How To Pick Songs For A DJ Set

Last updated 15 March, 2022

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Digital DJ Tips student Montrell writes: “How do you pick songs for a set? A rather simple question, but I overthink the process a lot.”

It is indeed a fundamental question, precisely because it is probably the single most important question for DJs.

Montrell asked this question over in our StudentHub private Facebook Group, and here I’ll share some of the advice he received from our student community.

Let’s start with Noel, who writes:

“Questlove’s formula from his memoir is 6/2 or 7/3. Meaning after lots of experimentation and playing for loads of different crowds in different countries, he’s found playing six familiar/hits/bangers (or of the same energy) then two unfamiliar/new/deep cuts (mellow energy or even higher energy) works best. Or you can do seven then three. See whichever combo works best for that particular crowd.

No clue what to play next? Take a page out of Questlove’s book: Drop 6 or 7 big hits, follow it with a couple less familiar tracks, then play another section of well-known stuff, and build your set from there.

“I’ve experimented with this a lot over the past four years with my usual three to four DJ gigs per week and it’s always a surefire way to guarantee you win the trust of the crowd. Just remember in a bar gig or where your whole income is based on percentage of bar sales you make it a habit of sending people to the bar at least every 45 min or every hour and 20/30ish.

“Lately I’ve noticed if people are really dancing and going all out they’ll start to go to the bar/outside for a smoke/chill and sit down every 30 min or so. So ideally you would want enough attendees to fill the dancefloor AND the bar so when people leave to rest/get a drink you won’t be left with an empty dancefloor.

Read this next: How To Fill Dancefloors & Keep Them Busy All Night

“Remember you’ve got to do the work and dig/find out/take notes of other DJs who play what you want to play to learn what the heaters are for any particular genre/culture/demographic/area.

“It helps when you have a community of weekly working DJs that you are good friends with. Usually in the midst of hanging out at gigs and tequila shots we’ll share stories about which tracks and combos worked best for which crowds, and even when to stop playing certain songs since they’re already ‘played out’ and the party people are over it.”

Selina writes:

“I’ll start a new crate in Serato, and go through my main library (as in the 2,000 or so tracks that I’ve really tagged, named cues, etc) and drop anything that might work into the crate for a first go.

“Then I’ll either mix a bit, or autoplay through the crate both to vibe check and make sure any tracks I’m on the fence about might work, and also inspiration for other songs that I might want to dig out of the less-sorted archives and clean up.

Picking songs for a DJ set begins with knowing your music – really well. Make sure you’re regularly discovering, shortlisting, buying, and organising your DJ library.

“If I’m on the go or it’s a specific theme gig a ways off, I’ll start a Spotify/YouTube playlist and go on a recommendation tangent. Later I’ll check it against my crates to find any new songs I want to add.

“I don’t pre-plan the mix, maybe a couple songs I want to open with and I’ve got some favourite ‘leave it in their ears’ closing tracks, but otherwise you can only predict what a night will need.

“For a three to four hour gig, I generally aim for something like 250 to 400 songs that I can sift through as the event flows, and then I’ll usually keep my main library playlists ready in case I need to pivot or forgot to grab something.”

Free download: Rock The Dancefloor! The Proven Five-Step Formula For Total DJing Success

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Martin writes:

“First ask, what’s your target audience? Are they 70s, 80s, 90s kids? Maybe they love the 50s? Play something they’ll tap their feet to. Play something they’ll sing along to. Play something they will shuffle their feet to. Play something they’ll jump up and dance to.

“Next thing you know, it doesn’t matter what you play, they’re up and they’re having fun. Doesn’t matter what genre, doesn’t matter what decade. Play the crowd and you’ll automatically ‘know’ what they want next.

“Of course, if you’re asking for a club environment, now that’s a different ball game…”

As best you can, get to know the crowd you’ll be playing to – What ages are they? What music are they into?

Brent writes:

“Don’t get too concerned about sequencing or how you’re going to mix it, as it’ll all change once you start reacting to your dancefloor. Perhaps put together a mini set of three to five tunes to get you started and practise mixing these. Once you’ve played this you should have a good idea of what your dancefloor wants next and then go with your instincts and the flow.

Read this next: How DJs Always Know What Song To Play Next (Without Ever Panicking)

“As for mixing, depending on genre and structure, not every song has to be beatmatched. You can prep by adding cues where you have options to start and get out of the song – I generally give myself around two options to start (with intro or straight into a verse, drop or breakdown) and the option to get out of the song early for quick mixing and where I want to mix if I want to play longer.”

And finally, Nick’s advice is short and sweet:

“Play the hits!”

What’s your best advice for picking songs for your DJ sets? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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