Gig

The playlist-curation process a DJ uses is personal. There is no one-size-fits-all way to produce the “perfect” playlist. However, there are techniques every DJ can use to support the process. If you’re feeling lost or simply want some fresh ideas, here are some of our best playlist-making tips for DJs:

1. Research your audience and event space in advance

Before you jump into creating your set list, find out as much as you can about the environment you’ll be playing in. Audience compatibility is a big part of what makes a setlist successful, so talk to the organizers of the event you’re attending beforehand.

Consider the time of day, lighting, ambiance, social demographics, and other DJs who may be playing at the same event. You can use all of this information to conceptualize a playlist that is compatible with the space you’re playing in.

2. Start with a rough draft playlist

Kick off your playlist-making process by creating a simple rough draft. Select from a broad range of music that you think could be a good fit for the final list, and work your way forward from there. This is also an effective way to familiarize yourself with what’s available and get your creative juices flowing.

Once you have a rough draft playlist, you can start to whittle it down. Remove the tracks that don’t quite make the cut and start focusing on the ones that do. As you make these tweaks, a clearer vision for the playlist will naturally start to develop.

3. Divide your set into sections

Similar to a written story, every set has a beginning, a middle, and an end (and often a few interesting side quests along the way). If you’re struggling to curate a playlist from scratch, break it up into smaller sections and work your way forward from there.

Taking this approach can also help you lean into the different chapters of your playlist. For instance, the first few tracks of any set tend to be more gentle, helping warm up the crowd. Whereas the tracks you play towards the middle and end can be more energetic and dynamic.

4. Draw from a diverse music library

If you’re ever struggling to curate a satisfying playlist, it might be due to a lack of options. The bigger your music library is, the easier it will be to select tracks that feel uniquely suitable for specific sets or events. Working on expanding and diversifying your music library is key to curating strong playlists.

One of the ways to grow your music library is to constantly be on the lookout for fresh tracks and keep a well-organized digital system for different genres and artists. Besides that, time and dedication are the best ways to achieve a dynamic and rich library of tunes.

If you’re musically inclined and have learned to play the drums, guitar, trumpet, or other instrument, you can even use samples of your own music in your mixes. This will add something unique to your set and is sure to impress your audience.

5. Work on your mixing and transition skills

The key to curating your DJ playlist to perfection lies in the moments between each track. There should be no discernible moments of silence between tracks, nor should there be too much overlay. Both of these extremes can be distracting or even unpleasant for the audience to listen to while dancing.

However, there’s an easy remedy for this. Fine-tuning your mixing skills will help smooth out the transitions throughout your playlist and make it sound much more professional overall. This also comes down to knowing your DJing software and equipment well and being able to use it all with complete confidence.

6. Run through your set

Mixing music as a DJ is very different from mixing music as a producer. You only have one shot to get it right when you’re behind the decks. While some professional DJs enjoy simply arriving and playing music intuitively, very few people can pull off this strategy well. The DJs that do this have generally been playing for years and know every beat, break, and note of the songs in their bag.

Particularly in the early phase of your DJ career, it’s crucial to run through your set a couple of times before the day of the gig. Not only will this help you feel more confident in your song selections, but it will also prevent avoidable errors from occurring.

7. Read your crowd and adapt as needed

Once you’ve done all your research and run-throughs, all that’s left to do is play your set. But the playlist curation doesn’t end there – it continues throughout your gig.

Keeping tabs on the responses and atmosphere of the crowd in real-time will allow you to make appropriate changes where needed. Watch people’s facial expressions, if they’re singing along, how energetically they’re dancing, and how they respond to certain songs.

Don’t be afraid to switch things up if it feels right and people are responding positively to them. In fact, that’s often when the best parts of your set will happen!

white laptop and audio system

Wrapping Up

Being a DJ is an inherently creative profession requiring a wide range of technical and artistic skills to truly excel. And fortunately, the time for learning those skills has never been better.

Knowing how to create a solid playlist is one of the most fundamental skills a DJ can have. Aside from time and experience, research is one of the best ways to improve that all-important skill.

By starting with a rough draft, building a diverse music library, and refining your transition skills, you can become an even better DJ than you are now. Use these tips to enhance your repertoire and connect with future audiences on a deeper, more impactful level. Don’t forget to have fun while doing it!

About Cody
Cody is the founder of Musician Tuts, a free tutorial hub for musicians. He has over 15 years of experience playing a variety of instruments and dabbling in audio engineering. He spends his days blogging, listening to Spotify, and playing music.

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