A scientific guide to making the perfect mixed tape.


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This post will take the effort to present some points of consideration when making a "perfect mixed tape." Data will be collected on a weekly basis, where the author, as well as the community at large, will have an opportunity to present their music choice in an attempt to build a 10 song playlist. At the end of the ten week period, the mxes will then be critiqued and analysed for perfection.


Under this methodology, it is hoped that the author and the rest of the readers will be able to better evalate components that constutute a perfect mixed tape, or least a close represention of what that "perfect mixed tape" might be.

Note that the author of this post realizes that he is perhaps over analysing this somewhat subjective endeavor, but feels that the process could possibly be a great way to learn about some awesome new music.

Song 1 | 2 | 3 | 4


To begin with, we must first present a few hypotheses on the reasonings behind producing a mixed tape in the first place. Under this structure, we can then discuss various strategies involved in this process.

In no particular order, the author assumes one or more of the desired outcomes:

  • 1. The music mix is meant to reflect on the personality of its maker.
  • 2. The music mix is meant to fit under a specifically chosen premise or theme (autobiographical for instance).
  • 3. Preferably to the maker, the music mix will be under heavy rotation by the user which in turn presumes:
    • (i) The music mix is found very agreeable to the recipient.
    • (ii) Somehow playing the music places the recipient in a position of respect (For instance, the music mix is an indicator of admirable musical taste, regardless of whether the recipient enjoys it or not).
    • (iii) The maker and the recipient are good friends, loved ones, or that there is an implicit or explicit desire that such a relationship is a possible outcome.
  • 4. The music mix is meant to impress the recipient.
  • 5. The music mix is a portal to the recipient discovering new music, or to re-discover old music.


Part of the process of selecting songs is based on social preferences and individual pop culture perspectives (both the maker's and the recipient's). Here the ultimate goal is to present a playlist that achieves an acceptable cultural status (as gauged via any of the aforemention goals alluded to above). In other words, the playlist has to somehow be "cool" to the recipient. However, it is also important to note a few neurological details.


For instance, it is good to be aware that our sensory systems are more than capable of distinguishing consonant versus dissonant melodies.

In music, a consonance is a harmony, chord, or interval considered stable, as opposed to a dissonance (Latin dis-, "apart" + sonare, "to sound") -- considered unstable (or temporary, transitional). The strictest definition of consonance may be only those sounds which are pleasant. (From wiki)

Often, this dichotomy relates directly to the notion of a song being radio friendly* versus aurally challenging, or in other words, the ability to enjoy the song immediately, versus one that takes repeated listening.

*Note: this does not necessarily mean popular - just easy on the ears.


As well, in one's effort to creating a "perfect mixed tape," the author believes it crucial to be sensitive to the effects of habituation or neural adaptation.

Briefly, both terms (habituation referring primarily to behavioral instances, and neural adaptation to neurological instances) allude to a:

"process in humans and animals in which there is a decrease in response to a stimulus after repeated exposure to that stimulus over a duration of time." (modified from wiki)

This is an important factor to consider when choosing songs, in that repetitive and/or familiar sounding songs run the risk of being habituated quickly, thereby losing the desired effect of the mix. Whilst such a stimulus would effectively help the recipient transition into the tape quickly, it may also run the risk of becoming boring too quickly.


Given all the criteria above, here are a few considerations the author recommends.

Ideally, the mixed tape will incorporate a variety of different tempos. This is primarily to subtly guard against habituation effects. Furthermore, the first song likely best serves the listener by being faster in tempo. This way the stimulus is from the get go exaggerated which will engage the listener more effectively.

It is also the opinion of the author that changes in tempo are not too quickly altered. In other words, a song order alternating strictly fast-slow-etc one song after another will begin to take on an overall dissonant effect, which may also put off the listener. The recommendation here, therefore, is to group a few songs of similar tempo before changing.

Much like the tempo angle, it is thought to best provide a variety of different types of melodies, although this author believes that the majority of the songs chosen should be of a consonant quality. This simply means that most of the tape will be relatively easy to enjoy from the first listen, and that there is enough of this material to initially carry the listener through the more challenging choices.

Again, like before, the first song is ideally pretty radio friendly/consonant in nature, which will aid in that first impression.

Regarding both tempo and melody, it is the author's opinion that the final song on the mix needn't follow any particular advice, except that it should not represent a new tempo shift from the second to last song.

Cultural Status
This is largely determined by the songs chosen and their place in terms of (i) critical discourse in the professional music journalism community; (ii) social status within the maker's or recipient's community, and/or (iii) social status within the pop culture zeitgeist. In many ways, songs can be chosen as badges of honor that reflect the savyness (or lack thereof) of the mixed tape maker.

Quite often this works well when a song is chosen from a particular genre or era, reflective of the respect you have for that genre or era. i.e. this author is fond of choosing something from the Motown catalog in all his mixes. As well, providing nods to the local music community is usually thought of in a positive light.

However, this author's opinion also posits that for the playlist in general, this is a minor consideration and can be taken into account for only a small sampling of songs chosen. In fact, there may be benefits to deliberately choosing a song of low cultural status based only on its musical merits (i.e. an excellent performance by an artist usually held with little credibility). This in turn, demonstrates both a lack of pretention and perhaps signals to the recipient that you are only choosing songs because you think they are good, rather than because of an act of posturing.

In essense, wherever possible, choose music that is likely new to the recipient, and yet still is enjoyable and reflective of your own likes and dislikes. Under this heading, things to choose might be:

  • Material from artists who are generally not considered popular (in terms of sales).
  • Material from very new artists.
  • B sides (new or popular artists performing)
  • Interesting covers.
  • Other rare material or well recorded performances culled from sources such as artist's website, radio interview shows, bootleg concert performances.

Again, as in the case of tempo and consonance/dissonance, the dichotomy of status (i.e. songs likely familiar to the listener) versus discovery is another nuance that must be thought of carefully that allows the listener easy transition without fear of quick habituation.

As well, a similar sense of discovery can also be achieved by the selection of a song that is familiar to the recipient, but possibly has been forgotten or not heard in a long long time. Here, a greater effect can be achieved if this "forgotten" song is also chosen for cultural status reasons.

Finally, usually the mix maker has the token artist or artists they wished everybody knew about. A perfect mix should also do an excellent job of highlighting this, by finding a place for a well chosen song in the playlist.


In this post, I'll begin by picking my first song for a music mix. Then, in the next nine weeks (every friday), I'll choose another song to be added to the sequence. At the end of the ten weeks, everyone gets to dump on how great or horrible my mix is, and we re-evaluate all the nonsense I wrote here.

Please feel free to join along in this exercise by adding your first song in the comments, or blogging about it yourself.

Anyway, I'll start with a song I only recently heard of. This one - Waterfall by James.

Waterfall - James

Song #1 is by James, not a super well known band, and is pretty uptempo and radio friendly as discussed. I heard a snippet of it recently on an episode of "How I Met Your Mother."

More like this

I actually think more thought needs to be placed on the last song as well. You know, like the last songs of the concert always kick it up a notch. Although I guess, for a mixed tape, you want it to "feel" like an ending? I dunno. Hope others play along, because I'm especially interested in what people choose for their final song.

Anyway, my first song pick (having no blog myself to put this on), is Island in the Sun by Weezer. Fast enough.

(Youtube link)

I think you left out an important point, that of copyright theft.
Making a mix tape deprives many musical artists of payment for their work as the process involves the copying of their material onto an entirely new collection without an attempt to compensate the artists.
OK, a bit of sarcasm there but am I legally correct?

This is definitely "over analysing" the process. Although, I gotta say, it's a great amusing read. Completely agree with most of it - except for the part about choosing "songs by bad artists even if the songs are good" Call it what you want, I'm a musical snob.

Need to think carefully about my first song pick... Will return later.

@Sigmund: Yeah technically, you're right (see this link for Canadian rules). That's why NOBODY makes music mixes for their friends (he he!)

My first song, "Girl" by Beck. yes, overplayed, but it rocks!


I recently was turned on to the band Vampire Weekend. It's Caribbean/African influenced beats and catchy melodies are just plain fun. Prozac for the ears. Track 1 on my mix tape would be Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.

You should also take into account keys of songs adjacent to one another. I once made a mix tape in which all I alternated were keys, and the songs were modulated by motion that made sense in the vocabulary of the song previous; for example, you could follow a dixieland song with a song starting on the VI chord of the previous, or a pop song with a song m2 or M2 above, or a common era classical piece starting on the V of the last key. Major to minors are also allowed.

Oh how I miss the mixed tape -- hours spent hunched over your tape deck trying to ge the timing and revodring volume _just_ right. So much more fun than drag'n'drop mixed cds!

My first song: Spanish Rose by Van Morrisson, early, obscure totally rocking song by a well-known artist

and sam, there is absolutely no such thing as over-analyzing a mixed tape. They are art!

I found that The Beatles' "Flying" fits onto almost any mix. Plus, it gets you a Beatles tune without feeling that such was forced. Plus, all mixes need either a transition between bands or between genres or for spacing somewhere there in the middle and this does the trick. Plus, if it comes to pass, don't shy away from using it as a starter, as Track #1, you don't have to fear that. Go on, it's ok. So my research has shown.

Lou Reed meets Bruce Coburn. Nice!

Although I guess, for a mixed tape, you want it to "feel" like an ending? I dunno. Hope others play along, because I'm especially interested in what people choose for their final song.