Part of the skill of being a DJ is knowing how to read a room and create a vibe. So you can judge what your crowd is enjoying and keep them happy, and dancing, which of course begs the question, how do DJs know what song to play next?
Balancing a Set
Some DJs talk about there being a ratio. As in, for every new song you are introducing a crowd to, play two or three well known/classic tracks that they already know. But the truth is, there is no ratio.
Crowds actually do not need to know songs to enjoy a DJ set.
And this is part of being a skilled DJ. Be able to create a vibe and build up energy by playing tracks that even if they don’t recognize them, you know as a DJ, a crowd will enjoy.
There are a couple of differentiators here, in that commercial clubs are different to genre-specific clubs.
How Do DJs Know What Song to Play Next In Commercial Clubs?
In commercial clubs, people are generally there specifically to get drunk and dance around with their friends. They don’t particularly care who the DJ is, or if they hear any fresh, new songs.
In this case, the DJ may have actually been told, when being hired, that they are to play commercial pop songs. While they might play the odd remix or mashup, chances are they will not play anything obscure or unknown.
Probably, the biggest risk they will take is playing a brand new song that people might not be aware of yet. However, this will likely still be a commercial pop song, by a known artist.
How Do DJs Know What Song to Play Next At a Genre Specific Night?
People are still there to party and have a good time, but they are also fans of the specific genre. For example, EDM or techno.
In this instance, it is more widely understood that a DJ can play new, or obscure, varied tracks from that genre. People don’t expect to know every single track. In fact, quite often they will discover new music there, and that will be part of why they enjoy going to these nights.
So in this case, while a DJ might select some well-known tracks (after all people do love to hear songs they know) they will be much worried about doing so.
What Are Some of the Considerations? How Do DJs Know What Song to Play Next?
Let’s go through point by point.
One, for example, would be the key of a track. This is a way to make seamless, smooth transitions as possible. In this case, a DJ will select a track that is in the same key as the track already playing. This is what is known as harmonic mixing.
DJs used to have to train themselves by ear, to be able to do this. Although these days they can use software the most popular being Mixed in Key. These will analyze their tracks and tell the DJ not only what key that track is in but also what other tracks will complement it.
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One thing that a DJ is always conscious of during their set is how they are raising or lowering the energy of the room. This is because they have to be conscious of not wearing their crowd out to quickly.
For example, if you play a solid hour of bangers then, while you may keep the dance floor moving, people will eventually get exhausted. Instead, what many DJs will do, is take the vibe up and down.
So for example, they may play two or three high energy bangers in a row and then play a more relaxed, melodic number. This will still be at the same BPM but it allows the crowd to recover a bit before bringing the energy back up.
Therefore, when knowing which track to play next a DJ will consider both the energy of their track selections and the energy of the crowd themselves.
Elements of a Track
Another thing that a DJ will consider when choosing what track to play next is what is actually happening in the track.
For example, it is virtually impossible to mix two vocal lines together. Therefore, when you have one track with the vocals still going, then it makes sense to mix in the intro of a song that either has no vocals, or that come in later in the track.
Sometimes DJs can get around this as there are special DJ edits of tracks that have extended intros.
While the elements of a track may play into what the DJ decides to play next, they won’t be the deciding factor. A skilled DJ will be able to adjust and mix most styles of track together by using quick cuts if necessary.
Sometimes, when a DJ is selecting the next track, they will already have a direction for their set in mind. This means they are either building the energy up or if they have multiple decks they might actually be layering up their tracks to create a special kind of mix.
This is more common with DJs that mix with three or four decks (see our recommended decks here). Doing this allows them to essentially create remixes or mashups on the fly. So in this case, the DJ knows what song to play next as they will be going through a rehearsed routine.
Reading the Crowd
Being able to read the crowd is the main skill of a DJ from any genre. To know what they are reacting to and what they are enjoying. Making this quite possibly the biggest single factor in how do DJs know what song to play next.
Very quickly after starting their set a DJ will gauge their audience. Then, depending on the direction the DJ wants to go, and the crowd’s energy, they will select tracks they know will get a good response.
Often this will be steadily ramping the energy up, essentially getting more and more hyped throughout their set. That said, there are DJs, such as DJ Kush, who will go the other way. For example, if he is playing late at night, he will start high energy, and then gradually wind down to a quieter, chilled finish.
Conclusion, How does a DJ know what song to play next?
It is really a judgment call. DJs will have songs that they like to play and what they want to hear themselves, but they will also take into account the audience’s tastes and what they will enjoy.
DJs very rarely plan their entire set. So quite often, they will only make a decision of what song to play next while the current song is playing.
It can actually be common to see a DJ change their mind. In that, they might start listening to a track in the headphones and then switch and cue up a different song to play instead.
This is all part of the skill of being a DJ. Being able to think on the fly is what makes every single set, in every different city unique. It shouldn’t happen that a professional touring DJ should ever play exactly the same set more than once.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do DJs Plan Their Set?
No. In general, Club DJs do not plan their sets and instead choose tracks and mixes on the fly. The only DJs that may plan sections are those with large scale productions i.e visuals and fireworks. This is so that they are able to time the music with the production’s special effects to make sure everything goes off on time.
How Many Tracks Should a DJ Have?
There is no one true answer to this question. Really a DJ should only have a library full of tracks they absolutely love and enjoy playing. This means a library could stretch from hundreds of tracks into the thousands.
It is best to always have options for tracks. For example, you don’t want to go and do an hour-long set and only have 20 tracks. Assuming each track was three minutes you’d have to play every single one, and you’d be screwed if the promoter asked you to play longer.
Instead, you’d want 40 or 50 minimum, this is so that you can choose different directions. Depending on the mood of the crowd, and of course, yourself.
How Long Should You Play a Song For?
This varies greatly depending on a DJ’s individual mixing style. Some DJs mix very quickly maybe only playing a minute or two minutes of a song before mixing to a new one. Others prefer to let the track fully play through.
After all, the producer of that track has put time and thought into how that track builds up and how the drop happens. So some DJs will want to let that play in full.
So how long should you play a song for really comes down to your individual style and the tracks that you are playing.
In truth this will vary from track to track, sometimes you may only loop certain sections for example. This is exactly how Hip Hop is built, by looping short samples and turning them into a much longer track. This is a method you can incorporate into your DJ sets. So really, the track length is entirely down to you.
One thing that is worth bearing in mind is that audiences can get bored when tracks are played too long. Some dance tracks, for example, last for seven or eight minutes so there’s probably no need to play those in their entirety.
Instead, you can choose to play only your favorite sections of these tracks. By doing this, you will essentially turn your entire set into a highlight reel of the best sections from your favorite tracks. This is a great way to create a high impact high energy and memorable set.
So it doesn’t really matter how long you play songs for. What matters is how interesting and relatable to the crowd they are.
That is what is going to make an audience enjoy your set, not how quick or slow you mix between tracks.
Looking for more tips on how to be a DJ? Then check out this article.