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on an album, the order of the tracks is important

Since the albums have existed, they have offered listeners moments of wonder, hope, truth, and realistic reflection on the human condition.

This is only possible through a collective effort. Artists, producers, composer-lyricists, engineers, graphic designers, and liner note writers carefully curate and present a structured soundtrack, with titles ordered in such a way as to take listeners on a journey. It can bring a semblance of order to their often chaotic lives.

But what happens when you listen to songs from an artist’s album randomly rather than in the order they were planned?

It wasn’t much of a problem when people had to press the fast forward button on their tape or CD player to get to the desired track or move the tip of a turntable to the right groove. But since the advent of streaming services, you can change the order of tracks in an album with a single click, and shuffle play is sometimes even programmed by default.

On November 19, 2021, singer Adele released her fourth album, “30”. She managed to convince the streaming platform Spotify to change its default settings so that the titles of her new album are played in order.

I completely agree with her.

As a Latin Grammy Award-winning composer and Emmy Award-winning musician who has produced over 90 albums, who also teaches courses in the music business and entrepreneurship in the industry, I know from personal experience how album sequencing is important; in other words, the art of arranging musical tracks to best reflect the themes of the album.

The creative process

Producers like me take into consideration that art, as I define it, is a means of expressing one’s humanity. So we try to create albums that reflect personal experiences.

And just as stories only make sense if you know the context, the beginning and the end, listeners need to understand the momentum behind the creation of the album.

The producers also take into account the various stages necessary for this creation. Music education scholar John Kratus identified four in his study of the processes of music creation:

The first step is to explore the concept of the album. This is when we discuss the topics that will be covered.

The second stage uses improvisational processes. This is when the musicians work together to create the appropriate song structure, beats and lyrics to evoke those themes.

Then comes the third step: the composition or documentation of the album. This is done in the recording studio with sound engineers and producers who determine what the final versions of the songs on the album will be.

Finally, the fourth stage is the creative performance, that is to say the distribution of the album. It begins after the recording and concerns the marketing and communication strategies put in place to promote the album, through concerts, video clips and interviews. The creative team decides in which formats and on which platforms the album will be released.

The process described above is illustrated almost line by line in Peter Jackson’s recent Beatles documentary, The Beatles: Get Back.

The images show the four members of one of the most influential bands of all time in the midst of the creative process.

They start by discussing what drives them to write a song – this is the exploration phase. They then create the melodic structure of the song, the harmony and the rhythm – improvisation phase. Then they record the repertoire of the album – composition phase. Finally, they rehearse the songs to be played in a specific order during future concerts – distribution phase.

The keys to success

Another important variable is the ordering of songs on an album to meet a number of requirements.

For example, they can be organized in such a way as to make listening more pleasant and enjoyable. If the album has too many intense songs early on – for example, fast-tempo, loud-sounding songs that are rich in musical interaction – the listener might believe that the artist hasn’t bothered to modulate. the rhythm of the “story” and the power of the tracks throughout the album.

A producer also wants to avoid auditory fatigue, that is to say the weariness that one can experience when listening to an album that has too much musical intensity from the start. To do this, the producers ensure that the instrumentation, harmonic progression and level of energy of the songs vary when listening to them one after the other.

Track order can also influence listeners’ feelings of empathy and identification with the artist and their plan for the album, by arranging song themes in ways that reflect the artist’s personal experiences in music. order in which they occurred in real life. For example, a musician may tell an autobiographical story through songs whose timeline mirrors that of real events.

In his 2016 autobiography, Bruce Springsteen talks about how he deliberately ordered the songs on his album Born to Run to give listeners the impression of a day that begins early in the morning and ends late at night. Meanwhile, multi-Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Michael Brecker curated his latest album, Pilgrimage like the last days of his life when he was battling cancer.

Different artists and musical genres don’t all have the same approach to albums. However, there are certain rules to follow when ordering songs. I suggest below a standard example of organizing a 12-track album:

  • Track 1: An iconic song full of energy, vibrant and intense, with rich instrumental textures.

  • Track 2: a mid-tempo title with fewer instrumental textures and lyrics. The idea is to express more vulnerability.

  • Track 3: A very dynamic piece with totally different instrumental textures. For example, if track 1 uses a lot of acoustic instruments, track 3 will be more electronic.

  • Track 4: A poignant ballad.

  • Track 5: The second strongest song on the album, usually of a different tempo and timing – this could be a waltz or a swing-style song, for example.

  • Tracks 6 through 11, which would have traditionally been on the B-side of vinyl records, tend to be more relaxed and less concerned with commercial appeal. They serve to convey more philosophical and poetic nuances.

  • Usually, the last track on the album, track 12 in our example, is either nostalgic or doesn’t fully resolve lyrically or musically. The objective is often to make the listener want to buy the next album.

This structure is not set in stone, but if readers watch their favorite album, chances are some of these rules apply.

The social message of an album

The sequencing of the album is traditionally one of the last steps and takes place during what is called a “scouting session”.

At this stage, artists, producers, managers and advertisers get down to sequencing to ensure that the themes covered are communicated smoothly and that the artist’s vision is understood by listening to the audience. album, from beginning to end.

Thinking about all that’s involved in ordering tracks on an album can help music lovers better understand why so many musicians supported Adele’s request to remove shuffle by default. By using this feature, listeners risk missing out on the carefully crafted message and sonic journey.


Translated by Iris Le Guinio for Fast ForWord.

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