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

| Read time: 5 mins
dj/producer harmonic mixing mixing in key Musical theory Musicianship
Last updated 20 August, 2014

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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.