As you’re starting out as a DJ and in the process of gaining experience as a DJ, you might still be getting used to song selection. This is certainly something that comes with time as you start to play out more in a live environment in front of people.
- Read the crowd
- Time of your set
- There are no rules
- Understand the length of your DJ set
- Demographics and type of venue
- Prepare and categorise music in folders
- Popular music tracks always at the ready
- Consider key of tracks for harmonic mixing
- Pick compatible beat structures and rhythms
- Know which other DJs are playing at the event
Here are some great tips and learnings from my own personal experience and from other DJs that I’ve discussed the topic with. If you’re not a bar or club DJ, there are some tips for mobile and wedding DJs too.
If you’re new to DJing and need some help with DJ equipment, why not check out Beatmatch Guru’s recommended gear section here.
1. Read the crowd
Reading the crowd is super important. It is real-time feedback for the tracks you’re playing to the audience at the time of DJing.
It’s good to go into a DJ set with a few slight variations of tracks at the beginning to get a flavour for how the crowd reacts.
Say for example, you’re playing a house set, and you start off with a classic Ibiza track, followed by deep house banger, then a then more of a commercial dance track then a disco beat.
Monitor how the crowd reacts to each individual track and take note. Further down the line of your DJ set, you can start to incorporate more of those tracks into your set.
2. Time of your set
The time of your set is really important as for any event the audience have likely been dancing for some time, unless you’re opening up for the whole event that you’re DJing at.
Energy for dancing is key. So if a DJ has been playing before you, and that specific DJ has been playing heavy hard hitting club bangers, this has potentially sapped the energy out of the audience.
So it’s ideal to tailor your song selection to give the audience a bit of a break and a breather. Then from there you can start building up the energy and dance floor vibes again.
Remember though it’s also important give a bit of an energy break again throughout your DJ set. Otherwise you might see the dance floor energy go down again.
3. There are no rules
Some DJs say pick three music tracks at a time that work well together and then move onto the next three that work well together.
Some club owners might suggest playing certain tracks in a ratio of three to one. Three tracks for the audience and one track selected by the club owner.
Some nightclubs might even give you a list of tracks that you have to play.
You are the DJ, you get to choose your own destiny in whether you listen to the people that are directing you into which tracks to play. Picking your own tracks will likely be at the risk of narrowing down some potential club nights or gigs that you can play. That’s fine, as long as you know what you want to get out of DJing.
It’s also fine to DJ with some control by the club owners and managers. Open format DJs that are playing certain gigs outside of clubs and bars, such as weddings will likely need to play range of music. We all need to get paid as DJs right?
4. Understand the length of your DJ set
Knowing the length of your DJ set can really help you out in terms of song selection.
Certain songs can be quite long in time, especially in some genres there are longer sections and build ups for example. So it’s important to know how long your DJ set is and the types of songs that you plan on selecting.
30 minutes to 60 minutes probably requires you to think about your song selection carefully. You’ll want to give the crowd some variation, so playing super long tracks all the time might be slightly dead in the water by way of flow and energy of the DJ set.
60 minutes is the usual DJ set in clubs, but other venues and types of DJs have much longer for example 1 hour to say around 3 or maybe even 4 or 5 hours.
Once you have this information, plan ahead and bucket different songs ready for you to select at the time of DJing.
5. Demographics and type of venue
You may be DJing in a club or a bar, so it’s important to know the demographics of that particular venue. Reason being, it may help you to choose a different variation of the genre of music that you’re playing.
People who grew up with 90s dance music might prefer to get up and dance to this type of music.
If the audience is younger and is more into recent music, then it’s logical to tailor your song selection towards a more recent vibe of music.
If you’re not DJing in a club and are DJing as a mobile DJ for certain events or a wedding DJ for example, the timing for certain high energy tracks is important too.
I’ve known a DJ to play a brilliant classic 70s’ rock DJ set to a wedding audience and they were all sitting down watching the DJ after 30 minutes. Upon feedback, they loved the music but they were knackered from dancing as they were all of a certain age.
Knowing your audience before you play your DJ set is key for song selection.
6. Prepare and categorise music in folders
Check out my top 10 tips for organising music in Rekordbox here.
Along side knowing the demographics and length of your DJ set, planning ahead and getting your songs into different categories can really help you out.
Segment your DJ music by ‘Energy’ level, ‘Time’ of the DJ set and potentially by ‘Key’ too.
All these variables can help select suitable songs during your DJ set. Not all DJ sets are the same, so planning a specific set can sometimes be limiting to your success in getting people dancing on the dance floor.
I suppose planning a set beforehand, literally DJing one track after the other can be good if you’re simply a DJ Producer and people usually know what type of music you play anyway.
Having said that, from personal experience, DJing in front of a crowd that starts DJing because you just played a classic house track gets you buzzing as a DJ. Therefore you can start to tailor in a few more tracks to suit the dance floor.
I’ve planned a DJ set before, practiced it, and I lose the buzz from DJing the set a bit. So keep this in mind.
Categorise you music prepared for any DJ set. Then you can simply go to the specific playlist relevant for the time of the DJ set.
Prepare and select! It’s as simple as that really.
7. Popular music tracks always at the ready
Always have popular music tracks, within the genre or DJing style that you’re playing, that you know work really well for the audience. Especially to get the audience dancing along and singing along.
If you don’t know this already because of lack of experience DJing, that’s fine, go check out the top 100 tracks of all time in your genre on Beatport or iTunes for example.
8. Consider key of tracks for harmonic mixing
Mixing in key can really help you control the vibe and energy flowing through the speakers and onto the dance floor.
Mixed In Key is a great addition to any DJ software. I personally use Rekordbox, and they’ve just updated a feature in there which highlights in green which tracks are compatible to the key of the current track playing.
Mixed In Key seems to offer comprehensive key related information which can help you understand how to move from one track to another, mixed literally in key, but helping your to shift energy up or down.
I love harmonic mixing as it really does help song selection and support you in your decision as a DJ when reading the crowd.
Over time your ear will become more accustom to the key or suitability of track. If in doubt always refer to your DJ software to help you out.
9. Pick compatible beats, bpms and rhythms
When choosing the next song in your DJ set it’s important get to know the BPMs, beat structure and rhythms.
Especially important when mixing and blending tracks together. If you’re an open format DJ, this is probably less important for as you’re probably doing less beat matching. Nonetheless, this is an important factor when thinking about energy of your DJ set, especially when thinking about BPM.
Rhythm is sometimes important, say for example you have a really fast beat with a rhythmic bongo percussion break in the background, you might want to keep that sound going for a couple of tracks after.
This is why grouping, tagging and curating your music into related playlist categories on your DJ software. It’s easier to quickly pick tracks that work well together.
The same goes for BPM, if you’re DJing slower house music, say around 115 BPM at the beginning, you could have a separate set of tracks that are compatible around 120-123 BPM in another playlist.
10. Know which other DJs are playing at the event
This can potentially help you out by acknowledging the kinds of tracks those other DJs might play. As a DJ you will want your own sound, and in some cases my clash with other DJs. Point being is that you might want to steer clear of other DJs and repeating the music tracks that they have played prior to you mixing it up on stage.
You could even ask the promoter for the list of DJs on the event line up, get their contact details, contact them on social media etc. Speak to them and find out what tracks they maybe playing.
It might the case that due to the time in the event they are playing, their set might be different than their usual set and therefore are switching it up.
The goal is to try to not clash as much by repeating the same tracks as what they are playing. I’ve heard DJs in a club before play the same tracks, but only a couple of DJs have done this due to the tracks being newly release and very popular at the time.