The Art of Song Selection 1: Genre and Audience

Also plays songs that people know, like Sweet Home Alabama.

Also plays songs that people know, like Sweet Home Alabama.

Song selection is tricky business. It might not make or break your group, and each individual song choice might not matter that much, but a group’s audience and reputation are largely determined by the catalog of music they present. So before you decide on your group’s lineup for the year, or the semester, mull over your priorities.

Who are you singing for?

As a case study, when I was in my second year with the UNC Loreleis, we won a great battle: Major Sponsorship. The UNC General Alumni Association decided to sponsor us, giving us a lump sum of money every year, full access to their printer, free labor of their webmaster, and rehearsal space. In exchange, we would sing at many GAA-held events for “free.” This meant singing for a lot of old people with old memories and deep pockets. It was in our interests to make them smile, so I tried to include a couple songs in the set list that they were feasibly familiar with, as well as a few newer songs that would at least make them smile.

Sample GAA set list:

Way You Make Me Feel (Michael Jackson)
Piece of My Heart (Janis Joplin)
Leavin’ On a Jet Plane (Chantal Kraviazuk)
Proud Mary (Tina Turner)


Hit Me With Your Best Shot (Pat Benatar)
Grey Sky Morning (Vertical Horizon)
I’ll Be There (Jackson 5)
Love You Out Loud (Rascal Flatts)

This touches on set list order, which is an upcoming entry.
My point is, you play to your audience. Sing music they’ll be happy to hear, no matter who they are. For promo gigs around campus, we usually sang one or occasionally two songs at a time at dining halls, dorms, frat/sorority houses, crowded outdoor areas. For those, we chose from songs like:

Soda pop theme song medley
Whatta Man (Salt ‘n’ Pepa)
Mother Mother (Tracy Bonham)
What’s Up (4 Non Blondes)

So far, we were singing for busy students, and alumni of all ages. We also frequently sang for parents, at business events, fancy parties, wherever we got hired to perform. Think about who your audience is, and who it could potentially be. Make sure you’re satisfying those people, and make sure that your repertoire allows you to be hired for unexpected occasions.

What can your group do?

Not all groups can do all things, and that’s fine. Play to your strengths. At many times, the Loreleis had trouble being funny before an audience. I don’t mean that we weren’t funny girls. In fact, we were hilarious. But, when funny wasn’t our strength, I shied away from songs with lots of humor.

When you’re considering a song, make sure that you have the chops for it, all the way around. Without a strong, soulful soloist in your group, it’s a bad decision to select “Natural Woman,” for instance. I don’t mean that you need an Aretha Franklin in the group, but you do need someone to do it justice. When we had this one badass country/pop singer in our group, I arranged a handful of songs with the expectation that she could blow them out of the water. This is very different from arranging a song specifically for a certain soloist. In democratic groups like the Loreleis, such a thing was borderline treason. If someone out-auditioned her, they’d get the solo without anyone losing face. But the fact was, her amazing talent was an asset for the group as a whole, so it made sense to showcase it.

An excellent solo option is important, but so is having an adequate vocal percussionist. If you have two really awesome beatboxers, do rap songs if you’re feeling inclined. If you don’t, DON’T. Also, if you’ve taxed your two awesome percussionists like Zachariah, it’s time to add a couple songs to the set list that don’t require ambitious percussion. Give someone in the group with less experience a chance to improve his/her skills, or even do without percussion for a song or two. It’s a refreshing sound.

Consider the key of the song. This may sound a little foreign to non-musicians, but having too many songs in the same key gets really tiresome on the ears. Even for people who don’t know Bb from F# on a piano, the sound gets monotonous after a while. Again, I’ll speak more on this in a future post in set list design, but do yourself a favor and stop arranging songs in C, or whatever your favorite key is. Spice it up. Try D this time! Yow!

Are you having fun yet?

Don’t lose sight of this one: Pick songs that your group will enjoy performing. If you rolled your eyes when I suggested you sing oldies, I challenge you to spend an hour looking at old Billboard charts and not find a single song or two that you’d like to perform. Don’t make yourself miserable for the sake of any principle you’ve decided is important. Please, please enjoy your songs. When you enjoy your music, rehearsals become more pleasant to attend, you’re more proud of your performances, the audience likes you more (and is envious of the “good time you’re having up there), you book more gigs and you sell more tickets.

If you have any other principles you use to help you with song selection, I’d love to hear them.

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“having too many songs in the same key gets really tiresome on the ears.”

Good tip

Written By joseoscar on February 19th, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

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