Why You Don’t Have To Be A Musician To Be A Good DJ

DJ Rap

DJ Rap with her musical credentials emblazoned across her chest… but how important is it for ‘everyday’ DJs to be able to read, write or play music?

A reader asked whether it’s possible to be a good DJ without also being a musician, or without being able to play a musical instrument, which I thought was an excellent question. (Thanks, Kevin!)

In order to answer Kevin’s question, we need to look at two distinct types of musical teaching/learning, and also delve a little into the nature of what DJing is (and isn’t). We’ll also discover that the answer to this question depends on how far you want your DJing to take you…

The two opposite “types” of musical learning

For new DJs who don’t play music, it’s worth understanding about two ends of the spectrum among musicians who are learning their trade. Often those of one type find it challenging to master the skills other “type”. So what are they? Well, basically, at one end of the spectrum are the “formal” musicians, and at the other, the “spontaneous” musician…

  • A “formal” musician is doing grades, and they’ve been to a lot of classes. They can read music. They could be heading to a career in “organised” music – orchestra, that type of thing. They can be hugely dedicated, but by the same token, some may not even particularly like playing music. (We all know of people who’ve been forced to take piano lessons by their parents, for instance…)
  • A “spontaneous” musician is usually self-taught, although they may have had training too. They enjoy playing along to what’s on the radio (on their keyboard, or guitars, usually), and so they can pìck out chords and melodies and copy them pretty fast. They tend to form bands. But they can be lacking in a lot of pretty useful musical knowledge at the same time. (By the way, by “spontaneous” I certainly don’t mean they can “just do it” without any effort – this type of musician practises just as much as the first type…)

Now, here’s something curious: Often you’ll find formally trained musicians (the first type) who struggle to “play along”, like the second type can – many need that sheet music in front of them! Likewise, the second type often can’t read music like the first type can, and find themselves held back by their lack of technical/theoretical musical knowledge.

How musical training helps you in DJing

The point of making these comparisons is to show that even musical types have problems when they want to learn to DJ. Having said that, it’s my experience that people who’ve learned the second way (or “formally trained” musicians who “jam” too) tend to bring more to the table for a DJ career than the first.

Musical notation and frequencies

‘All those lines and circles, to me, a mystery…’ Can you read music? Do you understand the math behind it? Do you think it matters for a DJ to be able to?

While both are taught beats, bars and timing, the second type are often more comfortable intuitively mixing and matching the music contained in their tunes. That’s because DJing is improvisation as much as anything, and the second type of musician is more used to improvising, as it’s basically the only way they know how to approach their music.

When it comes to musical keys and an ear for what “goes”, both have a definitely advantage over non-musicians, but for different reasons. The first type will have a theory-based understanding of scales, keys and chords, and even a magical ability to spot the key of a song without any help at all, just by ear. The second type will have an equally uncanny feel for what “goes”, “finding” good key-matching mixes without using software to help them or without really even knowing why the songs match. Neither can’t often understand why non-musical types use Mixed in Key and the like at all!

Why you can be a good DJ without musical training

But if you’re not a musician (of either type), fear not! DJing is not playing an instrument, and it has elements that are nothing to do with either of these types of musical talent. Do you spot similarities between tracks? Do you sing one track over another in your head (and not really know why)? Do you know what you’d really like to hear next when you’re in a club? Do you have technical knowledge about gain staging, amplifiers, sound systems?

Or try these: Do you just have to have that new tune you heard on the radio last week, and you’ll go to any length to find it? Do you march up to the DJ to demand the title of a track when you’re out? Do you realise immediately when the music CD loops when you’re eating out? Do you “have” a song for any occasion or emotion?

Cratedigging

Is this your idea of heaven, or hell? If it’s heaven, then congratulations – you’ve got one of the big necessary traits of every decent DJ.

Yes to any or all? (Plus, do you want to be up there, playing in front of a crowd, more than anything else?) Then congratulations. You’ve got some of the massive traits of DJs. You’ve go passion, drive, an understanding of the dancefloor, a keen ear, a hunter/gather instinct… none of which has anything to do with being able to play an instrument.

Of course, it helps to understand the keys, chords, structures and indeed the mathematics behind those tunes you’re playing. Of course it does! But if you’ve got the non-musical stuff above, what you need to learn from the musical side is going to start coming naturally to you. You’ll learn counting, and beats, and bars, and the “right” places to mix. Even the music theory will start to make itself known to you (Google’s a great thing, isn’t it?). All this stuff will inevitably start to seep in, like a new language when you stay long enough in a foreign country. You shouldn’t sweat it. What you should do, though, is keep DJing – as much as possible. That’s enough.

The one time when it really does matter…

And that brings me on to the final point I wanted to make, about how far you want to take this. If you want to really get ahead – like anything from being recognised outside of your city to superstar DJ status – then yes, you need to produce. Period. And to produce, you need some understanding of musical theory (I say some understanding – and in my view, the second type of musician makes a more intuitive producer than the first type). So yes, for real, serious DJing, being able to play an instrument (even if that “instrument” is actually a sequencer), with the requisite musical knowledge, is a must. (We’ve actually got some great free training coming up to get you going down that path is it’s what you want to do next.)

But that leave the other 95% of DJs. The residents. The “creative DJs” playing in bars and lounges for fun as much as money. The mobile, web, corporate-hire guys. And of course all the hobbyist and bedroom DJs. Do any of this type of DJ need to play musical instruments? Nope – none of it. You need musical passion, sure, but you don’t need to be a musician.

And here’s something else to take heart from: I have known plenty of musician/producer types who think DJing is going to be easy until they try it. Then, they come back to me and say “hey, there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye, isn’t there?” They realise a truth – that DJing is not a form of musicianship. It’s related, sure, but it’s different. So don’t lose heart if you don’t play a musical instrument. You can still be a good DJ. Just bear in mind that at some point you might want to start learning about music. Hopefully you’ll learn it for fun, not because you feel you have to – and end up just as passionate about making music as you already are about DJing.

Are you a DJ who feels you should learn to play an instrument, or learn some musical theory? Or, are you a musician who also DJs? What are your views on this subject? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Comments

  1. What you said about “trained” musicians being lost without music and basically puppets isn’t true at all. I’ve studied music for the past 11 years and I’m very good at what I do. Not all musicians are stiff uptight jerks and look down at those who didn’t have “formal training”. I think to be a good DJ you should want some understanding of music theory or you’ll never progress far as you could.

    • Thanks for commenting, Lewis. Sorry if you felt I was being disrespectful, as it wasn’t my intention. For the record, I didn’t mention puppets, or stiff, upright jerks, or accuse formally trained musicians of not being good at what they do. And I also said that it is good for DJs to understand musical theory. I just wanted to point out a divide that I’ve noticed from working with both types of musician, both “sides” of whom I respect greatly (any musician of any type deserves applause and admiration in my book, period), in on order to help non-musician DJs to understand the wider picture better.

      • I agree here, i have a violin, piano and guitar teacher, the piano and guitar teachers take a very different approach to my violin teacher,, teaching me in a less classical/conventional way, leading me to learn the instruments and different musical skills in very different ways from one another..As an DJ enthusiast i feel that i perhaps learn more from the guitar and piano teachers, but thats just me

  2. Nice tips! I’ve been wondering this for ages.
    Can’t wait to read those music theory tutorials :)

    • We’ve never seen anything as good as these anywhere online – were looking forward very much to bringing them to you. We’re just at the editing stage now, trying to keep the theory while making the material as accessible as possible for non-musician DJs.

  3. I don’t know if your two types of musicians summary is based on what it’s like in the UK but I wouldn’t say it is an accurate portrayal of what musicians are in the US.

    There are plenty of people who are trained in middle/high school that end up playing in rock bands that have no problem with playing without sheet music. Improvisation is actually something taught in college and high school level jazz bands. Just because you play in an ensemble that reads sheet music doesn’t mean your ability to create your own music and perform it is stymied.

    In the same token, there are plenty of non-trained musicians that understand music theory and can read music. I know a ton of guitarist that have a huge amount of knowledge about odd meter but they have never taken a music lesson in their life.

    I think a general understanding of music theory is helpful when DJing. Time signature, key signature, etc. I often see beginner tutorials on DJing and they are start with the same thing: Count to 4, 8, 16, 32. If you are a musician, you already know that.

    • I actually did realise I’d failed to include anything about improvisation/jazz, so thanks for pointing that out. Of course, I agree there are all-rounders, plenty of them (I mention it in the text). Thanks again for reinforcing it.

      And I also say that you can teach yourself this stuff – indeed, I’d encourage people to (I have never had music lessons but have schooled myself over the years in much of what I might have learned in music school).

      But sadly I’ve seen far too much teaching of “music by numbers”. I’m glad to hear that from your experience that’s not the case where you live. The purpose of pointing it out was not to disparage musicians, but to encourage DJs with a natural talent not to feel they’ll never be able to do it just because they haven’t had any formal music training, as I don’t believe that to be true.

  4. I don’t think this is an accurate portrayal of musicians. If “formal” musicians don’t play along it’s probably more of a psychological thing than a “they are unable” thing, at least this is what I noticed over the years: people that “can’t” play along are mostly really shy or scared that they will make a mistake, so they prefer not to play improvised solos and tend to cling to their sheets.

    the way I see it is that there are two kinds of people that make music: – the people that do it for the sake of making music, they would also make music if no one were listening and – the people that make music because they like to be noticed/watched (rich and famous).
    (though this is probably not useful for this article.)

    In my opinion it would’ve been appropriate to display your two categories in a more neutral way.

    • Good points! But let me then counter with this: Would the “formal” / “scared of mistakes” type make good DJs until they’d beaten the psychological obstacles that make them scared of just “playing”? Because one thing’s for certain: There’s no “sheet music” for DJing, because by its nature it requires extreme improvisation / lots of mistakes. And one thing many very talented DJs feel long into their careers is that they’re “frauds” of some type or another, precisely because there isn’t any formal “qualification” as such. It’s a two-way street, lack of confidence.

      One thing I completely agree with you in is “the people that do it for the sake of making music, they would also make music if no one were listening and – the people that make music because they like to be noticed/watched”. This website is only for the first of those types :)

      • if you can get comfortable with people watching you and expecting something of you it’ll (probably) be no problem.

        don’t get me wrong, wanting to be noticed and famous doesn’t imply doing it for the wrong reason. people who make protest songs want to be noticed, and probably not for the wrong reason… as a professional musician/dj you automatically need to want to be noticed otherwise you’d probably end up broke really soon.

        so ultimately it is a question about the heart. if your heart is in it, it’ll probably work out just fine…

  5. Klaus Mogensen says:

    I guess I’m a musician who also DJs, and I’m of the spontaneous kind. At least that’s how I started out

    I’ve played the drums for 25 years, most of the time in bands, and also play guitar

    I guess the drumming helped me DJ at first, since I never had to count. I always knew/know when the next natural mix point is, because I’ve been playing (and unconsciously counting) 4/4 songs most of my life

    Apart from this I think that knowing and loving all kinds of music has helped my DJing more than being a musician

    /Klaus

    • That’s a good point, Klaus – how being a musician brings a broader understanding of music than you might get by “rabbit holing” on EDM, for instance. So the takeaway for the non-musician DJ would be: “Listen to as much music as you can, of all types.”

  6. Schrottrocker says:

    I hereby volunteer for giving advice in musical theory, should you have any questions :) I am both types of musicians (not a DJ though) and I’m about to finish 10 years of studying musicology at university. Just ask me ;)

  7. I think you made the mistake of calling them “opposite” because they’re not they are in fact very similar there is just a psychological difference of almost not caring (and by that i don’t mean not caring about the music, just not caring about what people think)

    i used to be your first type… i did grades on two instruments but i wouldn’t let anyone hear me play until it was perfect. now i have moved along to your second types as i got bored of being a perfectionist… i was quite happy picking up tunes on the fly without the need for music (the paper noted form) but i don’t mind sitting at a piano in a room full of mates working it out as i go along.

    i went through exactly the same thing with my DJing… started out as a perfectionist by preparing sets in my bedroom making sure the mixes were perfect and then playing to my mates at house parties etc but when i realised i still had an hour to fill and i panicked and turned into a mistake prone poor excuse for a DJ…. again i have now moved on to being able to just pick out a song and mix it (not perfectly every time but good enough so that an audience would’t think i was making mistakes)

    but yes i agree with the last bit about needing production to “make it” as a worldwide dj

  8. MellonHead says:

    spot on about the two types of musicians! learning to improvise and jam can definitely be an obstacle for orchestral musicians who want to create collaboratively. as far as djing goes, there is an advantage many classically trained musicians will have: memorization. every time we went to contest or had chair tryouts we were required to play the piece with no sheet music. at the time i found it frustrating to no end, but once i started playing in bands and now djing i’m thankful for it every time. think it’s time to write a thank you letter to my orchestra director!

  9. I see you’ve had a lot of constructive criticism already about your description of the “formal” musician. I’ll try not to tread any ground that has already been tread, but I agree that your description is a little off.

    I DO agree with what you are trying to say, that one does NOT have to have a ‘technical’ ‘trained’ understanding of music to be a good DJ, and sometimes those that do have that background can’t feel DJing as well. It was just hard to read on and get what you were saying after you described the two types of musicians, putting heavy emphasis (in my opinion as a reader) about how the non trained musician has a better time intuitively playing music and feeling things out.

    But as someone who is a classically trained musician / composer, I have to say that your description of them is not correct. Maybe it is for people who did not go on past high school level, but I have not met one person post High School that would call themselves classically trained and not love playing for the sake of playing. Sure, sometimes it’s hard to break out of the formal sheet reading part of our brains, but I will say that anyone who can interpret sheet music in a way that makes the listener feel what the music is saying has much of the second type of musician in them, even if they don’t know it. Most of us even play our parts by memory and feel, where each performance is different depending on many factors, including crowd, personal emotion, societal emotion, etc. In fact, in my opinion (and I could be wrong about this), its my training that helps me hear music the way I do, and fit them together like pieces in a puzzle. From instrumentation in a song I’m composing, to pieces that go together in a mix.

    Sure there are plenty of successful non-formally trained musicians and DJs, but there are also plenty of successful artists, DJs and the like that actually DO have formal classical training that helps in everything they do.

    • Thanks! I take on board your comments completely, and had no intention at all of putting down you or similar musicians. you describe eloquently how learning/performing by rote is not how it is for you.

      From the point of view of the non-musically trained (either formally or non-formally) DJ, my intention was simply to show that even musicians come to DJing with their own sets of problems to solve, and that non-musically trained DJs needn’t feel they’re automatically at a disadvantage.

      • And I totally got that! There is a long list of highly successful artists of all sorts that have no formal training! It should definitely not be an impediment to doing what you love, as long as your drive is there.

  10. Dj Robbie-Beats2goMX says:

    I´m a little of both, I use my musician side to make some live performance in my gigs, but I learn Djing by myself with no pointers, pure practice, until I wanted to change for digital djing (this page helped me a lot) because I was sharing the decks with many Dj´s that only carried their laptop & controller and that´s it, some of these Dj´s had no musical instruction ever but… they filled the dance floor amazingly, even didn´t knew about keys. they have a simple technic, good ear and beatmatching skills. Now I worry more about my music is the right for the crowd I play.

    I love to learn more about djing and with phil´s course but for me it´s better enjoying the gig and thowing the best beats to your crowd.

  11. habinpapa says:

    If you know how to play the drums.. :)

  12. A DJ who isn’t a musician, tends to be a non-liker of certain music-genres, while a musician respects “all” kinds of music (classical, experimental, noise,…). Therefore, he respects less the musical wishes of an audience, pushes his personal favours.

    • I have found plenty a musician that only respects the type of music they play….it’s sad I know…

    • Sad to hear that James, my experience is more discovideo’s – people who can play tend to be broader minded than those who can’t.

    • While I’m not a musician, I actually do respect pretty much all disciplines and genres. I consider myself mainly a disco, deep and tech house DJ, and with a few exceptions I play that almost exclusively–it’s just the self-branding I’m going for. But my musical tastes are as broad as anyone’s.

      That being said, respect and “like” are two different things. I can say I can respect anything that has musical merit, but there is a bunch of crap music out there that I do not like and should not have to like to be some sort of scholar of music.

      Not disputing your comment, but just adding that distinction.

  13. DJ Forced Hand says:

    I find this article quite interesting as I just had another long conversation with the maker of Livetronica Studio Aaron Lesee, we think it will become the Musician’s choice for DJ applications.

    Not to say you can’t use the program without ever touching a DJ program before, but instead of using numbers like 1/4, 1/8 etc., it’ll be defaulted to using using the correct musical staff notes… so for those who are spontaneous musicians, learning how to properly use musical standards will reinforce your skills and help you speak the native tongue of music. This is the only DJ software I know of that is squarely targeting Performing DJs / Controllerists and it’s the only program I know of that will allow you to quantize with triplets, five beat, and primes, WHILE allowing you to use semitones, Major and Minor keys, Pentatonic range, Dorian, Phyrgian etc. People might wonder why that’s necessary in a DJ program, I say if you understand what’s going on, you won’t have to guess at how to make two tracks work with each other and anyone who’s tried (and failed) to synch two tracks together understands this problem.

    Learning your craft should be seen as a good thing and software that helps you achieve your desired results is sorely needed.

  14. Adammartin says:

    There’s no point being a great musician if you can’t read the crowd or pick the right tunes for that particular moment, these are far more important and just knowing what key a song is.

  15. Think you were a bit hard on musicians for lacking the formal training yourself. I think I could accurately say about half of my time studying music was spent doing memory exercises and things to strengthen my ear and sense of rhythm and timing. A lot of time is spent strengthening music fundamentals that I often hear many professional DJ’s severely lacking, like the ability to hold a steady tempo without a sync/quantization (that many don’t use) when using an MPC, which is crucial for dance music.

    I’d say about less than 40% of the time as a person in music classes is actually spent reading music or playing as a group. I don’t look down on anyone who hasn’t taken classes, but the time spent in classes (5 hours a day in high school + practice, 6 hours a day in college + practice/study) really adds up to create a well rounded musician.

  16. Music is a tool of expression, say like a language. Humans have used it since the dawn of time, to express themselves and their feelings and emotions. It existed before, sheets, instruments, turntables or even writing. Do you think the people of the tribe singing and dancing around a fire cared about all the theory? The same way someone can speak a language without having gone to school, someone else can play an instrument “by ear” without having much musical training. He won’t be speaking the language correctly, but in my mind, it’s only a tool to get a message accross and once the message has been received and understood the tool has served its purpose.

    In the mid nineties when i was a teenager I used to be in a band. All of us had the “musical training” provided my public education, but only one of us, our bass player, could listen to a song, that i had recorded off the radio and tell everyone what to play and in that way we would cover the song, and then adjust it to the abilities of our singer. Of course these days, you could go online and very easily find the sheet of the song but that is not the point. Were we always 100% correct? No. Did it matter? No. Did we have a weekly gig, earned some money and had a world of fun? YES

    On the other hand a friend of mine is a qualified piano teacher. She has only played “live” in front of an audiance for some of her exams. she plays classical music, needs sheets, shes got some amazing skills with hard techniques, and still makes a living out of music approaching it from a different perspective..teaching

    What i’m trying to say here, is that music is a medium, a tool. and when used with excellence it becomes an art. it has so many different forms of expression and use. Im not trying to diss musicians who have studied hard and have taken the art to the highest level. But Phil is right. You can DJ without musical training. of course it helps with certain things, but it is not 100% necessary.

  17. I believe the most important thing about being a Dj is to have passion for dancing .. a good dancer can make a good DJ .. If you can feel the music in your bones then you can make others feeling it with your tunes.

  18. I’d like to point out a misconception that is merely starting to get on my nerves – combined with the raise of KeyDetection software….

    If you can answer the phone and can tell if a woman or a man is on the other end of the line, you can “hear” the key of a music piece – period.
    The perception of tonality is there, in 99% of all people (only very rare cases exist) – the music education helps with the scientific categorisation of the tonalities in the names, types and associations man has fuerthermore created – but ANYONE, ANYONE can HEAR the tonality even if he doesnt know what the name of the track key is…..

    Let me give another example:

    UNLESS you are colorblind, you know that this tomato here has a different color than than banana over there…..YOU MAY not speak English, or you MAY be mute and cant speak the colors……but you CAN see the difference…..

    Do we all get it now?

    Being a trained musician, and knowing the keys of two given tracks can help PREDICTING that they wont play well together – other than that, you MUST be deaf if you cant spot two tracks not playing well with each other because of the keys they are written in.

    Phew….glad we sorted this over!

  19. As a half-way house (‘trained’ musician through school, then picked up drums, guitar and keys a bit as I got older) I think there’s definite pros and cons to both. I think my experience playing in an orchestra, or a jazz band or singing in a choir helps a little bit understanding how sounds fit together. It helps having played in front of crowds. It helps having studied music theory. BUT, it ONLY helps, it’s no magic wand! And it’s nothing you can’t pick up yourself, doing gigs, jamming with your mates, playing at parties, singing in the shower. The principle is the same.
    When it comes to ‘production’ (or composition as some may prefer), the key is just to put something down. Hum a melody, scratch it out on a keyboard, harmonise it, flesh it out. You don’t NEED musical training to do that, it may speed the process up a bit, but the end result can be the same. Many of the world’s most famous jazz musicians couldn’t read a note of music, you wouldn’t say it held them back. In fact, people have only been writing music down at all for a few hundreds of years – people have been making music for thousands! I guess in summary, if you have the passion, and you put the time in, you can make something you’re proud of – and that other people will want to hear. And even if they don’t, it’s a great feeling to have truly created something that is yours, and that no one can take away from you…

  20. I believe DJing is more of an art than a “trade” and unfortunately for me a trade is mostly how DJing is portrayed in this website. Something anybody can do with the right training or the right equipment. Is like it’s trying not to hurt anybody’s feelings by giving us the old “we all are special in our own way” and there is almost no wrong way of doing things. I say “to be special you must be different than everybody else”.
    We all are better than others to do some things even when we have the same schooling and training. For the most part we all can learn to do anything since everything can be described with math, but talent is what makes the difference. If you notice that you are better than most at something, chances are you have a special talent for it. Good DJing also requires talent. DJing started with someone selecting songs and playing them to the crowd while making sure they would be selections the crowd would approve, but it turned into a mix of technical skills operating electronics and ACTUAL MUSICAL TALENT to combine beats and phrases in a pleasing and exiting way. Today just about anybody can do the TRADE part of it with computer aid or simply by pressing the PLAY button of a prerecorded or even someone else’s set, but a good DJ, someone who people recognize as a performer and worth praising, has to be a musician of some sort. Not necessarily a musician in the sense of being knowledgeable of music theory, nor an actual musical instrument player, but someone with music in his or her head and someone who finds it easy to understand and create music, even if it is just in his head; has to have the musical talent that separates him from the rest.

    • “Not necessarily a musician in the sense of being knowledgeable of music theory, nor an actual musical instrument player, but someone with music in his or her head and someone who finds it easy to understand and create music, even if it is just in his head; has to have the musical talent that separates him from the rest.”

      You got it! We presuppose our readers have a deep love for music, it’s their language, it’s what gets them out of bed in the morning and it’s what expresses stuff they can’t express any other way.

      If you have that, it is natural to then want to play your music to other people, and that’s where we come in. If you don’t have that, I agree, DJing is just a trade. But for us (and we hope our readers), it’s much more than that. We certainly don’t reduce the spirituality and importance of music to “pressing play on someone else’s mix”! :)

  21. Elliott Kim says:

    A DJ is a musician. Your instrument isn’t a guitar or piano, but rather a controller or mixer+decks. You are still using an electrical/mechanical device to make the kinds of sounds that get people to shake their booties.

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