Get your free pack of printable keymixing charts: Click here
Mixing in key, or “harmonic mixing”, is one of the big advantages of digital DJing (alongside easy access to infinite music, and how cheap amazing DJ systems are nowadays).
With harmonic mixing, though, there is something that you can actually hear, that improves the experience of mixed music for both DJ and audience, and that for the first time, is accessible to all, not just to the musically trained.
But what is harmonic mixing, exactly? Why is it such a big leap forwards for DJs? And how should the average DJ with little or no musical experience go about using it in his or her DJ sets? That’s what we’ll cover in this article.
By the end of the article, you’ll know exactly how to go about incorporating harmonic mixing in your DJ sets, whatever your level of DJing, for amazing results.
And don’t worry, I’ll keep it simple, and free of unnecessary jargon. All you need is your ears!
The Ultimate Guide To Keymixing For DJs – Contents
Harmonic mixing, or “mixing in key”, describes mixing tracks together where the musical elements – basslines, chords, melodies, vocals and so on – are “in key” with each other. They “match”. They sound good together musically. This is because they use largely the same musical notes as each other.
The best way to hear this is to hear something where the elements are NOT in key. As a fun example, take a listen to this. It’s “Africa” by Toto, and the vocals are one note “off” – one note out of key (and for good measure, they’re a beat out of step too, but that needn’t concern us here):
You notice it immediately, right? It doesn’t take a musical genius to spot if something’s in key or not – if it isn’t, it’s abundantly clear. Which brings us to our first big lesson:
To mix in key, you don’t need to be musically trained – you just need to trust your ears!
Vinyl DJs from years gone by just “knew” if two records went together well or not, and when they discovered those rare pairings that just seemed to fit perfectly, they guarded them, using them pretty much in every set they could!
Software can tell us the musical key of our tracks easily
It can also tell us the key of our tracks in a way which means we can easily “match” them to other tracks without having any musical knowledge
It can also “fix” the key of our tracks, so when we alter the speed (tempo), the key (pitch) remains the same. And finally a recent development…
It can allow us to alter the key of our tracks (pitch) WITHOUT altering the speed (tempo)
This all means that with modern DJ systems, we can easily spot tracks that are in the same or a compatible musical key that will probably mix well together, we can alter their speeds to beatmix them without affecting their key, in a way you couldn’t do with vinyl “back in the day” – and if two tracks don’t match, we can actually change the key of one or both of them, in order to make them match!
Result? Smooth-sounding DJ sets, where the musical elements all line up, and your tracks sound great together. This means we can mix more adventurously, “overlapping” more of our tracks when transitioning, with them still sounding good together. It also means we can more easily incorporate elements such as acapellas, to make exciting live remixes.
The 3 steps to keymixing
To do all of this, we need to follow these steps:
“Analyse” our music to add musical key information to the tracks
Know how to spot which tracks are likely to mix well with each other in our collections
Understand how to lock the key on our software or DJ systems, and even how to “shift” or “sync” musical key to make tracks that ordinarily aren’t in a similar key work well together
So let’s look at each of these elements, one at a time. In order to do so, though, we need to understand what musical key is, and how DJ systems simplify it to make it understandable to everyone.
Understanding musical key
If you have musical training, I make no apologies for keeping this simple. This is written for everyone else, and I am aware I’m simplifying things. It’s sufficient for DJs to do this, though, and that’s the important thing.
There are only 12 musical notes. After that, they repeat, just higher or lower. Every track has a “root” note, or “starting” note. For instance, it may have its root note as the musical note called “E”.
A track will also be in what we call a “minor” or “major” key. For the record, most dance music is in a minor key (“driving”, “yearning”, even slightly menacing sounding), whereas most nursery rhymes, for instance, are in a major key (jolly, “twee”-sounding).
So with a starting note of “E”, the “major” key version is “E major” (shortened to “Emaj” or just “E”), and the minor key version is E minor (“Emin” or “Em”).
So that gives us 24 possible keys.
They can actually be represented on a wheel like this, which shows us how they are related:
This wheel is actually super useful, because it arranges the different musical keys in a way that puts those that are likely to mix well together next to each other. Similar musical keys share a “side” of their slices with each other.
Download your free keymixing chart graphics pack: Click here
So with a track in the key of Em, you’ll see it is on the inside of the wheel, at the 2 o’clock position, and will likely mix well with tracks in the keys of Am, Bm and G, because their sides are”touching”.
(There is also a strong relationship between it and the “diagonal” tracks, too, in this case C and D – more on that later.)
But how is a DJ meant to remember all of that for all 24 keys? And what’s with all the “b” and “#” symbols anyway? This musical notation is confusing, right?
The good news is that you don’t need to remember any of that. Because for DJs, this wheel has been reimagined into a system called “Camelot” – same idea, simpler numbering/lettering Here it is:
Let’s look at that inner 2 o’clock “slice” of the wheel again, 2A. It is touching 1A, 3A, and 2B.
That’s telling us that a track that is in the key of “2A” is likely to work with a track with an adjacent number, as long as the letter stays the same (1A or 3A), or a track with the “other” letter, as long as the number stays the same (2B). Of course, it will also likely work with any tracks that share the same key (2A).
With this system, we don’t even need the wheel within sight – we just follow these rules, looking for something to play next that is the same (2A), where just the number changes (1A, 3A) or where just the letter changes (2B).
Get this chart to print out and pin up: Click here
Camelot vs OpenKey
“Camelot” is a licensed system, and so there are restrictions on who can use it. Traktor software, for instance, doesn’t use this system – it uses something called “OpenKey”.
Don’t worry though – it is still numbers and letters, but they use “m” and “d” instead of “A” and “B”, and the numbers don’t represent the same actual musical keys as with Camelot. Other than that it is exactly the same. With Traktor, a track in 2m matches 1m and 3m, and also matches 2d.
This chart is included in our pack of downloadable, printable keymixing graphics: Click here to get it
Just remember not to “mix” the systems – have all your tracks analysed in one or the other.
So now we know all of this, we need to analyse our tracks to get that info to hand for all of them, and set up our DJ system to let us mix in key successfully. Let’s look at how to do that.
1. Analyse your tracks & display the key in DJ notation
When you add your music to your DJ software, it either automatically “analyses” it, or it offers to. One of the things it analyses is the musical key, which is then recorded against each track. So make sure this happens.
Also, in your software’s settings, there may be a setting that lets you choose which type of “notation” the key is shown in – choose one of the DJ notations, Camelot or OpenKey, if it is not already set to one of these.
This info can be shown to you in a column within your music library, so you can make use of it. Make sure you set your software up so that the key shows.
You can then “sort” by musical key in your library or playlists by clicking the top of the key column. Doing this will put all of the tracks in number and letter order (1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 3A etc.) so you can easily see tracks in the same or a nearby key.
Keymixing was popularised by Mixed In Key – standalone software to do the analysis bit. But nowadays, all DJ software has key analysis built in. So which should you use?
You should start by using your DJ software. That said, Mixed In Key does offer further features, and is highly regarded for its accuracy. So if you get heavily into keymixing, you may want to consider it.
Talking of accuracy, no software is 100% accurate. The important thing is to always use the same software – don’t mix up Mixed In Key results with Serato results with Rekordbox results, etc. As long as all your music is analysed with the same software, you’ll get great results, because if it is “wrong”, at least it’ll be consistently so!
2. “Lock” the key of your tracks
As soon as you speed up or slow down a track, its “pitch” changes. As this changes the “starting note” of the track either up or down, it also alters the key of the track. So it “breaks” any key matching you may be doing between two tracks in the mix. That’s where “key lock” comes in.
Key lock, or “Master Tempo” in Pioneer DJ parlance, is a way of telling your DJ system that when you speed up or slow down your track, it shouldn’t allow the pitch to go higher or lower. In other words, it should “lock” the key. For keymixing, you need this switched on.
Find the button – it may be on your controller, or you may have to click it on the screen of your software. Once it’s on, it will stay on – you don’t need to set it every time you load a new track, as it is set on the deck for the duration of your DJ session.
Once you’ve analysed your music, locked the key, and organised your music so that you can easily see tracks that are in the same or a compatible key, you’re ready to keymix!
How to mix in key
This isn’t a lesson on how to mix, but nonetheless it is worth remembering that keymixing only really makes sense where the tracks you are mixing contain musical information at the point where you’re mixing them.
For instance, many DJs only transition using drums. They wait until there are just drums going on in a track, then mix another track in when it, too, is just drums.
But in this instance, there is no “musical information”. Drums don’t have a musical key, as they are not really musical “notes” – they’re atonal. So it doesn’t matter whether those tracks are in the same or a compatible key – nobody will notice either way!
If you’re going to mix in key, you need to be more adventurous than that. You want overlapping musical information.
Now, for the sake of simplicity let’s say a track has three potential musical “elements” – vocals, melody, and bassline. What you’re looking for is to match those elements up, so there is only one of each going on, in order that they complement each other.
So if you have a track that has a bassline playing, mix in another track that has a melody playing, or a vocal (or both).
If you have a track that has a bassline and vocal in it, at the point of transitioning, try mixing in a track where the bassline is playing.
By matching up the elements, as long as those tracks are in the same or a compatible key, the chances are high that it will sound awesome – you’re harmonically mixing, and it will instantly sound musical.
Mixing in key vs changing key
In forums and subreddits, you’ll often come across DJs sharing their theories of how best to use the Camelot Wheel for keymixing. They’ll say things like “I get good results mixing across the wheel” and “to change key, mix up or down by X number of tiles” and so on.
There is often certain merit in what they’re saying, but that is not what the Camelot Wheel is primarily for, or what this article is about.
This article is about what to do when you want to “overlap” two tracks, and have the musical information in both tracks sound good when played at the same time. For that, the only “right” way to use the Camelot wheel is exactly as we’re describing here.
Remember, the Camelot Wheel is an adaptation of the Circle of Fifths, an established musicians’ tool designed for this purpose. It jettisons any pretence of showing the keys in “note” order, to instead show those that work harmonically together.
So 2A is NOT a note “higher” than 1A, and it is NOT a note “lower” than 3A. It’s important you remember this when trying to understand such discussions.
But what if you do want to “change” key? Well, many years ago one of our students made a graphic that shows you what key on the Camelot Wheel you’d move to if you were to move up or down by one or two notes – we named it “Ferdinand’s Strip” after him. Here it is:
So for a key of 2 (A or B), if you moved it down a note it’d be 7, up a note it’d be 9, down 2 notes it’d be 12, up 2 notes it’d be 4.
This can be a useful thing to have, so we’ve included it in the downloadable, printable key graphics handout.
If we were giving this lesson just a few years ago (as indeed we did, many times), this is where it would end. We’d say that you should not always try to mix in key, because of the 24 possible keys, only four are compatible, so the chances are the track you want to play next won’t be in the same key. We’d say “don’t be a slave to keymixing – use it sparingly and enjoy the results when it makes sense”.
But then two things came together to change all that. We call the result of this “Fuzzy Keymixing”, and if you want to take keymixing to the next level, you need to be doing this!
We have a full article on Fuzzy Keymixing that you can read here, but in short, this is what happened:
We realised that the Camelot “rule” (only mix into tiles on the wheel that share a “side”) was unnecessarily limiting
“Key shift” technologies appeared in DJ software (where you can change the pitch, or key, without changing the tempo)
You see, it turns out that if you mix diagonally (ie to a tile adjacent but where only the corners are touching), it’s likely to work too. This is because those keys, too, contain many of the same musical notes as the starting key.
This means a 2A track will not only likely mix into 1A, 3A and 2B, but into 1B and 3B as well. Or, to put it another way, you can disregard the letter entirely – ANY “2” track will likely work with ANY 1 or 3 track! That gives six potential musical key matches out of 24, instead of 4.
We then realised that by “key shifting” (moving a track up or down using the functions in most DJ software and some hardware nowadays), all you need to do is move your incoming track up or down a maximum of two notes, and its number will ALWAYS match the other track.
(This is important, because when “key shifting” tracks, you really want them to stay as close as possible to their original key so they don’t go too high or low.)
Result: You can, potentially, mix any track into any other track, in key, and have it sound great!
Find the key shift feature on your software (nearly all software has it) or your hardware (currently Engine DJ systems can do this, plus the Pioneer DJ CDJ-3000s)
When you’re preparing a next track to mix in, shift its key up and down by one then two notes, keeping an eye on the key readout – one of the four options will contain the same number in its key readout – remember, we’re disregarding the letter. Leave it set to that key for mixing
That’s it. No need anymore to worry about whether the next track can be mixed in a compatible key – it always can!
Why not use “key sync”?
You may have noticed your DJ system has a “key sync” feature on it. Don’t use it. The reason is that these systems use the “four potential matching keys” rules, not the “six potential matching keys” rule that we shared above. In doing so, they often move tracks way too far from their original key for them to sound any good.
The only key sync function on DJ hardware that follows our Fuzzy Keymixing rules is that on the Pioneer DJ CDJ-3000 players (kudos to Pioneer DJ), so if you’re DJing on these, key sync should usually give you good results.
Even then, bear in mind that when you key shift or sync to move the key of some songs by just two notes up or down, they may still sound too far from the original to work – it’s usually with well-known vocal tracks that this happens. Just learn to trust your ears on this.
Mixing in key presents a huge development in DJing, and you should definitely play with it. It can be particularly useful for livestreams and for recorded DJ mixes, where you have time to plan a mix, and where you’re not reacting to the crowd in front of you when deciding what to play next.
Don’t forget your free pack of printable keymixing charts: Click here
Just remember that it is a “tool, not a rule” – there are great DJs and great DJ sets that don’t obey keymixing rules, and your ultimate job as a DJ is to play the right music, for the people in front of you, right now – that trumps everything.
Have fun keymixing, and do ask questions and share your thoughts below – we’re here to help.
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Phil Morse is the founder of Digital DJ Tips. His DJ career has taken him from a 15-year residency in Manchester, England, to the main room at Privilege in Ibiza - the world's biggest club. He is also an award-winning club promoter, and has taught music tech and DJing since 2010. He regularly speaks at DJ seminars and events worldwide.
Last updated 16 December, 2021
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