The art of playlisting: part I

By Joe Chambrello

Anyone who has been to an indoor cycling class will acknowledge two key ingredients to a well-rounded experience: an energized instructor, and GOOD music! After having browsed Yelp reviews on various spinning and indoor cycling classes, from really, really good, to some not so great, it’s clear that music is one of the most important review points. The amount of emphasis riders place on music as a determining factor for a successful workout and enjoyable experience comes as no surprise. The music sets the tone and rhythm for the entire class and goes hand in hand with the energy of the instructor. Read: instructors choose songs that motivate themselves so that they can transmit their energy to the whole class. Win-win, no?

…Woah. Now that sounds like a lot of pressure on the instructor – and the music. Music in a cycling class has the power to transform our bodies, minds, and souls. We go places we’ve never been before, both mentally and physically, for which music is our guide. But if the music isn’t on point, it’s likely that the quality of the workout won’t be either. Cause let’s be honest, 45 minutes on a stationary bike listening to your less-than-favorite genre (we’ve all been there) probably won’t make the mental and physical battle of the ride much easier.

Personally, I like an eclectic playlist that keeps me guessing and leads me through various zones and mentalities throughout a ride. I like mainstream dance music to make me feel like I’m at a party. I like the soulful songs and instrumental beats that put me somewhere else in nature – like a wide open desert road or a beautiful countryside. I also really enjoy a good hip-hop or rap song thrown in a few times to make me feel like more of a badass on the bike than I actually am. I especially enjoy a good throwback song, particularly from the 90’s, to bring me back to that place in time.

So that’s my ideal cycling experience, which is a pretty tall order. But what about my 30-odd fellow riders? I highly doubt we all crave the same type of music for the same type of rides. So now the instructor has to satisfy an entire group of riders, all with different preferences. Some may be much more specific, while others are okay with a broader selection. But nonetheless, the music has got to be good, or else nobody wins.

I’ve always been very pleased with the music selection at The Handle Bar and the energy of all of the instructors, but I’m left wondering, how do they go about achieving this critical music-selecting task to satisfy the masses? I’ve called on several HB instructors to give some insight into their approach when compiling a playlist. Here’s what they had to say…

With literally thousands of songs to choose from, how do you go about narrowing your selection to create your ideal playlist? Give us some insight into your initial approach and thought process throughout.

Lena: VIBES! Whether it’s a feeling, a melody, a beat, the rain, the sun, a moment in my day or the energy of the people around me, I find some way to connect the little things that inspire me to my music choices. I find inspiration in a song and if it feels good, I go with it.As a singer and performer, music has always been my medium of expression. Creating playlists is almost an extension of this art form. Music evolves and the ride evolves with it. Researching new music and listening to artists old and new is what I love, so for me creating playlists has become an intuitive process. If I feel it, my riders will feel it. I choose music that speaks to me and moves me so I can share that energy with the riders listening to it. It’s that transfer of energy in the bike room that makes for an amazing ride.

Spotify is a great way to Discover new music

Spotify is a great way to discover new music

Elise: It usually takes just one song to spark the creation of a playlist for me.  Once I hear or think of ONE song that gets me super pumped about creating a playlist, that gets my creative juices flowing and sets the tone for the vibe I am going to try to create for that class.  I always keep my ears open for songs, both old and new, that I feel a real connection with.  Each and every song on my playlist I have some type of connection to; maybe it pulls at my heartstrings or gives me a sense of nostalgia, or maybe it just makes me want to dance my pants off.  But I have to FEEL it in order to put it on a playlist.  I know that if I put songs on my playlist that make ME excited, that energy will translate to my riders.

Sarah M: It’s no secret that I am a big fan of house/dance/techno music so a lot of my playlists consist of those types of songs. I like to use songs from the genre that most people will recognize, especially since EDM is becoming a lot more popular on the radio, too. The number one thing I look for in a song is the beat. It needs to have a great beat that myself and my riders can set their rhythm to. I also try to use some pretty crazy remixes. For instance, last week I used a techno remix of an old Whitney Houston song. It was completely unexpected, but everyone loved it!

Jess:  I pretty much always have 30-40 songs that I’m really into in a given month. I find most of my music by hearing it once and then ‘shazamming’ it on my phone. I go on song-finding binges where I’ll spend a lot of time just searching and listening and trying to hear new stuff. Then for about a month I just sift through the new stuff and other songs by those artists until I’m sick of them!

Cara: To narrow down a playlist for a class, I always think variety: from song tempo to genres, as well as throwbacks and up and coming artists… then think choreography and creating that beginning, middle, and finale of a class.  Its addicting – I’ll be out with friends, at work, in the car, whatever…. and if a cool song catches my attention, I need to write it down and then spin to it in my head.

Do you find creating playlists comes much easier sometimes than others? Is it easier or more challenging as you gain more experience?

Sarah M: For me, playlist/class creation can take a really long time. You are not only putting a playlist together, but you have to then plan out the entire workout/ride/choreography. Anyone can throw together 10 awesome songs, but then creating a class that is challenging, fun, dynamic and beat driven takes talent and a lot of time. I would say it takes me anywhere from 45-90 min to put an entire playlist and workout together.

Jess: It definitely gets easier. I can listen to the middle of a song for 4 seconds and know if it fits what I need in the workout. Fast jog, slow climb, seated flat, etc. But sometimes you put all those pieces of the workout together and you’ve got too much of one genre.. and sometimes you just want to play certain songs regardless of how they fit into the workout. No matter how experienced the instructor, it’s going to take time to piece together a list of songs that is diverse in mood, tempo, genre and of course choreography. I spend about 45 minutes to an hour composing each workout.

Elise with loyal HB riders

Elise with loyal HB riders

EliseThere are definitely some weeks that are more challenging than other weeks for creating playlists.  It’s important to keep playlists new and fresh, but if I am not feeling particularly inspired by a song or a few songs in a given week I find it harder to create new playlists that really get me excited.  I think that the actual creation of the ride in terms of really learning and knowing music, creating choreography and challenge in the ride has become easier over time.  I played violin for almost 10 years, so that musical background gave me a good understanding of how music works in terms of measures, beats, bridges, choruses, etc.

When choosing songs, do you stress out feeling like you have to satisfy so many different opinions and how do you deal with that pressure?

Elise:  I’ve been teaching for 6 years now, and probably in the past 1-2 years I’ve become confident in my teaching and music style.  You cannot please everyone, it’s literally impossible.  It’s important for me to be true to myself and the music that I like, because that will attract riders who have similar taste in music and appreciate my playlists.  Variety is great, and each Handle Bar instructor has a unique taste in music.  We have something for everyone, and the riders that enjoy my taste in music will keep coming back to my classes!

Jess Heck no! I play what I like, period. If the instructor doesn’t love the music, the class will suffer. The instructor’s choice in music plays a big role in their popularity/success.. but I teach my best classes when I’m obsessed with the songs I’m playing. I hope my riders enjoy them too!

CaraI know my favorite songs to spin to, but if I played them every class that would be boring, so that challenging excitement comes when I need to put my “favorites” aside for the week (or month!) and explore different music.  I could spend hours perfecting a playlist because the music world is endless, but of course that is not practical so I am learning to just pick one and onto the next one!

Sarah M: I think our riders trust our choice in music. We may use songs that they necessarily wouldn’t listen to on their own, but they can still appreciate the beat or the progression of the song. The best is when I use a song in class that none of my riders have ever really heard of, and then they ask me about it at the end of class because they really liked it. I think a lot of our riders have really gained a new appreciation for music as a whole and have really embraced our beat driven riding style. There really isn’t any pressure to satisfy so many different opinions. If my regulars ask me to play a specific song or artist I absolutely make sure it’s on my next playlist.

Well there you have it. The HB instructors know their stuff when it comes to music. The one common takeaway – staying true to their own taste in music creates the difference between a so-so ride and one that really pushes riders to transform themselves, via the songs. We hope that riding at the HB offers you not only a great workout, but also a chance to discoverappreciate, and evolve – both yourself and your taste in music. Look out for The Art of Playlisting: Part II where we give some advice on how to craft your own playlists.

Never stop chasing that beat.

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