The “Secrets” of DJing: Lesson 1

Now and then, random aspiring DJs ask me if I can teach them the secret to my DJing techniques. “I just want to see what you do, look at your technique”, is the typical phrase they use. Every time my response is the same. The technique is the easiest part of DJing – and it would be a waste of our time for me to guide them through something they can read in a manual. Where I could be of help though, is to teach them about intuition, and the psychology behind what I do. I believe these “soft skills” of understanding the room and knowing how and when to apply the right selection are crucial to being a superb DJ. Yet when I explain this they back off, they believe that DJing is about physical techniques or “hard skills” (beatmatching, cutting, efx, etc). I will take this opportunity to explain more about the soft skills of intuition and empathy that bring DJing to another level and how I began to understand their importance. More after the break.

 

The intuitive process of the DJ

The dancefloor was packed with dancing people and the room was vibrant and intense – but within a blink of an eye I just knew that I was about to lose a big part of the floor. I had two choices – I could either accept the fact that something needed to be done or let this hint from my unconsciousness pass and see what would happen. I chose the latter – at that time I was more curious to see if my gut feeling was right, than keeping the floor packed.

What I am describing here is an example of a concept called adaptive unconscious as it relates to inference. It is int he field of cognitive psychology, and is essentially the study of decision-making based on inductive reasoning. Before we jump into the world of snap judgment in the DJ/club arena, let me give you insight from a study in the field.

Scientists in Iowa set up a simple experiment, based around a basic card game. Four decks of cards, 2 red and 2 blue. The player would win and lose money by drawing cards from these 4 decks. The participants didn’t know that the blue cards were better (for winning) than the red cards, but after approximately 50 draws most participants would start to prefer the blue – and after 80 cards most people had figured out the game and could explain why blue cards were better than red. They had developed a theory or conclusion based on observation – that is how learning works. The scientists also did something else. They hooked each participant up to a machine that measured the activity of the sweat glands below the skin in the palms of their hands. Like most of our sweat glands, those under our palms react to stress as well as temperature. The researchers found that the participants started to show stress symptoms after only 10 cards – 40 cards before they started to change their behavior and 70 before they developed a conscious theory.

Some people call it intuition, or sixth sense, and many of us probably don’t even have a name for it. “I just knew” or “I just felt that…” we would say. Giving it a name can be hard, but the real challenge comes when you try to rationalize upon your decision. Why did you go down that path and what gave you the courage to believe in yourself – and of course – how can you train this subconscious ability to make the right decision every time.

A couple of years ago I began meditating over my experiences in comprehending and reading the floor, in an attempt to become more aware of how and why I had a fairly good ability to understand and react to the situation on the floor. I started digging into my past, all the way back to my early “just starting to go out” years in Copenhagen, Denmark. I was around 16 when I started hitting the clubs (this is perfectly normal in Denmark) and interestingly enough I went alone 9 out of 10 times. I liked going out alone to clubs, bars, discos – not that I didn’t have close friends or friendly acquaintances – but I was a bit of a loner. I was an observer – a fly on the wall kind of guy, always there to watch, listen, and learn. I wasn’t lonely and I felt very comfortable walking into a club alone, and have always had an easy time blending in with very different crowds ranging from the hardcore metal scene to the cosmopolitan jet-set milieu. I had the ability to disarm the most aggressive personalities because I really saw through the layers of anger and into their hurt minds and souls. Without realizing it, I was training my ability to read and understand body language, facial expressions, subtle gestures and the talk people talk when they are actually saying something else. The music was not linked to my observations yet and I had not even started DJing yet (my first gig was in a small RnB club 3 years later). I was an observer – sucking in whatever signs and cues came at me, and I have never stopped. I still spend a lot of time alone in clubs observing, analyzing, recognizing patterns and feeling. Though the purpose is somewhat different now than it used to be – today my main focus is obviously how the floor/crowd reacts to the music.

Maybe I should mention that most of my observation time is spent sober – not that I don’t drink, but I feel that I best absorb the world in a sober state. I realized that the time I spent training my senses, all the way back from my teenage years, is one of my biggest forces as a DJ. And I have since tried to advance it by meticulously focusing my energy on training those abilities and rationalizing over my observations. It’s like learning a language.

Becoming a better DJ

So, how would I advise the aspiring DJ to grow these skills? Stay sober, keep sharp and train by yourself or with other DJs that you can team up with. Listen to your inner voices – try to predict the future by listening to your inner voices. Combine your subjective awareness with a rational breakdown of your observations. Try to link your rational thinking mind with your subconscious processing of the ambiance in the room and the clues your brain is receiving and processing. Here are some of the obvious things I would look for: Is the music too loud, or too low. Is the tempo right, is the music dark, soulful, cold, light, perhaps aggressive, and how do these attributes affect the room.

Some of the more subtle yet complex things might be: Are those 3 girls on the dancefloor in 2 inch stilettos, swaying almost to the rhythm of the music because they like the music, or are they here because someone told them that this was the hippest club in town, or are they simply waiting for the music to take a more soulful angle. And are the stilettos they are all wearing simply an inherent sign of the corporate party they were forced to attend before entering the club – which are now just inhibiting the 3 used-to-be-ravers from dancing wild?

And how about that guy dancing all animated. Was that look he just sent around the floor a sign of him slowly losing his attention in the music or was he just checking that his friend hadn’t left him. And what if he was actually losing his attention in the music, how would you react? Would a bit of dynamic EQ or maybe some effect alterations draw his attention back to the music, is he waiting for you to pull out the prime-time tracks? The options are many, but the more you practice to recognize these cues, signs and patterns – the better your subconscious will be able to process them next time your are behind the decks. All it takes is a few glimpses or scans of the dance floor and you will know what is going on in the room, and you will free up processing power in your brain so that you can make better selection decisions.

The shortcut

If you want to improve fast then mentor-ship is a powerful way to bolster your intuition. The mentor should be talking through their thought process and explaining their reasoning – why does he/she think that this particular cue or sign is telling him/her something. Hopefully it will tell you something about the situation that you did not already understand. I have had a few good mentors in my life who absolutely have been important in helping me develop these skills by explaining their thought processes. Thinking out loud is a great way to share the intuitive process that is going on in the mind – it works much better than any attempt to write it down.
The mentor should teach the novice how to access situations through the process of asking questions and listening to the answers.

Finding a good mentor is not easy, they should have empathy and good communication skills, and it should be someone who sincerely wants to help. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I have been asked to mentor aspiring DJs quite a few times by now – and I always find it interesting to see how little attention these aspiring DJs pay to the intuitive side of DJing. Their main focus is typically of technical character and how to get jobs. Even when I explain the importance of the intuitive process of DJing, the technical side takes over their focus.

I hope that this post has cast some light on the importance of training your intuition as a DJ. Please share your thoughts on the matter, I would love to hear your ideas on how to enhance intuition.

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Ps. If you want some background music while you read or comment, grab a free mixset here:

20 Comments

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The “Secrets” of DJing: Lesson 1 | Peter Munch -- Topsy.com

  2. rndmfktr
    July 2, 2010 at 12:58 pm · Reply

    That’s a great feature and I’m really looking forward to the series. As a DJ, I am still working on my technical skills and have near to zero club experience. I enjoy going out clubbing though, and – like you – most of the time I venture out alone and stay away from alcohol.

    I find the DJ/dance floor relationship to be a symbiotic, synergistic one. One can’t live without the other and it totals out to be more than the sum of its parts. There’s this argument whether “crowd leading” or “crowd reading” is the way to work a dance floor. This is not easy to answer, sort of a hen-egg question. Of course the DJ – armed with sonic power – is in charge of the night. If this power is directed the wrong way though, mediocrity or – in worst case – disaster will ensue. How to choose the right direction then? Gut feeling? Where does this feeling come from? Personal experience or the clubbers’ collective unconscious?

    Discussing “crowd reading” often leads DJs to dismiss the raving audience as a wasted, music-ignorant bunch that isn’t worth paying any attention to. And granted, some people will eat everything you gonna serve them. But this exchange happening between floor and DJ is not an intellectual, but a spiritual one. Understanding the breathing, sweating, cheering,… organism that is your dance floor is not essential to make it as a DJ. But it is essential to become an outstanding DJ.

  3. rndmfktr
    July 2, 2010 at 1:04 pm · Reply

    Whoopsie, this article was featured on RA today and I didn’t realize you wrote it back in April. Still hoping that you’ll continue to share your thoughts on this matter.

  4. Isaac - Pidanha
    July 2, 2010 at 3:02 pm · Reply

    Gread read! Fully enjoyed it and even felt related to what you are saying, been Djing for 4 years now and even though i already had a bit of the perception, it broaded up my mind in every way, whether im Djing or not at a club/party im always aware of the music and my surroundings, no matter what my taste in music is, if i dont feel confortable is probable that taking a look around i will see some odd faces in the crowd, most of them wont care at the time, but slowly, one or two songs later, if it doesnt improve, then they will start leaving the dancefloor, get a drink, got sit for a while, hit on that girl in the bar, because nothing is pulling them towards the dancefloor!

    Its not only about how the people react to the music, you can tell almost everything, those girls over there want to dance it up and meet guys, that mixed grupo wants to chill, have a drink and a good time, that guy over there is waiting to make a move and many many other stories going on in the club, and you putting and adequate soundtrack to those stories is your true job, i’ve even seen mood changes in the bartenders when the music is anoying or if they are truly enyoing it… Always be watching people, you’ll eventually start to understand whats going on with them and that will give you extreme advantage on what you give them in return through music, and if you did the right move… They will always give back even more, they will leavy happy, and you will feel satisfied about your work!

    Thanks for the space to comment (: as you i love the music and Djing and its not everyday that you get to see somebody actually talking about what it takes -on the inside- to become a better Dj… Greeting all the way from Caracas Venezuela! Peace

  5. July 2, 2010 at 5:36 pm · Reply

    I agree, the most important thing a DJ must do is to create comunication between crowd and himself. Without that there isn’t any contact, music is just “sounds on a rhythm”. But I recognize that the second main feature is personality.

    You are in front of a crowd, they want something special, they want fun to stay there. But there are different kinds of fun. What is the better one? Does exist a better one?
    I think that the thing that really create communication is the personal experience and skill to recognize what music emotions and when is the moment to play a sound/groove/ than an other one. And this is the essential. But now what are you going to choose to play?
    Great djs know when it is different what they want to play and what people want to listen and dance, or when it is not. But how far you can be in agreement with the crowd? Personally, I trust the limit is really far, But I think that the other side of DJing is “make a choice”.
    I think that a dj can’t really not impose himself and one “musical emotion” instead of another one, but if it’s really able, he can show how beautiful is his personal musical sensivity.

    I hope I have explained what I think…

    And forgive me if I made some grammatical mistakes, I’m not English

  6. July 2, 2010 at 7:59 pm · Reply

    Rndmfktr> Can I quote you on that? :)

    “Understanding the breathing, sweating, cheering,… organism that is your dance floor is not essential to make it as a DJ. But it is essential to become an outstanding DJ.”

  7. July 3, 2010 at 12:55 am · Reply

    a big thanks for this article and to RA for bringing it to a wider audience.

    coming from the dancefloor, i think we have an inherent responsibility to help you help everyone there have a good time.

    and if the plot’s really lost, i think it’s our duty to let the dj know – even vocally if necessary – where it’s going wrong.

  8. Yuppers
    July 3, 2010 at 10:04 pm · Reply

    Thank you very much for this article!

    What’s in this article is something that I truly believe in. When I DJ, especially as of late, I’ve been trying to learn to read the crowd and give them exactly what they want.

    On the flip side though, like Ben said, sometimes it’s up o the crowd as well to help the DJ dictate what they want to hear/how they feel. Once theres a great connection between the DJ & the crowd the music takes over and at hat point everyone is feeling it.

    Wish I could have you as amentor Peter Munch!!

  9. 3G M
    July 3, 2010 at 10:30 pm · Reply

    Can you make an exhibition with your covers together with your spacy music :-) ????

  10. CalBrock
    July 4, 2010 at 9:31 am · Reply

    Very good read, Ta muchly
    Cal

  11. rob
    July 5, 2010 at 9:43 pm · Reply

    interesting read…i think one of the key things to becoming a better dj is understanding the way that different records with diffent sounds, equipment, layouts and rythms have completley different effects on people’s concious and sub concious actions…pinpointing these effects by studying your own reactions to records and learning to understanding how you can work these different types of record and sounds to form a moving and exciting mix that takes you on a journey is the key!
    i think steve bug is really great at this and prins thomas and lindstrom also! trentemoller is also a great selector!

  12. rndmfktr
    July 6, 2010 at 5:22 pm · Reply

    Peter, I’d be honored :)

  13. Pingback: The “Secrets” of DJing: Lesson 2 | Peter Munch

  14. DJ D@rkn3ss
    April 2, 2012 at 9:12 am · Reply

    Interesting article. Here’s an interesting spin on it though. I am also a DJ but unlike most of your readers i am visually impaired. That makes for quite the challange when trieing to read the crowd especially when it comes to body language. So far (i’ve been djing for about a year now) I’ve had great success with the gigs I hoste but do you have any advice for me? Any other tips along the “other side” of djing?

    Thanks for your time!

    • April 2, 2012 at 9:49 am · Reply

      That’s an interesting question. What happens when you loose a sense (eg. your sight)? Our brains do miraculous things, it adapts by processing cues differently in order to determine what the world is like. Let me give you an example. I know someone who lost an eye, late in life, but after a few months, he had regained his ability to judge distances by using different cues then someone with 2 eyes. How? The brain starts using the length of the shadows as a guide – or maybe it references things based on their size. So for example, if a car is a certain size, you know that it is a certain distance from you. The brain will compensate for the lack of stereo vision and find another route. In other words, we might call you visually impaired, I will argue that you probably have advanced some of your other senses to a level that is above mine and others.

      When that is said – let me try to be more concrete. What could you do? The first thing that comes to my mind is the noise in the venue you play at. The cheering/singing/talking of the audience. If pay extra attention to that noise, how does it change during the night? What is the “noise” like when you own the floor?

      It’s easy to hear whether 90% of the people in the venue is blabbering along and not paying attention to the music. And It’s easy to hear when nobody talks, because they are lost in the music. But having the ability to hear all the nuances of that “noise”, and the changes in “timbre”, that’s a challenge and would be a good way of training your intuition.

      I am sure that you already have many ways to detect the vibe in the room, which is not based around seeing. If you can, please write about them.

  15. DJ D@rkn3ss
    April 12, 2012 at 10:30 am · Reply

    Wow! Thanks for the swift response! Only managed to get internet today thus the late reply:)!

    You are so right! The human body has an amazing way to compensate for any inadequacies it encounters! In the end its all about what we focus on. Since we live in a “visual” world, what we see takes preference. In my case however, my other censes combine to compensate for this. Often besides the audio cues i receive when djing (the reaction of the crowd to a spicific song or mix, etc.) their truly is a “vibe” in the air that can be felt. As I’m sure you know, articulating this is rather difficult. Is it a welcoming feeling that the crowd give off, is it a cold or bord vibe, is it warm or happy? I guess that’s all part of the thrill of being a dj! Each proffession has its challanges and this is ours! If your music portrays a journey, invite your audience to travel it with you!!!

  16. Andrew
    April 19, 2012 at 7:51 am · Reply

    Great Article, and great comments guys..
    (If you havnt already) you should check out the movie ‘It’s All Gone, Pete Tong’ ..

    What would you do as a ‘DJ’ if you lost your hearing .. ?

  17. May 19, 2012 at 10:16 am · Reply

    Improving intuition… That’s a good one… a good subject, and a good question for feedback. What might improve intuition? Yes, a qualified mentor can provide much. A couple aspects of that is that they might provide the context, or an environment to actually view or experience the manifestation of phenomena, if one were to apply a technique, based on a suggestion that might not sound like it means much when heard the first time, then, sometimes difficult to understand what just happend still… but the seeds have been planted properly, in any case… Otherwise, the suggestions might remain meaningless…

    Proper context and the mentors that might make a difference are becoming harder to find as a package. That’s unfortunate, but I’m not chiming in to lament. I have discovered a method that has worked wonders for me, but that’s me… Maybe someone can make enough of it to find their own method, but I’d have to imagine the fundamental aspects to be so different from one to another, but that’s not my field, so I’ll leave all that alone and just describe what I’ve found as it applies to my own experience.

    Before I realized what was going on with this – well, no matter, it’s all the same…

    It starts out for me usually as an email or letter or something to someone – and may not be personal, maybe it’s like this, as a comment on something someone has written… I just start commenting or just writing… before, I’d realize at some point that I’d lost all logic and basically had shifted into full-rant mode… and that its destiny was “Drafts”, but still being wound up even after realizing this, I’d just continue on… typing, with no regard for editing or logical arguments or qualification of my opinions or thoughts – and just let my fingers work until the stream of thought was complete. In other words, it allowed myself a space where self-judgment, on a conscious level, was purposefully suspended… though, somewhere in my being, I knew there was some import to the exercise, if nothing else… then, saved to drafts and go on w/ life…

    Okay, so my passion with the subject matter, keeps me looking for answers and “the truth” as such, if you will… of whatever my internal conflicts and issues regarding the subject matter might be… In other words, I realize that much of why I don’t know, or can’t find the answers to what’s bugging me about ‘things’ is the fact that I don’t exactly know what my ‘question’ is, or how to go about asking it… i.e. something or some things are bugging me, but what? My characterizations of what I feel, I realize, might be a bit off, but my ‘exercise’ just allows my inner-voice ‘to speak’…

    That’s intuition – and what i’ve realized for myself is – that language at first is foreign… and it comes from somewhere deep, so when “IT” is first trying to put “logical” language on the issues “it” has, the product first emerges as more ‘emotional’ in nature…

    Instead of shutting that down or questioning it, I just let it speak, and not editing as I go, or trying to place what i’m writing in a logical argument or trying at once to realize “the point” or trying to now create one out of what I’ve gotten down in writing allows it to speak and feel like it’s been heard and you’ve given it the airtime “IT” needs…

    I create an entity of it, because I feel it’s closer to the nature of intuition than it is to say “my thoughts” or whatever… I feel that hinders the process of getting it to the surface.

    Okay – later – i.e. however much time later, but inevitably, I find some sort of “key” in something I’ve read, or just sitting around – meditating – like mr. munch suggests, a key to that bit of inner language will manifest, and remind me of my rant… it seems for me to come at like 2 month intervals, or it did for a couple of years… then it started shortening…

    I will say that now it doesn’t happen as much, and I think it’s because I’ve given the subject matter and my inner-voice-feelings time enough to become friends with me out here on the conscious level. I allow myself to make mistakes and not so worried to leave them in place. By not worrying/thinking about the importance of being clear and concise and without logical, grammatical or even typing errors, somehow has allowed me to improve to the point where I simply just don’t make as many and often, now, have little problem hitting ‘enter’ or ‘send’ at the end of letting my fingers finish the recording of that stream of whatever it is… ;-)

    So, it all works together… I call the different writing “spaces” – genres, as in, I have different genres of writing – the stuff that ends up in drafts – stuff I compile later from choice, decoded nuggets – some verbatim, but compiled from things recycled from drafts, then finally, writing I feel is ready enough for prime-time from being at home with the different themes and what they further generate as a result of the process of them having been decoded… If that makes any sense at all… :-)

    Thanks Mr. Munch, for this wonderful offering, and entertaining the question.

    If anyone is interested, I have plenty of examples of this in action, and I’m a 20yr. DJ, so it all relates, as my passion emenates from that subject matter – as do my issues…

    Hope it helps. Good luck!!

  18. May 19, 2012 at 10:18 am · Reply

    I forgot to check the “notify me” block… Check!

  19. May 19, 2012 at 10:27 am · Reply

    Oops…

    Correction: I’d have to imagine the fundamental aspects -NOT- to be so different from one to another.

    That’s all part of it, sometimes the head gets ahead of the fingers…. No big deal.

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