Dancer in grey unitard with blonde hair poses with one leg and both arms extended

How to Pick Music for Your Dance Solo

Picking music can be a really exciting part of a competition solo, but it can be unnecessarily stressful too! Even if you don’t consider yourself a music buff, you can still find the perfect song that both complements and challenges your performance and dancing style.

While you may know about the obvious routes to choosing music (hello, New Music Friday playlist on Spotify!), there are some lesser-known techniques to help you find a great song you can really vibe with.

Once you have found a collection of music you like, how do you decide which one is the right fit for your solo or competition performance? Let’s find out!

Finding New Music

If you’ve been tasked with finding your own song for your solo, you’re going to want to sharpen your skills of music discovery. You may have a library full of popular songs and great music, but our music tastes don’t always match our style of dancing. Also, it can be a great idea to try and find a song that both complements and challenges you a little. Searching for new music can be a great way to choose something that fits you just enough, but also provides something exciting and different to your dancing!

Finding a new song that you like dancing to is one of the best feelings in the world. So, even if you have a few ideas already in mind, try searching anyways. After all, as an artist, you can learn a lot from hearing something new!

Intelligent Playlists

One of the most common and dancer-recommended ways to find new or newer music is to use your own library and favorite artists as the jumping-off point, then allow intelligent algorithms and the suggestions of the music community to do the rest!

If you use a music streaming service like Spotify, Apple Music, or Pandora, you are probably familiar with this kind of playlist. With Pandora, you can create a “radio” based on your favorite artist or album and can find music that is similar to what you already enjoy. On Spotify you can do the same for a particular song, or click on the “Fans also like…” tab to see what other listeners of your favorite artist or band listen to. On Apple Music, you can create Smart Playlists with a range of different qualifications, like choosing songs that have a “zero play count.” This is great to choose music that you saved once but never played again!

picture of a person holding phone which is opened to their apple music library.

CLI Conservatory dancer Megan Goldstein says “I feel like Spotify is a great source to find music… I usually find one artist that I like and go from there, by clicking on their albums or on similar artists. Also, on Spotify, the Discover Weekly Playlist is a great way to find new music!”

Blogs and Podcasts

A less obvious way to find new or newer music is to read or listen to reviews of songs and albums! By doing this, you get a lot of behind-the-scenes information that can actually inform not only the production of your solo but also the way you relate to music as a dancer. Hearing a musician or producer explain the process of creating music can deepen your understanding of the songs you’re listening to. And, you get to learn about new music in the process, or you get to learn more about popular songs you already know and love!

Popular music blogs are Pitchfork, The Guardian, Paste, and NPR. Popular music podcasts are The Song Exploder and All Songs Considered. If you want a really rich experience while you search, try Tiny Desk and Colors Show on Youtube. 

Be an Active Listener in Daily Life

Speaking of a richer listening experience, you can practice active music listening whenever you hear music playing!

If you are watching a movie and you like a song you hear, check out the whole movie soundtrack. There might be songs or parts of songs you didn’t hear that you’ll love! If you’re hanging out and having fun with friends and they play a good song, don’t hesitate to ask them who it’s by.  If you’re out shopping and you hear a song in the background that you’re interested in, Shazam it! 

The more you train your ear to listen for good songs, the more you’ll start to find daily. It’s science!

Picking the Right Song for Your Solo

Okay, so now you’ve got a music library to die for, and you have to choose one to dance to. What now?

Dancer Emiliano Jimenez kneeling on one leg in a dance studio at the CLI conservatory wearing a burgundy tank top and black pants

CLI Conservatory dancer Emiliano Jimenez has a specific process for finding a song for solos that he choreographs for himself or other dancers. He says, “I start with the visuals and the choreography. I’ll be talking to someone I’m choreographing a solo for, and I’ll start imagining what colors they remind me of, and what kind of movement I see. I think, ‘Do I want to do something that reflects them or do I want to do the opposite?’”

Emiliano says that after he has begun to create choreograph, he will spend hours searching for the right song! His approach is to create choreography with a vision first and choose the music second. “I would love to have a composer. I think that finding a song after you have movement is harder, but it’s the way I like to do it,” he says.

Whether you create movement first, like Emiliano, or your dancing is inspired by music you’ve heard, like Megan, we’ve got a few tips for narrowing down your options. 

Narrow it Down

If you have a few options you like, it’s probably time to start dancing to them! Taking the time to improvise and record yourself dancing is one of the best ways to see if you really vibe with a song. But, it’s important not to stress over parts of the song that you don’t have any inspiration for yet. The process of rehearsal and choreography is a creative one, meaning you have time and space to figure it out! If the song feels overall like a good fit, it probably is. (And, oftentimes the parts of a dance that we are most worried about can become our favorite later on!).

If you have a song you like but you’re worried it’s too popular, you can find a cover, a translation, or a live version. These different variations will inform your performance in subtle but important ways and can be a really interesting way to stand out from the crowd on stage. You can choreograph to the audience sounds in a live recording, or feel more free in your movement dancing to a song that is in a different language.

Woman with brown hair wearing black headphones on facing out big loft window.

TIP: It’s also a good idea to listen to your song in both headphones and stereo speakers, as your dance music may sound different in each. It’s easier to pick up on the smaller details when you are wearing in-ear headphones. CLI Instructor and Justin Timberlake’s choreographer Marty Kudelka even wears “in-ear monitors” to hear every single accent in a song before he choreographs to it. These are the special type of headphones that live performers wear onstage! No need to get that fancy, but it goes to show that the way music is heard really does matter.

Editing and Other Concerns

If your solo is for film or a large show, you may have to make decisions about usage and editing based on the copyright of the song. If, however, the solo is for a dance competition or a smaller show, you probably have less to worry about. If you try to post a video to your social media, later on, you may come across copyright issues if you do not have explicit permission from the artist to use a song.

But, that stuff is a bit more complicated, and not what we’re focused on in this article! So, let’s assume you can use the song you’ve chosen, and that you have free reign to edit the song as you choose. If you know that you have editing capabilities or have access to someone who does, this knowledge can aid your song choice. If you don’t like a certain part, the intro is too slow, or the ending isn’t strong enough, you can change it with editing! Garageband is an Apple app that comes pre-installed on Mac computers and is super user-friendly. 

So, when you are selecting music, don’t dismiss songs right away if they aren’t perfect. Instead, think of the ways you can play around with it! Emiliano mentioned that he will occasionally add beats and rhythm underneath songs that he thinks are “too chill” for his dance style, or will add space and musical pauses in songs that go too hard for too long.

picture of computer screen showing digital music editor with varying pink and green bars.

Lastly, we’ve given advice assuming that you are in charge of the song and maybe the choreography for your solo. If you are in a collaborative process, or you aren’t in charge of picking your own music, you can always show choreography and songs that you like to the person who is choosing the song. It could be a good idea to assemble a playlist of songs that inspire you and that you’d like to dance to on stage. Think of it as a musical mood board. Then, your choreographer or collaborator can act as the intelligent playlist and pick the perfect songs they think fit the vibe you’ve shown them!

If you need some inspiration, check out CLI Studios library of on demand classes to see what music choregraphers are choosing!

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