How Do I Sequence My Christmas Lights to Music?

If you to create a really awesome Christmas light display to music, a crucial step in the process is sequencing.

Sequencing is when you program effects, videos and static looks on your Christmas lights, often in sync with music.

In fact, sequencing is both my favorite and least favorite part of designing my Christmas lights. I love getting to play with the lights and create different looks that match the music that my family and I have picked out.

But sequencing can also really be a bear! Getting it “just right” on your house can take some time, especially if you are particular!

Use these tips to save yourself time and frustration as you sequence your display!

My Process: Sequencing a Song to My Christmas Lights

In this article, I’m going to share with you my process to quickly and efficiently sequence a brand new song. This process will work with any sequencing program, no matter if you use xLights, Vixen, or Light-O-Rama.

When I sequence, I first set up my display in the program of choice, and I’ll be working primarily there, in the computer.

Once the display is up, we’ll check our work, but the majority of the sequencing time will be spent just on the PC earlier in the season.

Let’s dive in with step 1:

Choose the Music

The first step to sequencing your lights might seem obvious, but it comes with a trick up it’s sleeve!

You might be thinking “Duh, David, of course I need to choose the music first” –this is probably something you’ve already done! But, to be totally ready to sequence, you need to have the song 100% ready to go.

For this step, pick the exact version of the song that you will use and buy/download/import it.

Then, run it through Audacity to normalize the audio to the same level as your other tracks (here is a great guide!).

Save this final version in a special folder within your xLights/Vixen user folder. This will ensure the tracks stay nice and safe within your show! I like to back everything up to Dropbox or a USB drive as well – because I don’t trust computers 🙂

Set up Your Sequence

Once you’ve got the music sorted out, it’s time to create a new sequence. But don’t go dragging in FX right from the get-go! We need to first prepare our sequence for accurate sequencing, so that we get everything right the first time!

Beginning a Sequence in xLights

*Now, I am assuming at this point that you’ve already set up your display in xLights or Vixen – if not, do that and then come back!*

First, create a new sequence by pressing the “New Sequence” button. Set up whatever setting you’d like in the wizard if you are using xLights.

Then, set up your timing marks. Timing marks allow you to see the beat of the music visually, so that you know when to make transitions in your lights and timings on your effects.

They also allow you to apply your effects directly to the timing marks, and are a HUGE time saver!

Here are how to set up timing marks in the popular programs:

How to Set Up Timing Marks in xLights

How to Set Up Timing Marks in Vixen (about 0:50 into the video)

Last, I like to go ahead and set the background color for each section of the song.

This is technically optional, but I think it helps a lot.

If you go ahead and set a static color for each section, it allows you to move really quickly later as you copy and paste effects that you make between like-sounding parts of the song!

Organize it Further

For bonus points, you can also create a *fake* set of lights in your sequencer to be a guide – like a legend on a map. Set background colors for each section of the song (example – verse = red, chorus = blue, bridge = yellow). Use that track to guide your way through the song!

Take a Few Passes

When I’m sequencing a song, I really like to work in passes.

It’s kind of like painting a picture – you first go in and paint broad, vague strokes that give the general shape of the final picture. As you take more passes, you bring in more detail.

Or, maybe someone comes by your gallery after the second pass and offers to buy it as modern art long before it’s completed!

Seriously, though – this works great with the constraints of time – Christmas comes by every year!

When you’ve put a few passes into a song, then leave it and finish your other songs – it’s probably “good enough” to put on public display, and you can always come back in later and add more detail. Finishing all of your songs is more important than making a few of them *perfect*.

Within each song, I also use a pretty specific order to the way that I sequence songs, so that I have the most impact where I need it. Here’s what I do:

Start with the Choruses

The chorus of any song is usually the focus on the song, and where a lot of the biggest action takes place.

Because of that, I like to sequence these first. It allows me to set the tone that I want for the whole song and lets me get my “blinky-blinky’s” out of the way.

My 2018 Display

I’ll begin by setting up the first chorus, and then copy and re-size the effects to the other choruses (as applicable). I’ll check the start and end times, and be off to the races!

Fill in the Bridge

The bridge is a unique part of a song, as it often sounds different from, but is often attached to a chorus.

For that reason, I do this next, because it allows me to see what I am transitioning from, and I can build something similar, but different than the chorus (if that’s what the music does).

The key here is to always follow the music. If it has a similar sound to the chorus, keep the same colors or effects, but change a few parameters to match the music (see what I am doing here? – use the music as a clue for what you sequence!).

Maybe the music slows down, or gets higher or lower. You can simulate all of these changes with lighting effects!

Intro and Outro

While the chorus often contains the “signature sound” that people think of in a particular song, the intro and outro are also often places where a familiar melody is ingrained into the music.

With Christmas music in particular, I find that the start and end of the song is not only where the music ramps up or dies down, but it’s often where a familiar beat is introduced.

Think about some of your favorite Christmas songs. Many of them have a beat that begins in the intro/outro of the song, so let’s highlight it here!

If the intro and outro only have a few instruments in the music, I tend to mimic that with my display. That means I don’t have all the lights on, and they often are doing simpler, more static patterns.

But if the intro and outro come in strong and quickly – you bet I sequence that into my lights!

Verses Last

I work last with the verses because they are often the simplest parts of a song. Since I’ve already put in the majority of my movement in the chorus, bridge and intro/outro, these typically go very fast.

We figured out the general “theme” and colors that we wanted back in the chorus, so now it’s time to simply bring that theme to a simpler part of the song.

Don’t focus too deeply on perfection. Remember, you’re just in the software, and you can make tweaks once you see it on your house!

I usually take 1-3 passes on a song here, and then I feel like I’m ready to go. Of course, everyone has a different threshold of complexity here, but I would urge you not to get stuck looking for perfection.

Don’t kill yourself (or your marriage!) while sequencing complex songs – remember that you can always re-use sequences that you have made in future years, and tweaking them is MUCH quicker than starting from scratch!

Buying Pre-Made Sequences – The Shortcut?

Many Christmas light vendors also sell pre-made sequences that you can apply to your display.

The great part about this is that it takes very little time to apply these to your display, and you get professional quality work!

You can find vendors and more on the Resources page, here!

Some free sequences are also available, most notably on the xLights Google Drive.

Whether you do a mix of pre-made and self-sequenced work, or just one or the other method, I hope you have enjoyed this article and enjoy making your display.

Be sure to read more here on Learn Christmas Lighting, and I’ll see you around the web!

About the author

David Henry

David first began using pixels in stage lighting, and then decided to try it out on his house. The result? An urge to create useful and helpful information to help non-technical folks create great Christmas lighting with pixels on their homes!


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