The Art of the Set List

A set list is a sheet of paper, usually taped to the floor of the stage, that lists the order of songs that a band intends to play during a particular concert.

Band members use set lists so that they can briefly glance down and determine what song to play next.

As we’ll see below, set lists can look quite different from one another — some are handwritten, some are scribbled messily, some have misspellings, and some are typed.

In addition to ticket stubs, set lists can be great souvenirs of a concert, and people at the front often snatch the set list when a show ends.

Some set lists include pre-determined songs for the encore, indicated below by the dotted line and the diagonal line:

Figure A:

Figure B:

As we see in the above set lists (Rooney and Ben Kweller, respectively), it’s interesting to see how an artist will abbreviate certain song titles. For instance, “ISHBAY” in Figure A is shortened for the song “I Should Have Been After You.” Similarly, “Tree” and “Sun” in Figure B are short for the songs “Family Tree” and “Sundress.”

Another interesting abbreviation is the portmanteau in the second song, called “Badd Business,” in Phantom Planet’s set list below. The question marks also leave flexibility to cater to either the performer’s whim or suggestions from the audience.

If you’re lucky enough to be at the front of the crowd (and are able to read upside down), you can know what song the band is going to play next before anyone else in the crowd. Even more useful, you can determine if you should hold out hope for an encore (or encores), as the Nada Surf set list below indicates:

One band can have variety in its set lists from show to show. How rushed a band is before the show can mean that song titles are further shortened, as they are in the first set list below.

Set lists can also be typed and display the band logo, requiring the use of a printer which may not always be available at the venue. A good example of a professional-looking set list from Eisley:

Finally, the most intricate set list I’ve ever seen belongs to Kaki King. In addition to listing the songs, it has alternate guitar tunings next to each song as well as the different instruments (ovation guitar, banjo, 7 string guitar) needed for each song:

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