It is very important to know the basic fundamentals of DJing before getting started. One of those basic areas understanding the structure of music tracks, what bars and phrases are and how to count them. Once this is understood, you’re half way there to start practicing your mixing skills.
What is a Bar in DJing? A bar in music theory is a group of beats. A time signature determines how many beats there are within a bar, if expressed as 4/4 time signature there would be 4 beats per bar. Collectively bars create phrases which in turn create sections of a song.
After I set up my first set of turntables and a mixer, I didn’t really know much about bars and phrases. Although I knew I had an ear for music and a great ability for rhythm, knowing the detail behind bars and phrases would certainly of boosted my DJing skills from the beginning. Let’s discover some of those basics now.
Beats & Bars In DJing
As expressed in the above definition, a bar in music is typically grouped in 4 beats per bar. Other music types vary and can contain 8 beats per bar.
Many DJs mix electronic music, such as House or Drum & Bass, so a 4 bar beat is commonly identified as a kick drum and/or with a snare drum too.
House music contains:
- kick drum on all 4 beats in a bar
- snare drum on beat 2 and 4 of the bar.
Drum & Bass on the other hand is slightly different and generally speaking contains:
- kick drum on beat 1 and in between beat 2 and 3
- snare drum on beat 2 and 4 of the bar
It’s really helpful to understand beats and bars when learning how to DJ. It supports areas of DJing such as identifying the first beat within a bar helping to set up cue points, and also counting beats and bars within phrases.
Having a good ear for music really helps, but anyone can learn to identify bars and phrases. This is especially important for identifying the first beat in a bar or a phrase to help you cue up a song track ready to start to beat match with another song track.
What is a Phrase?
A lot of electronic music consists of 8 bars per phrase, so in this instance that makes 32 beats per phrase. It’s not uncommon to see 16 bar phrases consisting of 64 beats within that phrase. However as a rule of thumb for electronic music use 32 beats.
Phrases are unique segments that are identifiable in their own right and are the building blocks to form a complete piece of music. An example of a phrase is a section of a song such as an intro, chorus or verse. Phrases are unique because if you listened to a chorus on it’s own, there would be clear distinguished elements highlighting the beginning, middle and build up towards the end of a phrase.
Phrases can be very easy to identify from certain sounds and effects used to signify the beginning or end of a phrase. These sounds can be in the form of crash symbols, the cut of the bass, vocal sample or even a build up of the beat with a drum fill.
If you’re new to DJing then I can’t stress enough that understanding phrases of the songs that you’re mixing will dramatically help you out. Experimenting with different mixes and listening to songs intently will allow you to discover different phrases of each song you can match and transition with. The end result of beat matching phrases allow for seamless mixing without breaking musical structure if utilised well.
I’m sure you’ve listened to a mix before that’s been seamless, those mixes are generally great at getting you in the zone and a day dreaming sort of state. Those in my opinion are the ones that are beat matched well with phrases of each song.
Now let’s delve into song structure to bring it altogether to understand how phrases are the building blocks for song structure.
How to Understand Song Structures?
Typically song structures are built up of defined sections that sub-consciously music lovers understand. Generally speaking each section and phrase within it can be identified as other layers for instruments or sound being introduced.
In this example, let’s look at how an electronic music track is structured from start to finish, looking at the breakdown of each section, beats and phrase.
Sub Focus – Timewarp
Intro – Starts with a solid drum beat, synths and vocal/talking sample. All sound intense and signifying the beginning of the track.
- Phrase – 32 Beats – Notice the vocal sample towards the end of the phrase says “Timewarp”, then clearly drops into the next phrase of the intro.
- Phrase – 32 Beats – Now the main catchy sounding synth is introduced.
- Phrase – 32 Beats – Blended in from the previous phrase, the catchy synth becomes more prominent, and then, the classic cut of the bass EQ of the track is instigated signifying the end of the phrase and the next section, the build up.
Build up – The build kicks in with the bass and a more solid sounding kick drum in the beat. In this section the build up allows for a tensing building transition to the main section the chorus.
- Phrase – 32 Beats – A sweeping pulsating synth is on the go in this phrase to signify a build up.
- Phrase – 32 Beats – A cinematic rising pitch shifting synth is introduced with the sweeping pulsating synth becoming more intense and prominent. The “Drop” is signified in the last 4 beat bar of this 32 beat phrase by cutting in a drum fill, commence air drum action!
Chorus – That classic Sub Focus Timewarp sound enters.
- Phrase – 32 Beats – A catchy synth is dropped in along side a rhythmic bass. Ending of the phrase is signified by a phased sounding synth.
- Phrase – 32 Beats – Continues as previous phrase. Ending of the phrase is also signified by the phased sounding synth, but in a lower octave (or lower pitch)
- Phrase – 32 Beats – The original sweeping pulsating synth from the intro/build up is re-introduced, signifying some sort of transition to another section.
- Phrase – 32 Beats – Enter cinematic rising pitch shifting synth, welcome next section of the track.
Verse – Oh wait, what’s this? A time signature change, Yes!
- Phrase – 32 Beats – An off beat bassline is slammed into the listeners ears
- Phrase – 32 Beats – The off beat bassline continues, but is met with the rising pitch shifting synth leading the next section the breakdown. Notice the vocal sample is added in to signify the
Breakdown – The bass of the chorus is added back in, this time without beat.
- Phrase – 32 Beats – Sweeping phased synth introduced on last bar of the phrase.
- Phrase – 32 Beats – That “Timewarp” catchy synth is re-introduced for this phrase. A nice little change in direction of the bassline signifies the build up is back!
Buildup – The building up rising synth is brought back in to start off leading up to the drop into the chorus again.
- Phrase – 32 Beats – A kick drum on the first beat signifies the beginning of this phrase, with reverb on the drums in the background.
- Phrase – 32 Beats – Enter cinematic rising synth again, plus a bouncing synth build up. The drum fill “Drop” is then launched kicking off the main chorus again. “Sub”-lime! (See what I did there) 🙂
After the drop, the chorus and verse are then repeated to some extent followed by an outro.
The above gives you a detailed flavour and insight into the breakdown of an electronic track. Hopefully now you’ve got a sense of how to identify phrases and also count beats within those phrases. If you’ve got this far in the article then well done! You’ve certainly gained a decent amount of knowledge to start understanding your tracks allowing you to blend your mixes seamlessly.
How to Identify Song Structure & Phrases
Audio software such as Audacity, Garageband or DJ Software allow you to see a visual representation of the audio wave file of a song you’re looking to mix.
You’ll usually be able to identify sections of tracks by the waveform thickness becoming significantly higher or lower within a short snippet of the wave form.
This is really great to get a feel for new songs and see how long the intro is, understand where the break down and drop is and see audible changes within each section and phrases e.g. chorus/verse/bridge etc. This is really useful to identify before going ahead mixing your heart out.
Believe it or not, it’s possible to identify different sections of songs when looking at record vinyls. How dark or light the grooves on a record show how much audio activity there is. The dark lines can help you see when there’s a break in section or phrase within a section.
As mentioned above, sometimes EQ changes, such as cutting the bass out at the end of a phrase can help signify a transition to a new phrase. In this example, you can easily see this on a record vinyl. Especially noticeable in the breakdown and build ups of tracks.
Side note: Using this technique is a really useful when you need to cue up a record vinyl to drop into the mix.
Phrases can easily be identified by DJ software counting the beats of a track. For example Traktor can be setup within it’s ‘Preferences’ by entering ‘8 Bars’ into the ‘Bars per Phrase’ option. Remember there are 4 beats to a bar so this will count 32 beats per 8 bars.
This way allows you to see in the ‘Deck Header’ 3 individual numbers split by a dot, each representing ‘Phrase.Bar.Beat’, for example, ‘2.2.4’. The first number, the phrase, will increase every 32 beats (8 Bars). So if you’re just starting out this could be a great way for you to learn sections of tracks that you’re getting to know and the use this as a way to mix phrases seamlessly. Practice makes perfect!
How to Count Beats in DJing?
For me personally I count 8 beats per bar, so in my mind I visualise that there are 4 bars per phrase. (There’s still 32 beats in the phrase, I just find it easier to remember which bar I’m on when counting bars in each phrase. Don’t judge me, I just find it easier).
This is probably because I started DJing Garage and Drum & Bass, so it’s likely I’ve adapted that style of count bars and identifying phrases from these genres.
We will go into more detail into counting beats in another article and video.