The Art of the Playlist
an educational perspective
by Isaac Rohr
Overview: This article is written for music educators within K12 (general music or academic music). College-level music educators interested in curriculum development and research. Private music teachers looking to expand their teaching options and techniques. Those interested in modern music education perspectives, concepts, and curriculum. Anyone interested in playlists, individuation, learning for life, music education, music streaming, childhood development, Spotify, iTunes, apple music, SoundCloud, contemporary music, education, new teaching techniques, new music teaching techniques or teaching in the internet age.
How much of playlists are we taking for granted?
// Frankly how much of organization of tracks & songs are we taking for granted
Particularly here what types of discussions could be had or learning experiences could be had with playlists as an organizing tool?–
My perspective on playlists today stems from my experiences engaging in the community education space with individuals who want to express themselves through music but who have experienced it through a curated lens.
For those of you who grew up with the impetus to engage in music making you might find it a bit odd to think of your musical identity, influences, and style as separate from you. if someone asked me who some of my favorite artists are I’d know exactly what to say— but there are people of all ages who understand music from a curated standpoint and so are used to selecting an aesthetic, vibe, or other playlist or mix, and freely maneuvering through those things to surround themselves in— not because they’re necessarily a part of themselves or something they relate to but because they love to hear a curation. Or perhaps even need curation to save time. They are listeners and fans first and foremost and so are engaging with distinct identities or relationships with musical styles from a curatorial standpoint. Much of which creators are often removed from or take for granted.
This idea also pertains to a distinct way music-making frames itself in the lives of many music makers today— those who are inspired to create from these mainly curatorial formats. Myself included- I engage with a number of people who have a particular experience with the music they like to listen to that they want to experience through their own work. Should they be creating something that will elicit a similar experience for others? (Potentially removed from the ability to enjoy it that way themselves since they know the answer to the puzzle.) Or do they need to be one step removed from their own process such that they can still engage with their own work at that level — auto curation? Reflexive biographical imagery crafted to be analyzed in order to learn about one’s own mental frameworks, rationales, logics, or beliefs.
When we think about playlists, particularly from an education standpoint, we must understand that there are a couple of modalities that overlap to playlisting (and therefore music-ing today). the distributive and the personal.
A distributive mode is about creating an experience in and of itself for others to engage with. As the creator of a distributive modality, one becomes a curator, engineer, designer, MC, organizer, salesperson, and individuator, crafting something to be experienced but not necessarily a wholesale experiencer of that process or experience. You are a provider of something to be analyzed + utilized — the puzzle is yours to craft rather than to solve.
A personal mode is about creating an experience of and for yourself to engage with. As the creator of a personal modality, one becomes dreamer, researcher, explorer, ruminator, solver, individuated, learner, and audience. crafting something to be experienced by yourself, for yourself — to be a wholesale experiencer of that experience. You are a curator of something which becomes a part of your life. Your craft becomes your aesthetic, a part and extension of your own mind and beliefs.
Daily mix 1 vs “Happy Beats” Playlist.
Very much a spectrum— these ends could be boiled down to: for others and for yourself.
When thinking of ways to incorporate playlisting into a learning experience, we can think within these broad frameworks.
There may be a sociological aspect to this need and to this particular way of working. At least in my life, I grew up with a lack of a strong cultural identity of my own. I was tied by geography, but not culture, to the people around me. Maybe I am used to browsing and learning about these other cultures and communities to be better capable of creating or engaging in my own— potentially spinning in place searching for communities I relate to. Not realizing that I’m enculturation starved.
At a basic level crafting a playlist can give you a framework for your own identity—a collection of things you relate to. But the act of creating that playlist can also impart an understanding of the work required to generate and maneuver into those communities. As a globalized community, we could be connected at any moment to people across the world, without even knowing it. Additionally, creating playlists teaches the ability to organize thoughts in coherent ways and to find and create relationships between seemingly distinct characters or objects. This ability can be integral in encouraging agency and the crystalizing of an individual’s beliefs
As an educator, you can even craft playlists of very disparate pieces of music to offer space for theorizing philosophical questions about these differences, or searching for similarities and shared experiences. The foundational method of using these tools is for the purposes of providing your students with a set of music that you think is important, for their growth, that they can engage with on their own time and in their own way. Playlists offer a safe way for students to engage in active listening and thought around whatever subject you’re trying to teach. Encourage note-taking through recordings or writing (especially digitally)—through images and language. Descriptions of all kinds are possible when engaging with music in a private setting.
The best platforms for playlist sharing are YouTube and Spotify— because they’re free to access (albeit with ads). For students who use other platforms like Apple Music, you can even convert playlists to other platforms using websites like soundiiz.
There’s no reason you can’t provide links to all different platforms if you’d like to. YouTube and Spotify are great for sharing because they’re free to use, and most people are already using one of them to some degree so you shouldn’t wind up alienating students who can’t afford premium subscriptions. The best course of action is to just ask your students what they use , craft a playlist on that platform or convert from a platform you’re comfortable with and always prefer options which can be accessed for free.
Playlists for education concepts: These concepts don’t need to be especially deep. They should have room for interpretation; esp. by the educator.
Playlist concept #1: This concept centers around ambient spaces, textural tonalities, and lushness. These are all related sonically, connections can be up to interpretation.
Playlist concept #2: This concept centers around the western European music style of the aria. “Then” and “now”, how have things changed? How are they similar?
Another benefit to using these free platforms is that playlist collaboration is easily accessible for groups. Playlist collaboration is a great way to unify a classroom and to encourage people who love to operate in a more public-facing way an opportunity for growth as well. Playlist collaboration is an optimal way for more introverted people to share their ideas with a group without needing an explanation. This is particularly great for people who feel they have a niche or unusual interests to find common ground with other people in their community or classroom. This also gives your students who like to work in distributive ways an opportunity to curate something for the group and to think about the relationship between concept – execution- and reception when it comes to music making in general.
Playlists are an integral part of the way people engage with music today and the ability to create and share your own provides educators and students an avenue for learning and self-expression which is abstracted from the actual process of music making itself. Making music of your own largely requires multiple levels of curation. Using playlists can isolate that experience as something to expressly focus on and practice in and of itself.
Curatorial layers in music creation:
Style (Genre + Community)
Grid (Social Media)
©MacPhail Center for Music | All Rights Reserved | May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.
Meet Isaac Rohr
Isaac Rohr (he/they) is an artist, beatmaker, and mixing and mastering engineer teaching in MacPhail’s EMRA program. Isaac has spent his life studying, performing, and creating: electronic music, jazz, classical new music, ‘world’ music, audiovisual art, installations, 3D art, games, and beats. Isaac takes a critical and dialectical approach to music making and performance emphasizing a unique, hyper-contemporary process with a focus on electronics, anti-racism, decolonization, and auto-didactic practices. By studying and participating in as broad a variety of topics as possible, Isaac aims to provide students with a learning environment and guidance with no limits.
As a teacher, Isaac places an emphasis on teaching using a discussion-based approach in order to draw conclusions about the direction to take in lessons by the needs and pacing of the student; rather than treating the student as a project by providing a strict and dated plan.
As an artist, Isaac uses his fractured identity, neurodivergence, and ‘anti-post-de’-colonial theory to create hypnotic dissertations on the state of the human race and himself within it.
Isaac Rohr holds a Bachelor of Music – Music Composition from Brandon University as well as a Master of Fine Arts – Music Composition and Experimental Sound Practices from The California Institute of The Arts.
This curriculum is made possible through a MacPhail Center for Music School Partnerships initiative, Project Amplify, a grant-funded, music education initiative focused on strengthening learning opportunities for K-12 Minnesota music students from historically marginalized backgrounds. This effort provides transformational programming that nurtures creativity, honors students’ backgrounds, and provides tools and resources to support K-12 educators.
About MacPhail Center for Music’s School Partnership Program
MacPhail School Partnerships enrich the lives of students by providing unrivaled in-person or live online instruction in tandem with Minnesota schools. Our staff works with schools to develop customized and relevant programming through individual instruction, sectionals, ELL support, residencies, masterclasses, and more.