The unwritten rules of playlist creation

I love playlists. I love making them, I love making them for other people, I love when people make them for me. I love coming up with ideas for playlists, plopping two songs in, then not touching them for years until I discover another track that fits the bill perfectly. I love making silly playlists, I love making serious playlists. I love playlists.

Most people don’t realize that there are rules you can follow to make sure your playlist is always good. I’ve seen a lot of playlists that were good even though they contained music I didn’t like. I’ve seen a lot of playlists filled to the brim with songs that I deeply adore which were simply bad playlists.

Here’s some advice for making a good playlist:

Tell a story

You should try to have a clear-cut goal with your playlist. This can be as vague or precise as you want it to be. Your playlist should announce its story in some way: it doesn’t have to be in the title, but you should probably at least look askance at it in some way.

For example, here’s some playlist titles from my collection. Some are very concrete, but others are intentionally vague:

  • For an occasion: “July 2021 Road Trip,” “low-fi punk beats to look at computers to”
  • Encapsulating a genre: “Eurobeat,” “I don’t know what this vibe is but I love it,” “That 2012 sound,” “Future Folk,” “🎃”
  • All about an artist, or a group of artists: “TMBG make rock music,” “Kitsuné”
  • Games: “Indie songs about New York,” “electronic music that mentions driving at night,” “Women singing about being prime numbers”

(Playlists which simply keep track of data might be excluded from these rules in some circumstances.)

Have an equitable number of songs by each artist

I’ve seen great playlists before that have something like 50 songs on them, but 9 are by the exact same artist. I don’t like this. Playlists that contain a handful of songs from each artist represented are fine; sticking with one track per artist and maybe placing a second one in if you have a really good reason for doing so is usually the pro move. Long songs can also be dangerous!

Break the rules

Make your playlist delightful. Put together tracks in a way that will amuse or astonish. Don’t bow to the pressure to put that famous band on your playlist if you don’t like that band. This is your playlist — do whatever you want, just have fun with it.

But also, the other day, I saw that a friend I haven’t talked to in a very long time was listening to one of those “‘genre’ from ‘decade’” playlists, but, upon taking a glance at the playlist, over half of the songs weren’t even from that decade. Don’t do that, please. I mean, you can do whatever you want, but maybe don’t, like, lie to people.


This is probably the most important rule of all: flow. If it doesn’t feel right, change it. You’ll know it when you hear it.