Play That Funky Music – Trivia Night Playlists

(Last Updated On: May 25, 2023)

Our Guest Blog Writer is Pete Eagles – Pete has been hosting Stump! Trivia Quiz in Massachusetts for over a decade. You can find him at Lord Hobo Brewing and Double Bull Taphouse.

What is the most overlooked aspect contributing to a fun, upbeat, and enjoyable trivia night? Why, it’s the music, of course! Although, much more goes into playing the perfect tuneage than you might think.

In my decade-plus as a host, one thing continues to surprise me; it’s when I’m at a new venue, and players tell me how refreshing it is to hear “good” music. That’s because I follow my one golden rule – play the hits, baby! I try to channel my inner Ryan Seacrest (although I grew up in the Casey Kasem era) and play the music that has stood the test of time with a splash of the Top 40! For me – and I hope the competitors do too – the music serves a greater purpose than just filling the time between questions and answers.

It May Be A Serious Competition

We’re still here to have some fun even if we can’t all win! I’m often asked if I create playlists, which many hosts probably do, but I am not one of those hosts – not that there’s anything wrong with that! The question now becomes what hits to play and how do I choose or know what to play without a playlist? When I’m starting at a new venue or filling in, I like to begin with something a little vanilla like Billy Joel or a Motown number to feel out the crowd. As the night progresses or a venue becomes more familiar, I do my best to read the room and match the vibe. Some nights call for something a little more mellow and laid back, while others become a trivia dance party! I try to let the crowd decide for me, so don’t be afraid to cut loose when you feel the music in your bones!

When I see shoulders shaking, hands tapping on the table, or lips syncing to the lyrics, I may stick to that same genre or tempo because that’s a wave worth riding! In those moments when some patrons feel the need to get on up (or down) and blame it on the boogie, that’s like hitting one out of the park for the host! I aim to make the players feel like they’re going out and hopefully returning for an experience.

Where Does All This Music Come From?

No, my computer doesn’t have the world’s largest hits database. I may have missed the Napster train, but Youtube is my best friend! I have virtually any song at my fingertip, including tracks like the Jeopardy theme, which I can toss on during a tiebreaker question. Need a clean or radio-edited version of a song with some choice lyrics? No problem. I can often find shortened versions of great songs that would otherwise be too long to play.

That’s not all, though; if a host finds themselves with a DJ’s version of writer’s block, the site provides a litany of suggestions based on your previous selections. I’m also frequently jotting down songs I hear on the radio, Alexa, or Pandora that I think will ignite the crowd, or at least I know I will enjoy! I never cease looking for songs to keep the music fun, fresh, surprising, and nostalgic. Variety is the spice of life and goes a long way in making everyone’s musical tastes feel included. The last thing I want to do is turn people off with weird music. And I certainly don’t want to be accused of playing the same songs repeatedly; I find it’s usually best to let a song hibernate for a while before using it again at the same venue. However, nothing says you can’t play a different song from the same artist every week. It may surprise you how the King of Rock and the King of Pop can still command a room!

JR, a Sporcle Trivia Host in Michigan, turns the musical dials at his show.

Tormenting The Players

One thing that seems to please the audience – and perhaps playfully torment them – is using songs that were part of questions from that night or from artists mentioned. Most people might chuckle from hearing it, while a few who may have answered incorrectly wryly exclaim, “Now you play it!” It’s all in good fun, though! Matching songs to questions or even whole competitions can also add a little luster to the evening. Sometimes it’s easier said than done, though. An 80’s trivia night playlist practically writes itself, but Star Wars can be trickier. It’s always fun to host something like “Stranger Things” or “Friends” theme nights when there are enough songs from the show to fill a night; fans appreciate it when you add little touches like that!

While a themed playlist can be near impossible for a regular night of random trivia, matching a song to the theme of a question doesn’t go unnoticed by the players. Asking about airlines seems like an excellent time to play Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” or “Fly Away” by Lenny Kravitz. One time I even went so far as to use Genensis’ hit, “Misunderstanding,” to accompany the question: “In what year did President Gerald Ford deliver his first State of the Union Address?” Was it a stretch? Perhaps….but I believe you all connected the dots between the song and the “misunderstanding” that led to Ford taking over as Commander-in-chief.

There once was a question with the answer “zoom,” and for some reason, all I could think of was the part in Wreckx-N-Effect’s hit, “Rump Shaker,” that goes “zoom-a-zoom-zoom-zoom,” so naturally that was next up in the queue! It may not work for every question, but it doesn’t have to as long as everybody gets into the groove! Sometimes a host might even play songs as a hint during a question. That’s typically not my style, but who am I to judge? The point is, you can get as creative as you want!
The most prudent factor when dealing with music is timing. We’re all here to have fun, but I’m not sure anybody is looking for trivia night to be mistaken for a three-hour Taylor Swift concert in the rain! When deciding on the length of the songs, there are a few factors to consider.

Question Difficulty Plays A Role

For regular questions, the degree of difficulty plays a part. I’m not going to play a four-minute song if we ask the competitors how to spell d-o-g, but if we’re asking the players to do math calculations, I’ll take mercy on them and play a lengthier tune. The mystery bonus rounds feature four clues, so a four to five-minute selection is justified. On rare occasions when everyone seems stymied, I may even play a second song between two to three minutes in the interest of fairness. Besides this, I need a little time to score those last-minute entries! Theoretically, the final question should be more complex than the rest and, as such, lends itself to playing a little ditty around 3:30-4:00 minutes.

Can We Make Requests?

Yes! You may…but within reason. The hosts aim to please, and we’ll do our best to accommodate those requests but “Free Bird” isn’t going to make the cut (unless, of course, Youtube has an immensely shortened version handy)! Also, remember, we’re trying to pump some energy into the room. Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” might not quite match the vibe we’re looking for. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle, so please try to keep the songs short and sweet when making requests.

What is the payoff for all this obsessing over which music to play? Well, as a host, one can receive almost no greater compliment than, “I love your music!” Now that is music to a host’s ears!

About the Author:

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Mark is the current Vice President of Entertainment at Sporcle. He founded Motor City Trivia back in 2009, which is what Sporcle Events is today. After hosting and attending thousands of pub quizzes over the last decade plus, he likes to write about some of his favorite trivia tidbits.