Playlists are portals into moments, emotions and experiences. They are almost like scrapbooks, but in my opinion, they’re even better. Unlike pictures, song mixes aren’t just static documentations of bygone memories. You put them together: They are things you create that influence the moments you listen to them. Playlists are breathing and changing, getting used again, with different people in new times and places. With a few songs added and a few taken away, their meanings can change entirely.
Creating playlists takes the randomness of music away. Countless times, I have put music on shuffle as I studied and absorbed it as not much more than ambient noise. But mixtapes, CDs and playlists created with a purpose — it’s almost like they make art out of art.
The first challenge is deciding on a theme. More often than not, the theme comes to me naturally; I don’t sit down and actively try to think of one. Playlist ideas arrive in my brain like visiting guests, passing through unless I actively hold onto them; then I start the playlist immediately and see where it takes me and what it tells me. Playlists award the gift of intention when listening to music. They allow the listener to decide on the emotional experience they want. However, playlists also force a listener to guess the mood of a moment, often before it happens.
A strange kind of fortune-telling is involved in the making of playlists. If you’re creating something for a future moment or person, you have to predict how it will make others feel. Should it be short or long? Should the order matter? Who’s listening to it? They are strangely demographic-oriented questions, but they seem to run through the mind more intuitively and unconsciously when putting the songs together. Without quite knowing the answers, these projects allow us to better understand the moments we experience and how music enhances them.
On the other hand, playlists may be retroactive. The moment already happened, the queue was put together on the spot and the mix of music is meant to pin it down and encapsulate it. This allows for a different kind of hope. What already happened might happen again, or, if it was a truly singular experience, at least it isn’t lost forever. There are songs to procure nostalgia and remembrance without feeling overwhelming.
Titles of playlists require that the moment is named. What do you associate these songs with? Or who? Or where? Direct or indirect, there is room in the titles for inside jokes, small moments and memories jumbled together in the few characters allotted.
To me, the most thoughtful and emotional experience is putting playlists together as gifts for people. You have to think about this person who you love or have a new crush on or have been friends with for three years. You have to spend time with their personality inside your head and try to figure out what they would like and what they wouldn’t, what they might need out of this and what they’re expecting (or not, if you’re surprising them).
How do you replicate a person in a piece of art? This activity requires a large dosage of empathy. It seems to be a more emotionally opening experience than is ever acknowledged. Playlists with special covers and titles that have clearly been thought out are among my favorite gifts I’ve ever received.
Sometimes the unexpected happens when putting a playlist together. I encounter a song that I didn’t think fit at first and realize that perhaps my understanding of what I intended for the playlist has changed. Or it makes me realize that an emotion or experience I thought of in one way is in fact multi-faceted and not confined to one genre or musical instrument.
It’s important to note that music is not only used to serve some social experience that allows you to connect with others. The playlists you curate for yourself are perhaps the most important ones. There are days where it is hard to feel anything — when I’m not quite sure how I connect to my surroundings or even my own body. Music can pierce this veil; even if the songs make me cry, I know I chose them to prod myself into relinquishing to some sort of feeling. There are also days where everything is feeling, and anything that touches me risks dissolving me. There is a playlist for these days to patch me up. Either way, the music takes steps to make me feel whole. And in my choosing it, I have agency over how art influences my life.
Musicians obviously imbue their work with meaning. But when they turn it over to us, what do we tack on? How do we add their art to our lives, and how do we give it a purpose that is entirely our own? How do we combine a song with many others, making connections and giving universality to all these different melodies and meanings? The way we decide to bring different tunes together is how we bring different parts of ourselves and others together. It ensures community through music, even when it’s not a social one. There is always the possibility of thoughtfulness and generosity when you select “New Playlist.”
Daily Arts Writer Rosa Sofia Kaminski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.