Creating a Repertoire List

I’ve talked to a few musicians lately about repertoire lists, so I thought I’d write a little about that.

There’s a theory that I recently read about in the book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. The idea is that each musical genre has a prototype song. For example, when you think of “disco”, the first song you might think of is “Stayin’ Alive”. Or you might think “modal jazz” and “Kind of Blue” would directly come to mind.

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AlternativeBluesChildren’s Music
JazzLatinoSoundtrackMusical Theatre
PopR&B/SoulRap/Hip hopReggae
RockSinger/SingwriterVocal Standards
Workout/FitnessWorld Music

Each person can have a different prototype, and your prototype for each genre can change over time. For instance – you might hear a modal song by Coltrane and suddenly that’s your new prototype for modal jazz.

Now, you may wonder what kind of music you should expect to play on cruise ships. Primarily, you will play prototypes. That means if you have a jazz set it will probably include Satin Doll or Take the A Train or other standards like that. A piano bar guy should play Billy Joel. The guitarist should sing Brown Eyed Girl and Bobby Magee. If you play by the pool you might play light Jobim tunes or “Beach Music” (which seems to somehow be synonymous with 1950’s Top 40s rock).

In other words, cruise ships are not interested in presenting their guests with new music, and they have zero interest in original music. Even the main stage shows will include some combination of popular, one might call it “over-played”, music from one genre or another.

The result is usually a big slice of cheese. This kind of programming completely ignores the nuance of musical genres, and completely omits many of the best “deeper cuts” that most musicians want to play now and then. What also ends up happening is that square playing becomes very valuable – as variations are not as valuable as precision.

But maybe I exaggerate. It’s not that bad. To a certain degree it depends on who’s calling the tunes. If your music director is hip, he’ll throw the musicians a bone now and then and call up a bebop chart, even though it knows the audience may not be into it. And if you are a soloist, you can squeeze in something that lights your fire even more often.

Certainly, nobody on the ship is monitoring the repertoire in your sets. Whether or not you get asked back for another contract (or fired) has more to do with how you get along with other crew members and what the guest say (or don’t say) about you than what songs you play.

I bring this up more for the case of repertoire lists, which agents and cruise lines seem to be asking for these days. As I said, I had a two musicians ask me about repertoire lists this week. What you want to put on your repertoire list are all the hits, or prototypes, of your genre.

For instance, I had a pianist from New Zealand send me his list. I won’t put the whole thing up, but I hope he doesn’t mind if I put a few of his listed songs, because his list was very good. It included:

  • How High The Moon
  • Here’s That Rainy Day
  • Imagine
  • I Could Have Danced All Night
  • I’ll Be Seeing You
  • Jamaican Farewell
  • Jingle Bell Rock
  • Just A Gigolo

And others. Just looking at the list you can tell what kind of pianist he is, where it would fit in on a ship, and because he keeps it consistently within the Light Jazz/Light Pop genre, the agents and cruise line can trust that he’ll give them a consistent product while out at sea.

In the independent music scene on land you are often told not to pigeon-hole yourself into one genre…not to state your influences to loudly because people might think you are trying to be an imitation. But the opposite is true on cruise ship jobs. Imitation is highly valued – look at all the impersonators on cruise ship for proof of that.

These repertoire lists are silly things. If they asked you to play 150 songs, that would be one thing, but to just ask you for a list of 150 songs that you may or may not play shows no interest in your abilities. It’s just a test that they want you to pass before they can consider hiring you. What they are looking for is music that the average guest will be able to connect to – that is, popular songs. Prototypes.

To a lesser extent, repertoire lists also show an agent or cruise line whether or not you’d be able to handle requests in your genre. Requests are common on cruise ships, and make guests happy. When people make requests, they will often request songs that they feel are prototypes of the genre you’re playing. So if you have a jazz set going, someone might come up and as for “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” or “Georgia.”

When you get on a ship, you might want to keep a copy of your repertoire list handy for when guests do come up with requests. If you don’t know their request, you could refer them to your repertoire list and ask if they’d like to hear any of those songs.

Published by

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn (@davidjhahn) is the co-founder of and a former Broadway conductor. He grew up near Chicago, lived in New York City, and settled in California. In 2012, he left the music business to found California Surfcraft, a San Francisco-based start-up that makes high-performance surf gear out of fiberglass-reinforced cork. He is the inventor of the Bodypo®, a sustainable alternative to the traditional bodyboard. He is a cancer survivor, an advocate for unlikely career paths, and, beginning in spring of 2015, a father.

12 thoughts on “Creating a Repertoire List”

  1. thanks for the info. im planning on doing my 1st cruise gig and was wondering what might be expected of me.I know to work, really work, as a musician sometimes you have to cover all the bases and do things u might not do as an “artsist”. Im hoping it will be a good experience.

  2. That´s a great text. Exactly what I was looking for. I´m a brazilian singer and Piano/keyboardist planning to spend some time working on a ship and this info is very helpful. Thanks David!

  3. this article is good, lately I have been doing gigs and have been having trouble coming up with tunes to play even though I know them I just have a hard time coming up with them.

  4. Hello,

    Thank you for your blog, I really appreciate the information as it pertains to cruise ship repertoire list. I am interested in putting together a lounge group. I am currently Bandmaster for the celebrity summit, and was thinking about changing roles so I have more liberty as to what the group plays. I would really appreciate your input as to what would be a perfect list of “prototype tunes” for any cruise lounge??

    David Smith

  5. This is tremendously helpful for a jazz studies graduate like myself, who is finding that it won’t cut it to have all your jazz/bebop chops down if you are unable to play other styles convincingly (for example, being able to do rhythmic “funk” type guitar). I’m just wondering if I’m on the right track with some of the songs I’m adding to my own repertoire list. I’m starting to learn songs like:

    Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, My Girl – Temptations
    Breezin’ – George Benson
    Three Little Birds, Is This Love – Bob Marley
    Girl From Ipanema, Desafinado – Jobim
    People Make the World Go Round – Stylistics
    Trying to Make a Fool of Me – Delfonics
    I Feel Good, Sex Machine – James Brown
    Celebration – Kool & the Gang
    and some progressive rock like King Crimson in the 70’s.

    Am I on the right track, or am I way out in left field with these? I’m just not sure if these are the type of tunes I should be working on in preparation for a cruise ship gig or audition.

    In addition to this, I have a list of very common jazz tunes I’m still working on. It includes pieces such as Like Someone In Love, You’d Be So Nice, and some other standards, but it also has a lot of jazz instrumental/bebop tunes. I hate to put the jazz stuff on the back burner, but as a guitarist who isn’t too well-versed in more commercial music, I’m assuming that’s what I need to do? Will much reggae music be played on a cruise ship? I’m working on playing in that style, especially listening a lot to guitarist Al Anderson. Thanks for any input! I’m hoping to get better at reading/playing in other styles so that I can audition on guitar for an orchestra slot in a year (hopefully!).

  6. Hey guys, this has been a great article. When we talk about repertoire, are we talking about memorized tunes or tunes we could play just fine while reading the music from a fake book? Thanks everybody!

  7. Also, I have a question about organizing a setlist. Does organization matter? Would it be better to organize songs alphabetically, by genre, composer, or another way?

    1. I wouldn’t overthink it – pick a way to organize it and stick with it. I guess I would recommend organizing by song name (alphabetically). That makes sense in my head.

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