How DJs Always Know What Song To Play Next (Without Ever Panicking)

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
April 9, 2021

Bonus material: Free “Perfect Next Song” Checklist & Worksheet

Today I’m going to tell you exactly how to always know what song to play next in your DJ sets – even when you feel things aren’t going right, and even when you really aren’t sure at all what the best next song should be!

Once you start to approach your DJing in the way I’m about to share with you, you’ll know you’re on the right road to making better song choices, more often – and you’ll also finally stop wondering how other DJs do it.

This article is based on training we give here at the Digital DJ Tips school, and was originally inspired by a discussion in our StudentHub Group, a place where our students and tutors hang out together.

Here’s what a couple of our students had to say about the info I’m about to share with you:

So how am I qualified to teach you this? In brief, in my working life as a DJ, I’ve played thousands of club gigs, recorded hundreds of mixtapes, hosted hundreds of DJ livestreams, and spun on the radio, for podcasts, mobile gigs, festivals, charity events and countless private parties. Additionally, I’ve met, interviewed, worked with, and DJed with many top DJs. Plus, as the founder of Digital DJ Tips, I’ve taught thousands of students just like you.

The info I’m sharing with you here draws upon all the experiences I’ve had, and the tips I’ve picked up along the way from the best in the game.

Download the free “Next Song” Checklist

As you’ll see, there are a lot of “moving parts” to cover when developing the skill of always knowing the right song to play next.

So we’ve produced a checklist for you to download and print, in order to jog you into action on all of the things you’ll need to do. It’s important that you download it and have it to hand as you follow the free training brought to you in this article:

Click here to download your free “Next Song” Checklist & Worksheet.

Here’s what’s included here:

How To Prepare

Preparation is key in order to give the impression that you’re doing this without trying at your gigs, and so here we’re going to break down the preparation you have to do into three areas: Getting to know your music, preparing your music, and preparing for your gig.

i. Learn your music

The most important thing bar none when it comes to knowing what to play next in a DJ set is to know your music really, really well. A DJ who doesn’t know their music will never be able to play those flowing, smooth sets that the best DJs achieve.

And while everything you do with your DJ music, from practising to building playlists to playing gigs, is going to help you to get to know your music better, there are two things you can formally do to speed up this process. They are:

  • Listen to your music unmixed, as often as you can – Have your DJ collection on your phone, for instance, so you can load it up and hit “shuffle” and be listening to your music anywhere and everywhere (the beauty about hitting “shuffle”, by the way, is that your phone may randomly play tracks that go well together that you can then find a way to transition between in your next practice session)
  • Record every practice session and listen back – The only person in the whole world who doesn’t hear your DJing how it really is, is you – because you’re too busy actually doing it! So record your practice sessions, and again, listen back to them anywhere else (car, gym, work etc). You’ll not only get to know your music better, but you’ll figure out the transitions that do and don’t work, too

ii. Prepare your music

Preparing music files can be boring, but it’s essential if you want to appear to always know what song to play next, effortlessly. Not only should you prepare each individual music file, but also work on playlists. Let’s look at the tasks:

  • Prepare your beatgrids and add cue points to your tracks – Both of these things will make it quicker and easier to transition into tracks
  • Do key analysis and learn how to choose tracks by key – All DJ software will analyse your tracks to tell you the musical key nowadays, but you also need to understand how to quickly find songs in the same or a compatible key, as mixing in key is one of the tricks of making the next song appear as if it was meant to go with the current one (you may want to look at our Fuzzy Keymixing article for a great new way to do this)
  • Prepare “mini playlists” – These are small selections of two or three tracks typically that you know mix well together. When you play one, you’re very likely to also play one or more of the others. You can see how this takes the heat out of knowing what to play next, right? Whole sets can be built on transitioning between “mini lists” rather than individual tracks

iii. Prepare for each gig

DJs who look natural, at home, and effortless behind the decks are able to appear that way because they have done their homework on the gig they’re playing. Don’t think you can skip this: the very best DJs in the world are careful to do it.

In fact, I was speaking to no less than DJ Jazzy Jeff recently, and he told me: “There are only two things I need to know about any gigs. Who I’m playing to, and how long I’m playing for.”

So here’s what you should do:

  • Know the crowd you’ll be playing to – Find out who will be at the gig. What music are they into? What ages are they? Go to the venue if you can and observe a similar crowd to the one expected on the night you’re playing. Understand what your role is in the night – warm-up, peak-time, second room? – and what that means for the music you’re expected to play
  • Prepare a well thought-out playlist of music for your gig – Pack a playlist or crate of about twice the number of tracks you’ll need. So if you’re playing for two hours and you normally play 20 tracks an hour, pack 80 (two hours x 40 tracks). The idea is that you’ll only play from that list at the gig itself, so your choices should cover all eventualities. This avoids you ever having to scroll through thousands of tracks, panicking, as you look for something to play next – because you only have 80 to choose from
  • After each gig, learn from what you played – Go through your “history” to see what you actually played, and figure out what worked and what didn’t, think about why, and move any good transitions or “mini-sets” you discovered into your playlists, to use again in the future

 

Once you’ve done the above (and more importantly, built a system so you are always doing the above, as part of what you do as a DJ), it’s showtime! So in the next section, we’ll look at how to choose what to play next at your gigs.

However, first it’s important to implement the things I’ve just said – or at least, those that make sense to you. To track your progress doing that, click here to download your free “Next Song” Checklist & Worksheet.

How To Choose What To Play Next

So you know your music inside out, you’ve spent time making it easy to search by adding all the right metadata to your files, you’ve made playlists, and you’ve researched the crowd. You’re as prepared as you can be. You’ve stacked the cards in your favour. But now it’s crunch time.

Let’s talk about how to make those all-important choices in the moment about what you should be playing next.

Reading the crowd

You probably hear DJs talking a lot about “reading the crowd”, but it’s not a very helpful thing to be told to do, is it? Exactly how are you meant to “read the crowd”?

In truth, knowing what a crowd wants takes experience, but bear in mind that watching your crowd carefully and always thinking about what might work for them is something you should be doing at all times as a DJ. The good news is that regardless of how fine-tuned your crowd-reading skills are, what is in this article will help you to make considerably better song choices anyway.

Tip: I often leave the DJ booth and go and stand in the crowd and ask myself: “What would I want to hear right now?” It can be a good way of getting yourself back on the crowd’s wavelength if you think you’ve lost them a bit.

What normally works

We don’t have to over-complicate this, so first, I’m going to list the things that, 80% of the time, will lead to you choosing an awesome song to play next. Afterwards, I’ll list lots of other ideas for those times when you’re still not sure.

  • Trust your instinct – Don’t overthink this! You probably already have a great idea of what to play next. So whatever you’re thinking, try that first. It’s probably the right choice
  • Play something you know goes well next (because you’ve practised it, or done it before) – Could be from your mini playlists, could be from one of your mix practice recordings, could be a mix you did at the same venue the week before… just go with what you know works
  • Play something where elements in each track match – Could be two tracks with a similar rhythm, similar instrument (pianos, saxophone), similar vocals (type, or the lyrics), or a particular sound or sample. Again, your mini-playlists should already contain tracks you’ve already spotted that are like this
  • Play something of a similar BPM, genre or key – Or, indeed, all three. Tracks that are similar will keep the vibe going on the dancefloor and move you smoothly to your next transition choice
  • Alternate between vocals and instrumentals – If you’re playing an instrumental, play a vocal, or vice versa. Vocals appeal to crowds in different ways than instrumentals, so play both
  • Alternate between known and not so well-known tracks – Stay on the same vibe, but play something more well-known, or less famous. Again, crowds often like to hear a mixture of stuff they know and don’t
  • Play a track by the same remixer, but by a different artist or vocalist – This can keep the vibe going, but introduce variety, especially when you tie it in with the previous point. Conversely, you could play a different remix of the same artist (or even the same track)

Other things to try

At certain times, there are other tricks you can employ to keep your crowds happy. These aren’t things you’ll do all the time, but they are nonetheless usually effective:

  • Play something completely different – Sometimes, hitting “hard reset” can be an awesome thing to do mid-set. The crowd may just be a bit bored, and need shaking up. The worst that can happen is that you get it wrong and have to return to the previous vibe, but done well, this can really invigorate your dancefloor. Ask yourself: “What ‘completely different’ song is instinct telling me may work?”
  • Play a hit – Or at least, a track you know for a fact will fill your dancefloor. Nothing wrong with doing this. Indeed, most DJs have a “rescue the dancefloor” selection they keep to one side exactly for this purpose. You may even keep a “get out of jail” track loaded on deck 3 or 4, for “emergencies”…
  • Move the energy level up (or down) – DJs shouldn’t play at the same energy level all night. Too low can be boring, too high can tire people out. So vary things up. Deliberately move the energy up a bit if you think your crowd is ready for it. Equally, towards the end of a long night, deliberately lowering the energy can invigorate the floor and get people smiling again
  • When warming up, play to the people who are dancing – May only be one person, or a small group. Ask yourself, “what may they like to hear next?” Get them on board, and their enthusiasm will be infectious and help you to fill the floor
  • Conversely, when playing to a full dancefloor, play to the people at the edges – So you’ve already got the mass in the middle on board. What can you play to involve those who aren’t dancing? “Rotating” your dancefloor this way will keep it busier for longer
  • Play anything! – Look sometimes, you just have to get some music playing. Could be after a system crash, a power cut, after accidentally hitting “stop”, when the current track unexpectedly ends, whatever. Or, you’re just completely lost as to what to play next as the clock ticks down. So just play anything. You may be surprised at how well a random choice goes down!

I’ve turned the above into a simple checklist and worksheet that you can print out. You could even tuck it next to your decks to help jog your memory when you’re worrying about what to play next – a great thing to do until these points become instinctive:

Click here to download your free “Next Song” Checklist & Worksheet.

 

Why making mistakes is not always bad…

Back in 2010 I interviewed New York DJ duo AndrewAndrew, who told me this story:
“Once we accidentally hit the ‘stop’ button. Packed club, weekend crowd, peak time. Everything went dead. In our hurry to put something on, we played Nina Simone’s ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’. Remember, it was peak time in a New York night club, people were hanging from the rafters. We were like: ‘Now we’ve got your attention, here’s Nina Simone!’

“It’s what happened next that made it, though. We played an old Technotronic record [80s Belgian pop/house] out of Nina Simone and discovered this awesome mash-up – the bass line is right in key and just bubbles along excellently under the Nina Simone track. The place exploded! Those two records are now inextricably linked in our collection, but it all came from a mistake.”

A lesson of this story is: Don’t worry if you just have to throw anything on, or you’re not really sure what to pay next. Trust your instinct, take a risk or two, and something good may well come from it.

How To Do It Technically

For many beginner DJs, just being able to mix from one track to another is hard enough, and so it becomes the only goal.

But dancefloors don’t care about that.

They want the right record, for right now. More experienced DJs know that that is the first job of a DJ – the mixing comes second.

If you want to become the kind of DJ who always not only knows what to play next but actually has the balls to do it, you need to flip your thinking. Right song first, figure out a way to mix it next.

Getting into this mindset can be challenging, so here I’m going to offer you a general set of tips to help you shift your thinking, and then some specific technical tips to help you when transitioning.

Ways to make the job easier

  • Start and end each set with a practised mini-mix – I’m not advising you to “play a recording”, but practise and then perform a pre-prepared first two or three tunes. You’ll be nervous enough as it is, so “bed in” to your set with something you’ve figured out beforehand. And if you want to end your set with a guaranteed bang, there’s nothing wrong with practising your final transition or two, too
  • Use your software or DJ system’s “prepare” crate/playlist – “Prepare” playlists are temporary playlists that you can populate with tracks you’re pretty sure you want to play very shortly. They’re the digital equivalent of half-pulling tracks out of a record box. Quickly flicking through your playlists and adding a handful of tracks to a prepare crate is a great way to manage your DJ set. Tracks in prepare crates automatically disappear from them once played, too
  • Load the first song you think may work, immediately – Don’t fall into the trap of searching and searching for the perfect song to play next, right up until you’ve got 30 seconds left on the current song, and nothing loaded yet! Load the very first song that you find that is half suitable to play next: You can always load a better one if you find one a minute or two later
  • Be aware of when a song is right, but not for right now – Often there’s a track you know you want to play – but just because you aim to play it at some point in the set, doesn’t mean you should play it immediately. Try and recognise when this is the case, and instead of playing it immediately, work your way toward playing it in a few tracks’ time
  • Don’t be scared to quickly mix out of a song that isn’t working – DJs do this all the time. It’s no big deal. No point waiting if you know the song you mixed in isn’t suitable
  • Cultivate a “good transition face” – Always look like you “mean it”. DJing is about the transfer of energy from DJ booth to dancefloor, so if you’re unsure about a transition (or even if you’re actively beating yourself up about it on the inside), fake the smile – it’ll smooth the rough edges of your DJ set, every time

Tips for smoother transitions

When you’re playing what you know is right for the crowd (rather than what you simply know you can mix), the way you play will change. That’s fine! Here are tips on how to approach this bolder way of DJing:

  • Always, always get the timing right – If you respect the beats, bars and phrasing of your music, you can get away with pretty much anything. Dancers want the downbeats to line up, they want you to switch songs where it makes sense to, and that’s pretty much it. When it comes to your DJing technique, they don’t really care for much else. Instead, it’s what you play next that really concerns them
  • Only mix when you can – Often, long, drawn-out beatmixes won’t be possible. That’s 100% cool. When you can do them and they make sense, do them – but don’t ever think you have to DJ this way. It simply isn’t important. Get cleanly and unobtrusively from one track to the next. Job done
  • Use DJ edits and remixes – DJ edits and remixes are your firm friends, because they come tuned for your dancefloor, with dancer-friendly rhythms, intro and outro beats to make it easier to mix with them, acapella versions, short mixes, clean mixes and more. In short, you need these versions. Join a DJ download pool such as BPM Supreme, DJcity or zipDJ and pack your collection with these
  • Use loops – I could list all the amazing features of modern DJ gear, but loops are the big one. Looping parts of tracks where there are just drums gives you an easy way to mix them into other tracks. (If you want to learn all the secrets of mixing “anything into anything”, a good place to start would be our Mixing Power Skills course, or if you’re predominantly a house DJ, our House Mixing Mastery course)
  • Transition in key – Keymixing has helped DJs tremendously with more adventurous transitions in recent years, so make sure you know how to do this. Equally though, know when you don’t have to: If one track is just drums, keymixing is not necessary. If you’re playing tracks end-to-end, again, it isn’t necessary – although you may still want to do it

 

As you grow your skillset as a DJ, you’ll find more ways to make transitions between any given two songs, but you’ll never develop those skills if you play it safe and simply play something you know you can mix next, rather than the track you know you ought to play next.

Remember, all of this information is summarised in an “easy to print and keep with you” format: Click here to download your free “Next Song” Checklist & Worksheet.

 

How To Improve Your Ability To Always Pick The Right Track Next

So how can we accelerate this process? Now you know how to prepare your music, prepare for your gigs, choose the next song, and transition to it, how can we move you more towards being an expert at this?

That’s what the fourth and final part of this article is all about. I have six tips for you to help you get better at this, fast:

  • Have a much smaller music collection – Build your collection slowly, and really know every track. Having 1,000 tracks is no good if you don’t know them like you know your own children! In fact, it’s an active hindrance. So cull. The best DJs work with small collections that they know inside out
  • Think about “telling a story” with your DJ sets – Give them a beginning, a middle, and an end. This way of thinking trickles down into your individual song choices, because effectively you can play three “mini-sets” (a beginning, a middle, and an end set). And guess what? Each of those can have a “beginning, middle and end” too. So your transition choices become much less random
  • Set yourself transition practice drills – Try and mix, say, 20 tunes at random. You could do this two ways. Pick 20 tracks (tunes you’ve never played, newest tunes, all tunes in one genre, whatever) and figure out a way to weave them together coherently. Or, force yourself to mix them together in the order they come in. The first drill teaches you set programming, the second forces you to practise your transitioning techniques
  • Have a “collection swap” evening with a DJ friend – You play from their collection, they play from yours. They’ll usually pull out tracks you don’t typically play, and they’ll make transitions you wouldn’t ordinarily spot. And when it’s your turn to mix with their collection, you’ll do the same favour for them
  • Watch other DJs and how crowds react to them – When do they stick with one style and when do they change? How often do they play popular tracks versus less well-known tracks? Why do you think they make the choices they do? What do you like, and what don’t you like about the way they programme their sets?
  • Play in public as often as you can – Remember at the start of the “How To Choose What To Play Next” section, I spoke about reading the crowd, and about how this is learned from experience? Playing in public is how you get that experience. Ultimately, DJing is a dance between the DJ and the crowd. That’s one reason why as a beginner, it is important not to be too choosy about your gigs, and just play out as often as you can

Click here to download your free “Next Song” Checklist & Worksheet that contains all of these tips in a printable form.

Finally…

I hope you now see that when a DJ appears to be completely on top of his or her game, tunes flying onto the decks, crowd lapping it all up, it’s really just an illusion. What’s really going on is a combination of preparation, planning and experience, all blending together to give the impression of complete control.

But the DJ isn’t really in complete control. They are, instead, making educated guesses about what will work, based on all the things I’ve written about in this article – the things you can’t spot just by watching them play. And most of the time, it works! But not always, even for the best DJs.

So my final point is: Don’t be afraid of failing. We learn more from our mistakes than our successes. If a DJ drops a tune that half the crowd doesn’t like, none of us judges the DJ there and then – we just wait until they bring it around again in a tune or two. No big deal.

Bottom line: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Ultimately, we can all learn the technical skills of DJing, but the job of knowing what to play next is the more important one. Plus, it’s never-ending, and none of us ever gets it right all the time. Instead, treat it as a fascinating part of DJing, accept that you’ll never fully be perfect at it (but that you’ll usually have most of the people on board, most of the time)… and enjoy the journey!

Last updated 13 April, 2021

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