Because the right music is the difference between a good dinner party and a great one. 

By Sarah Baird
February 25, 2020

When a sense memory hits us, it’s usually something quite unexpected: The faint whiff of menudo as you walk down the street that’s reminiscent of the summer you spent with your great-aunt, or a bite of salt-rising bread that takes you to another time and place, a la Proust’s macaron. 

Music, too, has this transportive ability, and for any dinner party, it’s often what sets the memorable mood of the evening. Below are several ways to curate an ideal mealtime mixtape that’s sure to inspire plenty of wistful remanences down the road—and make sure guests enjoy themselves in the moment.

Go Retro—and Deep.

A soundtrack needs to be just subtle enough not to interrupt, but naturally engaging enough to encourage listeners to perk up their ears when they hear a tune they recognize but don’t immediately place. That’s why retro songs, B-sides of bigger hits, deep cuts from popular albums and cover tracks are all top-notch ways to fill up your party playlist. A curveball I often add into dinner party playlists in the middle is the theme from the 1970s TV show The Rockford Files.

Elevator Music Need Not Apply.

No one wants to walk into a cocktail party, potluck or friendly shindig and feel like they’re riding up an elevator in a department store. Nix the smooth jazz, current top 40 pop hits or meditative-on-purpose soundtracks like crashing waves or Enya. There’s no need to be too on the nose.

Stay Out of the Doldrums.

Look, I love a good cry-it-out song as much as anyone. But at a dinner party of any sort, no one wants to listen to a tune that’ll make them blubber into their bucatini—no matter how gorgeous the melody is. The same goes for any tunes that might overwhelm conversation or feel jarring instead of supporting the flow of the evening. Songs that veer too punk-adjacent with thrashing beats or into avant garde categories like free jazz—which are thought-provoking but assuredly not for all of your dinner guests—are typically a no-go.

RELATED: How to Keep Conversation Flowing at the Dinner Table 

Crank it Up!—but Slowly.

When it comes to a dinner party playlist, volume is everything. When guests are arriving, music can be ticked up a little bit louder to still be heard over the greetings and general rowdiness of hugs and handshakes that often ensue. After dinner begins (or things have settled a bit), turn down the music to a lower lull. If things start to get lively as the course of the night goes on (and a couple of bottles of wine are consumed) slowly and steadily turn the volume back up, but never to the point that neighboring diners can’t hear one another.

Bearhug a Theme.

Sometimes, the best thing to do is really drill down on a theme for the music and see how creative you can get. This becomes pretty easy if you’re having a spaghetti night (only a smattering of Dean Martin, though, please) but choosing a theme on your own can lead to a lot of fun while working within constraints. If your next cocktail gathering will be outdoors, try to build a playlist around the word “green” and see where it leads. You might find “It’s Not Easy Being Green” by Kermit the Frog and a deep cut from an Al Green record flow back-to-back nicely. 

The Gift That Keeps Giving.

If you’re really thrilled by the perfect balance of funky-meets-thoughtful jams that you’ve put together for your guests (and people seem to be buzzing in approval!) it’s always nice to offer up a “track listing” from the evening as a parting gift. Whether this looks like a link to a Spotify playlist or song-by-song handwritten postcard with thoughtful doodles is up to you, but no matter what, it’ll be a way to not only memorialize the evening but give your friends and family a whole new set of tracks for grooving purposes.

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