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Movie Talk, Music

The Art of the Perfect Mixtape

In High Fidelity, John Cusack’s character shares many of the lessons he has learned in life. He shares his mistakes in love and the blunders to which those mistakes led him. Throughout the film, viewers also receive the character’s musings on everything from the top five songs about death to the art of making a great mixtape. These days, the mixtape has been replaced with blank CDs, or even a digital shuffle setting. But there is still a grace involved in sharing yourself with a person through a mixtape, and the appreciation of receiving a mixtape – since the process took the length of the tape to produce, unlike its present day ancestors that can be arranged within minutes. The examples given in the film on how to best produce a mixtape are strong, but incomplete; thus, we shall complete the course of creating the perfect mix.

Understanding the process, as learning often does, allows one to not only master a procedure, but gainer a deeper appreciation for the lesson learned, which in this case is a grouping of songs – whether it be a mix, your favorite band’s latest album, or even a concert set list. Consider the example of learning to play guitar. Before learning to play a six-string, you simply hear the instrument with little comprehension of what it’s contributing to a song. After becoming a guitarist and going through the frustration of learning, you then listen closer and appreciate the magnitude of effort that went into creating the music. Much like learning an instrument, you’ll find that generating the perfect mix takes practice and can also be a lot of fun. And the next time you attend a concert, you’ll take note of why they played each song when.

The first step requires you to ponder what sort of mix are you making. A mix of your favorite party songs? Perhaps a grouping of your favorite songs by your favorite band? Or maybe an overall messages to a special someone via the greatest love ballads of the 1990’s? Or simply, some really sweet tunes. Whatever the theme may be, you need to sweep through your options and choose songs appropriate for your theme. The second example mentioned would obviously limit the songs to a certain artist while the first example could contain anything from Otis Redding to Scatman John. Only you, as the creator of the mix can decide what is right – as long as you have a clear understanding of you’re aiming to produce.

Once you have a number of songs chosen, you must arrange them in an order that flows smoothly from start to finish. There are many steps to consider so that your mix can be heard like an unfolding storyline. First of all, it helps to think of the mix as a concert’s set list. What do you open with to pump up the crowd? How do you bring it to a close? Where do you lighten the mood and how will you build the excitement back up? As John Cusack preached in the film, you must open big. Open with a bang. The first song must be intriguing and grasp the listener’s attention.
The second song, however, is every bit as important. While the first song must be big, the second song must be even bigger. It must out-do the first song because while the opener grabs hold of the audience, the second song keeps that grip tight, sending them to the rest of the mix while proving the energy wasn’t all saved for the opening song.
Stepping back again to the first song… While you want to open with a bang, it is also sometimes exhilarating to start with a quiet, slow song, if and only if it powerful enough to act as a quiet giant. In this case, the second song must be a thriller and give the wow of a dramatic twist in the first act. This is effective only if it is not overused.
As the first few songs are important to the mix to start the ride off right, the final three to four songs are just as crucial, if not more, as they bring the journey to a close. One song, possibly the “big hit” plays – acting as the last song before the encore, the final three to four songs. These last few songs play through like an unstoppable, wild ride that builds higher levels of adrenaline or emotion to the end.
The last song should wrap up the message of the whole set. If the listener didn’t grasp the concept yet, she or he will on the finale. Capitalize on the ending – make it leave that lasting impression. Choose something that you could envision playing during the credits of a movie or a song you feel is very strong, with immense emotion or deep meaning. The feeling you aim for with the ending is not only having the listener wish there were more, but simultaneously feel satisfied with the completion.
We’ve discussed the beginning and the end, but we haven’t touched on the journey from one to the other. There is a key slot in the mix: Song number seven. This must be a very special song. It does not necessarily have to be a song that most strongly describes the theme, like the finale, but rather a song that deserves an honorable spot in the mix. The seventh song could very well be the best song on the entire mix. Take a look at your favorite albums. You might notice that the seventh song appears to be a stand out track on many of your CDs. Many artists slip in a special tune on the seventh track, carrying on the tradition and reputation of the seventh track. Rocker Jon Bon Jovi once pointed out that he loved listening to music, yet, “It was the seventh song on the record that inspired me to pick up a guitar.”

Once you’ve decided what you will begin and end with, along with plugging in a superstar at track 7, make sure the other songs are carefully placed along the way. For instance, don’t follow “Yesterday,” the Beatles’ quiet reflection, with “Crazy Train,” Ozzy Osbourne’s riff-driven, electric-guitar-storm. Try putting a transition song in between, such as Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” which begins acoustically and slowly transforms into a fist-pumping anthem. This would more smoothly send the listener from “Yesterday” to “Crazy Train.” Create progressions such as these to make listening to the mix like watching a movie. The songs play off one another to build and break down levels of intensity.
Next time you create a mix, attend a concert or simply listen to your favorite band’s latest album, you’ll have a better understanding of the thought put in behind the ordering of songs. Just don’t dwell too far into your music passion, or you’ll join the High Fidelty lead character in his passionate misery.

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