One of the great things about DJing is that you can learn to DJ without ever taking a music lesson. That doesn’t mean, however, that DJs don’t need to be musical. In fact, one could easily think of a DJ rig as a musical instrument in itself – after all, it has the same capacity to produce melody, harmony, and rhythm as any other musical instrument. (You might even say that it’s the ultimate musical instrument.) If a DJ does the same job as any other musician, then shouldn’t a good DJ be musically literate in the same way that other musicians are as well? While studying advanced counterpoint may not help you very much in your career as a DJ, there is one aspect of music theory that all DJs should understand: harmony. For this post on beginner DJ tips, we’ll explore why harmony is so important to DJs and how you can apply harmonic theory to your DJ sets.

Why You Should Learn to Mix in Key

When most people learn to DJ for the first time, they start by blending two random tracks together to see what they sound like. Because humans have an intuitive sense of rhythm, we quickly discover that mixing between two songs with different tempos doesn’t sound very good. This is why beatmatching is one of the most important DJ tips that every beginner DJ should master.

The second part of the equation that’s often harder to master is mixing in key. While many of us have a natural sense of rhythm, understanding harmony can be more difficult. At the same time, while it may take more work, understanding harmony and learning to mix in key can have big payoffs; this knowledge allows you to create great sounding transitions between songs, and also opens you up to exploring other creative avenues like remixing and creating mashups.

How to Mix in Key

At its most basic, mixing in key is a simple process. All it requires is finding two tracks in the same key and mixing them together. Digital technology is a big help in this domain, as most DJ software now involves a key detection component that analyzes tracks and tells you what key they’re in. The most advanced tool in this domain is Mixed in Key, but other DJ software tools include a similar function. You can even filter songs by key when you’re searching for tracks on Beatport.

Applying Your Knowledge of Harmony

While digital technology can help you create mixes that are harmonically pleasing, the software has some shortcomings as well. First, the key detection tools aren’t always correct. Depending on what software you use, the key detection feature could be right anywhere from 41% to 86% of the time. That means that 14 – 59% of the time, the key detection will be wrong. This is where your ears and your own understanding of harmony come into play.

The other problem with relying on the technology is that there’s more involved in creating harmonic mixes than matching the key of two tracks. Harmonic mixing can also include things like pitch shifting and modulation. This, again, is where your ears and your harmonic knowledge come into play. If you understand how to move between two different A major and E major on the keyboard, for example, you can apply the same technique in your DJ mixes as well.

So while you don’t have to go to music school to become a great DJ, any effort you put into expanding your knowledge of music theory can be helpful, especially when it comes to any DJ tips involving harmony. Want to learn more about mixing in key and other DJ tips? When you join Spin Academy’s online DJ school for only $19.95 per month, you’ll get access to our advanced mixing tutorials, which include a video tutorial on how to use Mixed in Key software by DJ Roshan.