Music mixology rules

” To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with “Got to Get You Off My Mind”, but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and…oh, there are loads of rules.”  Nick Hornby, High Fidelity.

I’m sure most people who put any kind of thought into their mixtapes/mixdiscs/playlists have rules they follow when making them. Since the purpose of most of my mixes is to keep me awake and/or entertained while travelling, my general rules are loose and made to be broken, but I also make mood and theme mixes that follow stricter rules.

My rules, as far as they are conscious and not intuitive, are as follows:

1. Find a theme and stick with it.
This can be as basic as “songs to keep me awake”, or more complicated like “soundtrack of my life” (I am beginning to jot down ideas for such a mix), or “reasons why I love you” (for a loved one).

2. Don’t be afraid to do something unexpected with your theme.

3. The mix must open with a song that gets the listener’s attention.
It can be something that gets the blood pumping and/or the feet tapping, like any number of tunes with snappy intros followed by a fast tempo and strong beat; something that stirs the emotions, like a soaring power ballad or a powerful classic piece. However, it need not be something with a fast tempo or a strong beat – it can just as well be something slow but intense that creeps up on you, like Chris Rea’s The Road to Hell (part 1), which begins with about a minute of static and atmospheric sounds that intensify until he begins speaking (it fades perfectly into part 2, which is the hit song). Songs I would not begin a mix with unless it was meant for meditation or to put me to sleep, are, for example, electronic mood music and slow classical piano tunes (unless I want song #2 to come as a shock). If you’re using an actual tape to record the music, select an attention-grabbing song to begin each side.

4. The first song, while attention-grabbing, must not be the focus or anchor of the mix.
If every song that comes after the first one seems anaemic in comparison the listener will lose interest and the mix will be a failure. Better to tuck the focus song somewhere around the middle or even near the end of the mix.

5. Ideally, the second song should seem like a natural progression from the first (unless you’re following rule no. 2,   but if you’re creative, you can use both this rule and that), and so on, but only adjacent songs need fit together, i.e. song #1 and song #3 don’t have to fit together any more than song #2 and song #9. Any number of musical similarities can be used to achieve this, like a similar rhythm or tempo, similar sound, the ending of one song blends perfectly into the beginning of the next, etc. This does not necessarily have to be musical in nature, but can be a matter of using songs with the same words in the title, question and answer titles, titles that tell a story, artists covering each other’s songs, similar themes (for example, you can show a male perspective in the first song and a female perspective on the same thing in the second song), etc., but it’s easier to get a good fit with musical similarity.
If you can make the whole mix form a chain where every song seems like a natural link in the chain, you are good. If you can make the last song link with the first song so the mix can be played in a loop and no-one can tell where it starts, you are a master mixologist. (Hint: As easy way out is to use two songs where one segues into another or a prologue and a the song that follows it, and have the first as the last song and the second as the first song of the mix, so that if you put your CD player on continuous play or your iPod playlist on repeat, you get a loop rather than an ending).

6. Break things up every now and then.
When making a structured mix, I generally chain together 3-4 songs by the same or similar criteria, and then use different criteria for choosing a song so that it still fits into the chain and theme in some way but at the same time breaks up the sound (don’t know if I’m making sense, but I’m trying). This can be achieved by retaining the tempo but using a different rhythm, keeping the rhythm but choosing a tune with a different lead instrument, by keeping the sound but varying the theme (e.g. insert an instrumental song into a chain of sung tunes), etc.
If every song is in the same tempo, they all start to run into each other. You must change the tempo before that happens. One of my favourite tricks when making a mood booster mix is to begin with a slow tempo and make it faster and faster over a number of songs (which also get progressively happier), then break it up somehow before it gets monotonous. The same method can be applied to control the “mood” of a party, to convey changing moods or tell a story.

7. Don’t put two songs by the same artist one after the other, unless one is a cover by a different artist.
I don’t take it as far as to forbid myself the use of more than one song by an artist in a mix, I just try not to put them close together and try to make them different from each other in some way. (I know I am not in agreement with many mixtapers on this one, but these are my rules, developed over a couple of decades and they have stood me in good steed).

Rule that I should follow more often:
8. Decorate the insert and give the mix a good title. (Provided you’re making an actual disc or tape, and not a playlist, in which case you only need to worry about the title).
I am not good at this. None of my actual tapes are decorated and only a handful have titles other than the usual “mixed music”. This is because I rarely give away mixes. If you are going to give one away, take the time to decorate and find a title that implies what you want to say with the mix.

9. Break the rules if it suits your purpose. Mixtaping is supposed to be fun.

Here are some mixtape rules used by others:

How to Make a Mix Tape Vol 1: Ground Rules

Art of the mixtape rules – Note: there is a pop-up ad. Avoid if you hate them or don’t have a pop-up blocker.

Reading this one hurts the eyes, as it fills the screen. I suggest copying it into a word processing program for ease of reading. How to Make the Perfect Mix Tape –  Note: This one also has a pop-up ad.

How to Make a Perfect Mix Tape or CD

This one is even more precise than I am: The Rules of the Mixtape, part 1; Part 2.