Set List 101

Professional Christian Bands use Set Lists

Have you ever cheated on a test by writing notes on your hand or stuffing a small piece of paper with notes up your sleeve? If we haven’t, most of us wished we could have at some time or other. Think of a set list as your band’s completely legal cheat sheet—you get to perform with your notes wide open and, if done correctly, no one will know the difference!

Definition: A “set” is the length of time the band is expected to play.

Definition: A “set list” is a list of songs the band intends to play during the set.

Set Lists Help Bands Look More Professional Because:

● An organized set list minimizes down time between songs and eliminates mistakes made by band members starting to play the wrong song.

● A well thought out set list allows the person who talks between the songs to plan what they are going to say, making their comments more relevant and concise.

● A set list which has been pre-timed allows the band to play exactly the amount of time requested by the promoter.

● A written set list keeps the band, the soundman, and light techs all on the same page (literally).

● A set list lets the next band and the promoter know when your band is almost finished, so they can prepare for the emcee and the next band’s set.

Most sets are either 45 or 30 minutes long, so you need to create two sets. Start by choosing your best 12 songs. At a practice, play all of them one right after another and time the set. Adjust the number of songs to roughly estimate one 30 minute set and one 45 minute set. Most people come up with about 9 songs for a 30 minute set and 13 songs for a 45 minutes set. Remember to leave plenty of time for talking in between songs. So, you really only need to plan to play 20-25 minutes and 35-40 minutes of music.

The most important reason for a set list is that it helps you plan ahead to keep the audience interested in your music so they will want to hear your message.

After you decide which songs get played in each set, choose the two best songs. “Best” is defined as the two songs audiences will probably remember the most. It is not the newest song you wrote (which is usually the one you like best). Do not choose slower ballad type songs for either of these. Start with the song that has the most dramatic introduction. End with the other best song, which should have a show stopping, memorable ending. You may need to rewrite the introduction and ending of the songs for the greatest impact.

To hold your audience’s attention, the songs in the middle need to flow like waves, building and decreasing in intensity but never staying the same. Do not play two songs together that are similar—same key, time signature, or tempo. Remember that the purpose of designing a set is to keep your audience engaged and interested; plan NOT to be boring.

Place a throw away song just past the halfway point of each set. During the performance, keep track of when the band starts playing and when you are supposed to end. Check the band’s performance time when the set list is at the halfway point. Throw out this song if you are running long. A simple thumbs up or down from the lead singer on stage can communicate to the rest of the band whether this song will be played or if they are moving to the next song. Too many bands do not get to finish their sets in the way they planned because they ran out of time and had to end unexpectedly. Plan to finish with a dramatic and memorable ending by adjusting your set in the middle as needed.

Run through and time your sets during the rehearsal just prior to the gig. Make adjustments for things that take time in between songs such as re-tuning guitars or adding another instrument; attempt to group songs to get the least amount of down time on stage. Know when the expected down time will be so someone will be prepared to fill in the time by talking.

Lastly, plan for an encore song. Your encore is really a second ending. It should not be a let down to your fans, so do not choose poorly. This is not the place to test new material or to play a slow song. You must leave your audience with a strong memory of the band. If you do not have another really amazing song, this is a good place for a cover tune or replay the song the audience reacted best to during set (with the exception of replaying the last song of the set).

Let me reinforce that thought—it is better to play an amazing song twice than to play a not so memorable song for your band’s encore.

Once you have settled on your set, write it on 8-1/2” x 11” white paper. Write large and clearly as the band members will need to glance at it quickly; they will probably be reading in dim light and possibly smoke. Most bands use a black sharpie because they create the set list just prior to the show. It is very easy to use a computer to print lists for everyone if you plan ahead. You need 1 copy per band member, 1 copy for the soundman, 1 copy for the light tech (if there is one), and it is nice to give a copy to the promoter or stage manager. Tape the lists on stage in inconspicuous places like the back or top of amps. Taping lists on the floor is not best if using smoke machine. Many lead singers like their list taped to the floor just in front of their monitors. If you know what to look for, you can frequently see lead singers walk over to the guitarist’s list during the set because they can no longer see their list due to the smoke machine. Be sure to tape top and bottom of the lists so they don’t blow around.

After the gig, save at least one copy of the set list so you can revise it for the next show. Some bands have tried to laminate the set list. Do not waste the time or money as your lists will probably change with each gig. Be considerate; do not leave your used set lists lying on the floor of the venue when you leave. It becomes very obvious who threw the trash on the floor and who might not get invited back to play at that venue again.

Creating a set list that will keep the audience engaged is an art in itself.

Set lists take some time and planning to create, but they make everyone’s life easier during the performance because they communicate the plan without disrupting the show. They help the band to improve by constantly changing—if something didn’t work at this show, change the set list before the next show. Most importantly, set lists free the band from the concerns of what will happen next on stage so they can focus on connecting to the audience. Music ministry is all about the people—how to intrigue them, touch them, and draw them closer to Jesus.

This article is an excerpt from The Christian Band Handbook

Here’s an example of great planning to keep the audience engaged and wanting more: My husbands’ band, closed their rock set with a song that is very high energy. On the second to last chorus the instruments stop playing, there is a slight pause, then the three brothers sing the same chorus a capella with harmonies. After that, they go back to the rock version for the last chorus. Before the last note of the last chorus ends they say, “Goodnight everyone!” wave and walk off stage. This is so dramatic that usually everyone in the room has their full attention on the stage. Did they get screams for encores? You bet.

The Christian Band Handbook

The Christian Band Handbook

has more information about playing live gigs in a chapter called Preparing, Praying and Performing.


to get your copy today!


Get Your FREE Christian Band Booking Calendar

Christian musicians need places to play to be able to do their ministry.

Sign up to get a FREE booking calendar that shows you which booking tasks to do each month. Know what to do and when to do it to get more gigs so you can do more ministry.

Signing up here enters your e-mail onto the Christian Band Help mailing list. We know you hate spam—we do too. We don’t have a newsletter and we don’t send e-mails every day. We only send e-mails when we have something important to say that we think you want to hear, not usually more than once a week. Plus there is always an unsubscribe button on the bottom of every e-mail. We don’t share or sell e-mail addresses to anyone, ever. Powered by ConvertKit