Return to all posts
When the unexpected works - playlist curation

When the unexpected works - playlist curation

Written by

James Picken


June 14, 2023



It's not always the songs you'd think.

Music is powerful, but using it with intention takes skill. 

We all know that music can change our moods. But its power is much larger than just that; it can change the way we move, how we behave, our perception of time, our reading of a brand or influence our purchase decisions.

That’s where our music team steps in. They live and breathe music, blending artificial intelligence with actual intelligence. The tunes we recommend for brands are curated by our foot tappin’, head bobbin’ experts.

And, interestingly, the choices aren’t always obvious. We don’t just throw together ‘nice’ songs and hope for the best - sometimes, the best playlists are the ones that contain music you wouldn’t have put together. 

When the unexpected works, it’s pretty magical. But why does it work?

Musical commonalities

This one comes from our Playlist Manager, Magnus: 

“Musical commonalities are shared features of songs that can help to weave playlists together. They could be any element of a track, but we tend to focus on things like texture, instrumentation, rhythmic feel, and production styles as these are more noticeable to the ear than something like harmonic structure.”

Essentially, when building a playlist, it’s likely to work when there’s a musical commonality. On first look it might seem like songs from different genres or eras shouldn’t work together. But when the tracks have similar features, the unexpected can really, really work. 

Of course, playlists that are built around a common genre, style or era are important - a lot of our Startle playlists are built off of these characteristics. But it can be super interesting when tracks are pulled together based on more nuanced characteristics. On the face of it, when you’re listening, it’s not explicitly clear why the tracks sound so cohesive together. For example an 80s party playlist is tied together by era, and the connections between the tracks are obvious, therefore are less likely to lead to reactions of surprise or intrigue than if they’re tied together by some other common feature.

Here’s what we mean… 

An example of musical commonalities making a song work where it seems like it shouldn’t is the iconic Boiler Room x FLY Open Air moment from musician and DJ, Folamour. This iconic moment in the set sees Folamour transition away from soulful disco hits to 'Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!' by ABBA.

It feels like it shouldn’t work, but the crowd goes wild. Besides the song being a classic, the reason it works so well is that it has a strong disco DNA, i.e a ‘four to the floor’ kick and a break-like section in the middle, for example. The rest of the set incorporates disco elements, but it’s still very soulful in feel. So whilst the ABBA track doesn’t have the same level of 'soul' that the surrounding tracks have, it still works nicely as the musical relationships are strong, and has become a defining element of the 2019 Boiler Room set and Folamour’s career, 40 years after the song was first released.

Peak-end rule 

Of course, our musical choices for customers are driven by behavioural science. Because without behavioural science and data all you’re left with is some nice music and wishful thinking.

One of our favourite principles that relates to when songs shouldn’t work together but do, is the peak-end rule

The peak-end rule is a psychological heuristic in which most people evaluate an experience by the sum of its most stand-out moments (the peaks) and how it concludes (the end). In this context, a song might stand out and make you think “huh?!” whilst browsing the aisles, but as you hear a bigger chunk of the playlist while in store, it just makes sense. You might even make a note of the song in your phone to save to your playlist, and now every time you hear it, you’ll think of that one shopping experience. An interesting and cohesive set of tunes for your customers can make the experience even better. 

The playlist...

We’ve also pulled together a playlist to show what we mean. It blends genres like Hip Hop, Indie, R&B, Alt-Pop, and Neo Soul. Some of these genres, such as R&B, Neo Soul, and Hip Hop, are closely related (and therefore normally go well together anyway), but the musical commonality that weaves each track together is a kind of ‘rhythmic wonkiness’ - the tracks don’t always sound that steady, and their rhythmic grooves sound like they have one leg shorter than the other at times - like they’re limping. 

This rhythmic style became particularly popular during the Soulquarian movement (late 90s - early 00s), with J Dilla being a pioneer, but it’s interesting to hear the connections across different genres. For example, in the playlist, you might not necessarily put the Yves Tumor track, ‘A Greater Love’, directly next to the SAULT track, ‘Envious’, but it works.

Leave it to the experts 

So now we know the unexpected can work a lot of the time, it feels like the possibilities are… endless. Which can be pretty overwhelming. 

That’s where our experts can help. A lot of time, thought and love goes into the curation of our playlists - with proper profiling, backed up by data and behavioural science, we’re here to make sure your music isn’t just a ‘nice to have’. It’s memorable, on-brand, and impactful. 

Why not try out our rehearsal room? Or, if you're ready for the main event, get in touch.

When the unexpected works - playlist curation

James Picken

Creative Director at Startle. It's my job to produce and execute our music output, making sure everything is sounding, feeling and performing just right for our customers. When I'm not doing this, you can find me either walking my dog, remixing 90s divas on Logic Pro X, returning overdue library books or throwing weights about in the gym.

Say hello on LinkedIn

Hey, we've just met you and this is crazy. But here's our number +44 (0)203 397 7676. So, call us maybe?

  • Number of locations *
  • Number of locations *