10 Song Attributes To Strengthen Or Sink Your Set List

Which block comes next?
Which block comes next?

I want to get specific with you today on my process for creating a set list. In my context, I’m choosing songs to lead worship at my church. Most of these still apply, however, when you’re doing concerts or clubs.

A well-crafted set list will take the audience seamlessly through a range of emotions.

At the beginning of the set, everyone is in a different emotional place, often just because of how their day has been shaping up. So at the beginning of the set, the goal is to capture attention, interest, curiosity.

By the end of the set, people will be rejoicing, reflective, inspired, contrite – and the songs were the catalyst, breaking down emotional defenses and feeding the soul.

Now for me, creating a really solid set list may take hours. I’m sure I’m not as fast at it as some. But I’ve learned to kind of live through the list, making decisions on songs based on the following attributes. I have found that using a spreadsheet to track all of these attributes, while time-intensive, is really helpful.

The Song Attributes I Look At (In No Particular Order)

1) Topic – What characteristic of God does the song emphasize? What encouraging message will come through to the congregation? Sometimes we may tie the songs topically to the sermon (opening intellectual doors), but often I’ll create a stand-alone set of praise and thanks (opening emotional doors).

2) Title – What does the song title say about the message we’re about to sing? Will it give people a sense of joyful anticipation (like “Today Is The Day”), or concern (like “Let The Waters Rise”), or mystery (like “Praise Adonai” – what does “Adonai” mean)?

3) Hook – Most songs these days have some sort of lyrical and musical hook, a phrase that will stick in your mind and come back to you over and over. Does the song I’m choosing have a strong hook? Is it a hook I want people to be singing all week?

4) Text Direction* – Are we singing about God or singing to God? Or both in the same song? Jumping back and forth can diffuse focus, while choosing one text direction that leads into the other will help the congregation be intentional with their thoughts and expression.

5) Tempo – similarly, the tempo of each song can help the overall feel of the set. Starting fast and ending slow can lead into personal reflection and prayer; starting slow and ending fast can lead into a joyous celebration. And if enough time is available, thoughtful combinations of tempos can work quite nicely.

6) Style and Genre – While blending styles or musical genres look good on paper, keep your style pretty consistent throughout the set. Use a maximum of two styles or genres in a set. Any more will cause people to tune out, and your worship set will feel more like a variety show.

7) Key* – If you want your congregation to sing, make the key accessible to them. If it’s a great song for tenors, it will be too high for most people to stretch up to. If it works well for altos, raise it just a little and it should work for almost everyone. A good range is from Bb (just below middle C) up to D (a ninth above middle C).

8) Rhythmic Framework and Groove – though this will sound a little geeky, decide if the song is built mainly with eighths, sixteenths or triplets. Sometimes going directly from one song to another creates a super-smooth transition in your set, and using songs with similar rhythmic frameworks will allow you to do that. When the groove or framework is different, you will probably need to end one song before you segue (connect) into another.

9) Frequency – When is the last time you played this song? Are people still finding it as helpful to them when they worship, or has it been overused? Determining the appropriate frequency of use for each song in your library can help you anticipate it’s continued helpfulness. Update this attribute often as you pay attention to how people respond to each song. A useful spectrum for scheduling songs is as follows:

  • new songs (repeat often so the people can learn them*)
  • once a month songs
  • once a quarter songs
  • twice a year songs
  • once a year songs
  • once every few years

10) Team* – if you have multiple worship teams, how long has it been since this team has played this song? Keeping songs fresh for the team will help keep them fresh for the congregation.

*These attributes are important for leading worship.

Which song attributes are the most important to you?

Please leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected] with any questions about worship leading, musicianship or music theory. I’d love to hear from you!

© 2014 Steve Case