The power of music curation 🎧
How to use music to shape atmosphere and transform experiences
I’ve been making mixtapes since I was 12 years old.
My friend Mike and I used to stay up all night in his mom’s chicken coop, feverishly passing music back and forth, picking songs to create “the perfect” mixtape. Finding new music and creating mixes became an obsession.
Fast forward 20 years — music is now an integral part of my work.
Whether I am getting 150 HR managers to dance like giddy teenagers to Bollywood music or using calm, classical piano to create a reflective atmosphere for intimate conversations — I’ve found that in just 5 seconds, the right song can shake people awake, shatter their expectations, and put them at ease.
Music is an invisible thread — but it carries enormous power. Anyone can use music to interrupt the predictable patterns of a business meeting, workshop, class, or online event to uncover the possibilities that lie just below the surface.
There are two main principles I live by when curating music.
Make people feel at home
A few years back, I was leading an offsite with an international fragrance company. Their top managers were gathered on the 26th floor of a boardroom in San Francisco. Each person had flown in from a different region. To prepare for my event, I got a list of all the countries my participants hailed from and selected music from each place.
In the middle of the event, one participant, a Japanese woman in her late 60’s, walked up to me with tears in her eyes. I was playing an obscure Japanese folk song which as it turned out, was very dear to her heart. For the first time since arriving in the US, she said she felt truly at peace. She did not have to blend into an unfamiliar environment — she was able to just be herself.
Before your next event, take some time to think about who is in your audience. What songs might you include that could reflect different aspects of their identity and culture? Be careful not to play on stereotypes. What songs might surprise and delight them? What music might make them feel at home?
Create an irresistible atmosphere
In 2010, I was living in Seattle and teaching art at an alternative high school. I had a dismal attendance rate and the students who did show up would sit back confrontationally in their chairs with arms crossed, sneering. Needless to say, the culture of the classroom needed a bit of a revamp.
So I decided to try something different.
I brought a huge sound system into my classroom. When the first student walked in, I handed him the aux cable and said “play whatever you want.”
A mischievous grin spread across his face as he plugged in his iPod and put on the most explicit rap song he could find. I told him to crank up the volume.
As each student stepped into class, their faces lit up with disbelief, looked at me curiously, and then broke into huge smiles. Heads were bobbing to the beat and some were even singing along.
It was the first moment I had seen many of them smile.
At that moment, I used music to unite my classroom. To transform my traditionally “boring class” as they would call it, into an irresistible atmosphere where they felt truly at ease.
Think about the feeling and atmosphere you want to create at your next event. You can’t force connection. You can’t force people to be open. But you CAN create an environment that helps people to drop out of their everyday thoughts and into a different kind of space.
Let yourself experiment
The next time you are planning an event — whether that’s a workshop, party, wedding, funeral, baby shower, road trip, or anything in between — take a little extra time to curate a playlist that shapes the way you WANT people to feel.
You don’t need to be a professional DJ. A little intention goes a long way.
Now here are a few playlists to get you started:
H E A R T 💓 — To help you get to the heart of things.
H E A D 🗣️ —To drop into deep thought, curiosity, and new perspectives.
H A N D S 🙏🏽 — To connect to your creativity and motivation.