A Beginner’s Guide To DJ Music Programming

DJ Staci, The Track Star | Feature Writer
February 25, 2020

DJ music programming, or song selection, is typically considered the “one thing” that cannot be taught. One can learn scratch techniques, the fundamentals of beatmixing, or learn how to set up DJ gear, but what about the actual programming of music?

Yet DJ music programming is by far the most important skill. This is why there are DJs playing in swanky bars and huge festivals that are just using “auto fade” on a laptop. Party-goers want to hear their favourite songs. Fancy scratches and backspins? Not so much.

Like having “good taste”, programming has traditionally been considered something that a DJ simply has or doesn’t have. In truth, though it has to do with both studying and instinct.

Studying is something you can start working on right now. Instinct can be learned too, but it comes with experience, from playing out and observing crowds. (You can definitely learn by observing other DJs too… but this can be challenging if, for instance, you want to learn programming for private events like weddings).

So in this article, I am going to share seven steps you can take to start to improve your DJ music programming. By the end you’ll have a clear pathway to nailing this elusive skill – and I’ll even share with you some actual song ideas, a way to improve your programming even if you think you’re pretty good at it… and an example of how I learned to spin Latin music, even though I didn’t know the first thing about it, and don’t speak a word of Spanish.

7 Steps To Improving Your DJ Music Programming

1: Build your back catalogue

DJs refer to older music as their “back catalogue”. To determine which songs you’ll want to have in your back catalogue, you can:

  1. Research playlists online
  2. Use services that generate playlists for you, like Pandora, to explore certain genres and sounds
  3. Join a DJ group on Facebook and ask for input
  4. Use the Direct Music Service record pool (considered to have the best “back catalogue” of the big DJ pools) and go through their Decades tabs–they have DJ edits of the top songs going back to the 1950s
  5. Check curated playlists (many record pools, including Direct Music Service and BPM Supreme, provide these)
  6. Scan through the annual top requested wedding songs lists from DJIntelligence.com (DJIntelligence is a CRM program where brides and grooms can upload wedding requests and playlists for their DJs)

The point is that without a decent selection of music to choose from, your programming falls down at the first hurdle – but equally, it’s important to choose carefully, because you don’t want music you can’t use or are never going to use clogging up your library.

2. Develop a new music system

Downloading and staying on top of new music should be something you do regularly in a systematic way for your DJ music programming, so you don’t miss anything. If you truly invest in trying out as much new music as you can, you will start to find “gems” that others overlook. Playing these treasures at the right moment can really help differentiate you from the “average Jane”. Here are some places to try:

  1. Check iTunes or Spotify’s list of top songs or downloads
  2. Check DJ music pool new music areas
  3. Listen to any local radio stations that broadcast a “top 10 at 10pm” kind of thing where they play the 10 most requested songs of the day (ditto for “chart shows”)

While you are driving, exercising, or sitting at your desk, listen to music from such sources, take notes or screenshots, then start downloading!

Commit to checking for new music weekly or at least monthly — you don’t want to do it any less frequently than this. DJs playing out at big clubs three or four times a week are checking for new music almost daily.

Also, listen to your instincts… is there a certain new artist who strikes you as special? If so, maybe you should deep dive into their catalogue and see if you can find any hidden gems.

3. Cultivate your sound

Not every DJ is expected to have or know every song. You are free to further explore house music over hip hop or Latin over country as it suits your own personal brand. There is no need to have every song ever made. It’s more valuable to know a niche of music well (say 90s R&B or music for country line dancing) than to try to be a jack-of-all-trades.

Focus your time and energy where you most need it. If you mainly DJ weddings, don’t worry about studying Drum & Bass, for instance – but equally, if you are a Drum & Bass DJ, the latest Maluma song doesn’t need to be a high priority.

Having a specialty “sound” or genres that you know better than others can help you market yourself and differentiate yourself from the competition. For example, as a female DJ, I do tons of female empowerment events. Therefore, I focused more energy on digging through Beyonce’s “Lemonade” album than the average DJ, and am likely to make sure I have a house remix of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”. I never DJ proms or school dances, though, so apart from the real mainstream stuff, I don’t focus on every trap song that get released.

4. Create a crate for every gig

Now that you have the necessary music and know at least a little bit about the songs you have invested in obtaining, you’ll want to organise a crate / playlist in your DJ software program before each gig. Once you get more established, this won’t be necessary before every single gig — only ones with specialised music, but at first it’s a good practice to get into.

Use your instincts as well as your research to determine which songs would be a potential fit for your gig. You always want around double the more music in the crate than you’ll need; that way you have the freedom to pick and choose the best songs for each moment. (If you have a one hour set and only one hour of music ready, you’ll feel stifled with little room for reading the crowd – and be courting a real panic attack if you are asked to play for longer.)

Learn how the pros build crates for every gig in our Complete DJ Course.

A good place to start is your software’s “history” lists in its library. Here you can see what you’ve played at previous gigs, and you’ll find it trigers your memories of what worked and what didn’t at those gigs. Comine this with “must play” tracks, songs you’d like to try if you get a chance, and songs you’ve been asked to play, and you’ll be half way there already.

5. Take notes during your sets

It is crucial while you are DJing that you are watching the crowd and listening carefully to your mix. Take notes on a piece of paper or type them directly onto the song file in your DJ software. Things I might make notes of are:

  1. Whether a song labelled as clean is really too adult-themed to be considered clean
  2. If I need to get a different version of a song (maybe a longer or shorter version or a different remix)
  3. If I have not cued a song properly (perhaps I counted wrong) and the cue needs to be moved or re-labelled
  4. If the intro or outro of a song is not “quantised” (meaning the beats are not a consistent distance apart and therefore seamless beatmixing becomes difficult)
  5. Any accidental wordplays during the set that I might like to polish and re-use later
  6. Any other ideas about the music, song order, crowd reaction, etc

Also consider recording your live sets and listening to them the next day. This can be very helpful for improving your overall DJ music programming. It gives you a chance to see how your big BPM jumps turned out, to see if there are any lulls you might have missed because you were distracted with requests or tech issues, and so on.

“Here’s how I learned to DJ Latin music…”

About 10 years ago, I dated a Mexican-American guy who listened to Latin music almost exclusively. It was extremely foreign to me. Not least, I did not speak Spanish. Obviously, I couldn’t force him to listen to my music all the time, so I accepted the fact that I was going to have to give his music a chance. At first, everything sounded completely alien, but I remained open-minded. Lo and behold, as the weeks passed, I started to recognise songs. After the toe tapping came the getting-songs-stuck-in-my-head phase.

I had to ask what the songs were about because I didn’t want to head bob to something I disagreed with. I was pleased to discover that a lot of the music that sounded so folksy was actually quite humorous and edgy. For example, in Azul Azul and Laura Leon’s song “El Hombre Es Como El Oso” (A Man is Like a Bear) she says that a man is like a bear because the uglier he is, the more beautiful he is. She doesn’t care if the man is hideous (“horroroso”) in fact!

Eventually I attended a number of this guy’s family parties and found myself dragging him to the dancefloor for all the traditional Banda and Cumbia party songs. Because I live in San Diego now, my knowledge of Latin music has opened numerous doors for me. For example, about 40% of the weddings I DJ involve Latin music. I, yes, a non-Latina, was the show DJ at last year’s Unidos US conference (I DJed for Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders!).

6. Try turning your crates in to setlists

You can also try creating ordered setlists. A crate is just a random file of songs, but a setlist is that same music organised. It can be pretty helpful when playing a multi-genre open format set to have similar types of songs grouped together in advance.

It certainly doesn’t mean you need to play the songs on your list in order, as that’s not what great DJ music programming is about at all; it just means you’ll waste less time scrambling to find a transition out of the disco block into the hip hop block and have more time to observe the crowd.

Want to learn all about the best mothod for doing this? It’s one of the five modules in our Complete DJ Course.

Another benefit of creating a setlist is that you can plan the music to start at a certain BPM then move up or down, use a transition mix to start back at the top of the line-up, and so on. Without a game plan, DJs often just hit the “BPM” category tab so their software organises the songs in numeric order and they start at the bottom and move to the top. Don’t be that DJ! Get creative.

7. Work out your “go to” openers and closers

Most DJs like to have “go to” openers and closers. A go-to opener is your best three-song or so block for opening a dancefloor. Typically that block won’t be too fast or too slow. It won’t be too current or too old — it needs to be “just right”. It will include songs that I call “everybody favourites”. A closer is simply your best three-song block or so for wrapping up the night.

You’ll want to have a few different go-to openers and closers based on the type of crowds or gigs you normally perform for. For example, these are some of my go-to openers and closers:

Mixed race/mixed age opener (like for a wedding):
“Can’t Stop the Feeling” Justin Timberlake (113 BPM)
“Uptown Funk” Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars (115 BPM)
“Billie Jean” Michael Jackson (117 BPM)

Older crowd opener (like a 60th birthday):
“Celebration” Kool & the Gang (120 BPM)
“Let’s Groove” Earth, Wind, & Fire (126 BPM)

Read this next: How To DJ For A Middle-Aged Audience

Country opener:
“Sweet Home Alabama” Lynyrd Skynrd (98 BPM)
“Thank God I’m a Country Boy” John Denver (100 BPM)
“Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” Luke Bryan (106 BPM)
“Save a Horse” Big & Rich (102 BPM)

Hip hop closer:
“Niggas in Paris” Kanye West & Jay-Z (140 BPM)
“Pony” Ginuwine (142 BPM)
“All I Do Is Win” DJ Khaled (150 BPM)
“Truth Hurts” Lizzo (79 BPM)

Classic rock closer:
“Sweet Caroline” Neil Diamond (128 BPM)
“You Shook Me All Night Long” AC/DC (126 BPM)
“Livin’ on a Prayer” Bon Jovi (123 BPM)
“Don’t Stop Believing (Dark Intensity Remix)” Journey (128 BPM)

Try the “No Repeat Opener” challenge

Once you find an opener or closer you are comfortable with or that brings results, it’s easy to fall into a rut and continue using the same block of music for years and years.

One of our tutors here at Digital DJ Tips, wedding DJ Jason Jani (the man behind our Jason Jani’s Complete Wedding DJ training), often talks about his “No Repeat Opener” Challenge. Jason had noticed that he had fallen in a rut himself opening his wedding dancefloors. So he challenged himself to try a new opening song at each gig he did for three months.

If you’re just starting out, don’t worry about being in a rut just yet. However, if you’ve been using the same main go-to opener for a year (or two, or three…), give Jason’s challenge a try. You’ll never improve your programming if you don’t experiment with new songs (or even the same songs in a different line-up).

When you experiment with a new song, always have a crowd favourite standing by as Plan B in case it flops. Flops happen to every DJ, it’s just part of the job.

Finally…

No, DJ music programming cannot be completely taught. But hopefully as you’ve seen in this article, you can “set yourself up for success” by preparing properly, and learning gig-to-gig. It is completely possible to train your “instinct” through experience, and soon enough, appear to anyone watching that you really do know the right song to play for the people in front of you, right now.

• Want to learn not only how to build a great music collection, but all about DJ gear, techniques, performing and promoting? then take a look at The Complete DJ Course – our flagship training to help anyone DJ to pro level, fast.

What are your tips or tricks for improving your music programming? How did you learn a new genre of music? How do you handle a dancefloor flop? Share in the comments below!

Watch the live show

We presented a live show on this subject on our social channels, here’s a recording of it:

Last updated 3 March, 2020

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