A party can with advantage be regarded as wine. Thus we can apply the COSTA formula to it.
Thus it has color, scent, taste, texture and sound. Let’s stay with the sound.
How does a party sound? In many ways, of course. It can be nervous and tensely silent, or exploding with spontaneous giggle and laughter, and everything in between.
But I don’t speak now about the soundscape of parties, which could be both interesting and boring, but about the soundtrack. The music.
It is of course perfectly permissible and normal to throw parties without any music at all. The aim of the party is perhaps to meet old friends and just converse, talk about new and old times, reconnect, recollect.
At other times we want to be more centrifugal and less focused. However, one can still focus the mood, so to say. And then music can help.
My parties usually have a soundtrack. If I am doing a salon I am probably playing piano myself, otherwise I leave the music to a CD-player.
However, I do not leave the choice of music to a machine, nor to chance. (Nor to a Spotify algorithm, I should add.)
I see two functions of music at parties, and I now mean more informal parties. One negative, defensive, and one positive, creative.
Silence is an aspect of music, I mean the break, the moment when nothing is played or sung.
But silence is in another way the opposite of music (sound), and considering that silence has a fearful and scary aspect, music can be a good antidote.
In plain words: Guests can feel tense in total silence. The same thing happens in a large restaurant with acoustics where each whisper is heard. Everybody can hear what everybody says: this is not a private feeling.
Of course sound and sound level depends on the number of guests; at really large parties nobody hears anything. But let us now imagine a moderately large party, say between 7 and 20 guests.
Especially in the beginning, and especially with smaller parties, I want to avoid that intimidating, tense feeling of white silent space. First impressions when the door is opened for the guests are important, so why not make it musical?
I usually have music on when my guests arrive. In that way a mood — hopefully welcoming and inviting – is already established.
This can also be seen as a statement — about the party, about you, the host, about your ambition with the party. I like the statement to be simply “You are welcome to my home, and I want to create a nice atmospheric evening for you”.
Another thing to consider is of course your guests. If they for some reason all hate jazz, don’t play jazz. However, if they are strangers to classical music I might still play some soft-core classical piece, maybe Debussy’s “L’Après-midi d’un faune”. Even if your guests are not actively listening to classical few people actually dislike it.
Classical could also be used in a preventive way, for sending the message “This is a civilized party. Here we don’t head-bang and throw up, unless we really can’t help it.”
You get the idea.
I try to choose music that it relatively calm and soft, nothing challenging or having too many horse-powers. Use common sense, but do not exclude subtle surprises. As Jean Cocteau said: “Tact is knowing how far to go too far.”
So far the preliminary, defensive side. Let’s now imagine that the party is already swinging.
No fear of silence any longer, we have reached cruising altitude. What now? Should I turn off the CD-player?
I could, but then the sound of the party would be just buzz, babble and murmur. I like to add some more harmonious sounds to that. (No longer trying to check silence and neutralize tenseness, now we are creating Party Mood.)
Again your character, the character of the party, and the guests, decide what music, if any, to play. There are a couple of styles I always, definitely avoid. I would never play techno or some such similar noise. (There are, unfortunately, kinds of music whose raison d’etre seems to be nothing else than to kill silence.)
And since I am an anachronistic person I like to play things with a nostalgic aura. “Retro” is another word, “lounge” a popular, more youthful one.
Even if my guests practically never listen to Frank Sinatra I dare say that most of them enjoy the sense of urbanity, class and sometime melancholy of songs like “The best is yet to come”, “That’s life” or “Here’s to the losers”.
So yes, I often play Sinatra and similar things. Maybe big bands of good quality: Count Basie, British Johnny Dankworth or Quincy Jones.
A record like Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” works very well.
The aim is twofold. There is also here a “defensive” aspect, guarding against the soundscape being filled totally with just voices meeting, converging, laughing, shouting. If you listen actively to this sound, it is not very beautiful. Add a spoonful of Sinatra or Tony Bennet (just as good but less known) and the soundscape improves right away. It’s almost like clearing up an oil spill.
Summing up: Think about what message or statement you want to send, what mood you want to create, and how you want your guests to feel. Sometimes we want to excite people, sometimes calm them down. As long as we don’t make them snore, all is well.
PS: If you have tired of your guests you could always bring out your horn.