Are DJs Musicians? The Arguments & the Answers

Are DJs musicians?

This is a debate that happens all the time in the music world. Musicians aka instrumentalists will give you a very straight answer, no. However, a more accurate answer would be, sometimes. So let’s look at the facts and see what conclusion you come to in the are DJs musicians debate.

For the majority of DJs you see performing, you cannot say they are musicians. At least not at that particular point, in the studio they may be. There are certain exceptions to this, however, such as turntablists/scratch DJs who, while on stage, do use the decks as musical instruments. 

For the sake of this post, we will split the examination into two. This will be between:
• DJs – which is someone who plays music in front of a crowd
• Producers – which is someone who makes music (either in a studio or otherwise)

The reason I feel this distinction is important is that these two terms are often used interchangeably. Which is understandable, as most DJs tend to be producers also.

DJs Who Don’t Produce

First, let’s say we have a DJ who doesn’t produce any of their own music. What happens here. In this case, are DJs musicians?

Are DJs who don't produce music musicians
Are DJs (who don’t produce music) musicians?

No, but it does help them be a DJ if they are a musician.

The entire premise of DJing well is all about knowing how music is constructed. Both in terms of timings and harmonics, aka musicality. Therefore, if a DJ is a musician they will be coming into the industry with a base level of knowledge already.

This will accelerate their learning while at the same time allow them to make their sets slicker and more “composed”. Musicians understand music key theory and that playing tracks of the same, or complementary, keys simply sound better.

If a DJ applies this to their sets, i.e mixing complementary keyed songs together, then it adds a level of fluidity to their set. This is called harmonic mixing.

Even if someone is not a musician to start with, these are skills that DJ’s can pick up overtime.

Now, of course, like most things these days there is software to do virtually everything for you (except playing a real instrument of course).

This includes tempo-matching through to handling the syncing of tracks and telling you what key it is in. There is even specific software for this last part, the most prominent being Mixed in Key.

That said before these tools existed, and even when using them, these are skills that a DJ will acquire naturally as they put in practice. Or rather, the most serious, professional ones will.

This Begs the Question: Does Learning to DJ Make Someone a Musician?

This is an interesting one which requires to define what a musician actually is:
A musician is someone who uses an instrument to create sounds and compose songs.

While the main skills required by a DJ include:

  • Mixing tracks and beatmatching
  • Knowing very basic music theory
  • Understanding music keys

Based on these, I would say they are not musicians according to the definition above.

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Are DJs Musicians If They Are Turntablists?

Turntablists like Qbert use the decks as an instrument
Turntablists like Qbert use the decks as an instrument

However, turntablist DJs use their decks to manipulate sounds, scratch and beat juggle (see our recommended vinyl decks here). They are both creating sounds and new music so by this definition, the answer would have to be yes. In this case, turntablist DJs are musicians.

What is odd about this is that you don’t need to be classically trained or know music theory to become a turntablist. You will, however, spend an inordinate amount of time learning turntable techniques and tricks.

I think this point requires a bit more clarification though.

If the DJ is using their turntablist skills to create new tunes then yes, they are a musician.

However, if they never create new music and simply scratch over existing music then I would say no. In this case, the DJ is not meeting the definition of a musician.

Are Producers Musicians?

As defined above, producers are people who create new music from scratch, generally, in a studio. In this case, they are much more likely to be musicians. However, I use this term lightly at this point.

Zedd started playing piano aged 4
Zedd started playing piano aged 4

There are definitely plenty of undoubted musicians in the DJ / electronic world. Classically trained to play piano from the age of four, Zedd is a perfect example of this. And Skrillex (see the software & equipment he uses here), who outside of his electronic productions, occasionally plays in bands.

There are, however, a lot more producers that only know very basic music theory. Just enough to enable them to make tunes. In this instance, although they may use a keyboard, they don’t necessarily have piano playing skills.

After all, with studio production, you only need to be able to play a few notes. You can edit them to makes sure they’re correct and then loop them for as long as you need.

The definition of what makes a musician, or whether producers are musicians, becomes more blurry at this point.

There is, of course, a theory amongst many producer DJs that knowing music theory can be somewhat restrictive. Avicii, for example, was open about not knowing a lot of theory. Instead, he just clicks around the MIDI roll (in simplistic terms, an onscreen piano) until he finds the sound and notes that he likes.

In this case, a producer has a lot more freedom as they are not already bound by predetermined rules before they’ve even sat down at the computer. Instead, they experiment and “discover” melodies as a way to make tracks.

And, because Avicii did create his own music there can be little doubt, by definition, that he was a musician.

Conclusion: Are DJs Musicians?

Given the range of artists & skills covered above, for clarity, I shall conclude each individually.

• Broadly speaking are DJs musicians if they are just mixing tracks? No.
• Are turntablist DJs, who use their decks to create new music from existing music, musicians? Yes.
• Are producers who create music from scratch, even without music theory? Yes.

This is probably a debate that will rage forever and a day. It really comes down to your own interpretation of what musical creativity is, what it means to you and how creative you perceive individual artists to be.

What’s your opinion? Are DJs musicians? Drop your thoughts in the comments below and I will respond to every single one.

FAQs: Are DJs Musicians?

Is a DJ considered an artist?

This is a difficult question that depends on your definition of “artist”. If it is producing something that evokes a reaction, and emotions in an audience then yes absolutely a DJ is an artist. In this respect, they select existing music and build layered sets designed to take their crowd on a journey.

However, if you define an “artist” as someone who has to create something purely from scratch in order to evoke a reaction. Then arguably, no a DJ is not an artist… unless they also produce the music as well.

Given that most DJs these days are also producers then, yes, overall it is a safe bet to consider DJs artists.

Is a DJ considered live music?

No, a standard DJ set i.e using two decks and mixer can not be considered “live music” as there are no actual instruments or live creation of the music.

That said there are some DJs that play certain parts of their sets live. Alongside the decks,e they will often have some kind of keyboard or MIDI controller to trigger certain sounds (see which MIDI controller I recommend here). In this case, their set is more of a hybrid of DJ set and live. But no, most DJing cannot be considered live music.

Is DJing an instrument?

The broad answer to this is no. Most DJs do not use their DJ decks as instruments, instead, they are used as media players that allow you to adjust the tempo of a track. That said there are DJs, such as EZ and James Zabiela that have taken their technical skills to a whole new level and are able to create and manipulate sounds with their decks (see our recommended decks here).

In this case, it is arguable that the DJ deck could be an instrument. This case is strengthened when you take into account scratch DJs as they manipulate sound to fit with the music playing.

What is considered a musician?

Musician is a broad term that covers many different types of people. A musician is anyone that in any way creates music from scratch. That can include anything from singing, composing, rapping through to playing an instrument or producing tracks.

What next?

  • Do DJs actually do anything on stage? Or do they just push one button? Find those answers and more in this post guide.
  • Unclear on what the differences between a DJ and producer are? Check out the full breakdown here.

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