The Structure of a DJ Mixset
Taking your audience on a purposeful journey

Def-Logic Productions
New Zealand

Copyright Brent Silby 2007

DJs have been producing mixsets for decades. On the technical end, the mixset requires the DJ to use technology and skill to blend a range of songs together to create a continuous "suite" of music. In effect, the DJ is producing one long song out of a large collection of individual songs. Artistically, this requires the DJ to select tracks that sound nice together and suit the general style of music. The art comes in recognizing features of songs that make them fit into the mixset. For more on this, see my article "Is a mixset a piece of Art?"

Now, as with all musical creations, a good mixset has a "form" or "structure" underpinning its construction. Obviously a mixset is not simply a random collection of tracks. Nor is it a mere collection of songs the DJ (and crowd) likes. There are good mixsets and there are bad mixsets. Interestingly, many bad mixsets actually contain very good songs. The problem arises from the order in which they have been mixed by the DJ. In many cases, these bad mixsets fail simply because the DJ has not put any thought into an overall structure. Its all well and good playing a bunch of nice tracks that the crowd likes, but if the set does not take its audience on a meaningful journey with a purpose, the DJ may as well simply use iTunes Shuffle.

The purpose of this article is to provide a framework upon which a "theory of the mixset" can be established. This is just a start, and I welcome input from other experienced DJs. I realize that many DJs will naturally go through the process outlined below, and I am not attempting to tell people how to do their job. What I am trying to do is to establish, in writing, the structure of a good mixset. This information will be useful for DJs who are learning, and it will also provide a language which can be used to review and discuss DJ mixsets.

A good mixset needs to take its audience on a journey. It makes no difference whether the set is being performed live in a club, live on radio, or pre-recorded for the internet. The important thing is that the DJ makes meaningful decisions about the tracks to be played, and their placement in the set. In live club situations, the DJs decisions will be made through collaboration with the audience, as track choice and placement will be decided, in part, from the reaction of people on the dance floor.


The Structure of the Journey

There are three major sections to the mixset. These are Introduction, Development, and Resolution. In order to describe the theory, I will refer to House music and its sub-genres. I do this because House is my genre of choice. The theory will, of course, work with other genres.

1 Introduction

The first track of the introduction should, wherever possible, start with no beat. In House music, find a track with an instrumental (perhaps piano) introduction. A piano intro of up to 1 minute would work very well as it eases people into the music. Then when the beat kicks in, people know that business is starting. From here, work through a range of easy going melodies with lots of nicely sung vocals and pleasing harmonic progressions.

Towards the end of this Introduction section, the DJ should attempt to raise tension by shifting the musical key up (further from the starting key). This can happen song-by-song, but requires the DJ to know what key each of his songs is set in. It is a nice touch to move towards tracks with a "searching" feeling.

2 Development (Conflict / Relief)

Here we have the "main argument" of the mixset. In this section the DJ has found his groove and focuses on a range of tracks that fit that sound. The tension left from the introduction is relieved by ensuring the key stays much the same--perhaps moving down, then up again but with no continuous upward trend.

The DJ sustains this for several tracks (the length of time depends on the length of the entire set) before introducing conflict. This conflict comes in the form of a song (or two) that have a slightly different (perhaps harder) sound, which points to where the DJ is taking this part of the set. For example, moving from "funky house" to an "electro house" or "tribal house" sound. This transition creates tension, which is then relieved when the DJ moves completely to the new sound.

The DJ then continues with the new sound for several tracks before hinting back towards the sound featured at the start of the development section. This is done by sampling vocal aspects from the earlier sound into the harder sound. This builds anticipation, which creates a new tension to be resolved in the resolution section.

3 Resolution

The end of the set is signified by a return to the style of music contained towards the end of the introduction and start of the development section. However, here the DJ needs to decide whether to leave the set on a high or a laid back sound. If the DJ wants to complete the set on a high, he needs to create a short transition from the harder sound in the Development section back to the up-lifting sound from the beginning of the development. This should be done by finding a suitable up-beat track that is set in a minor key, and then (after maybe 2 or 3 more tracks) ensuring that the set is finished on an uplifting song in a major "happy" key.

The same is true if the DJ wishes to finish on a laid back note. The only difference is that the tracks selected will have a more relaxed feel, similar to those used in the introduction. The music may transition to a minor sound before finishing in a major key.

Now, a mixset can be as long or short as you want. Many sets for the internet or radio are between 1 and 2 hours in length. This is a good length of time to run through the formula of a mixset. In longer sets (for example, an 8 hour club set) the DJ can repeat the entire process several times, or stretch out the set so that the Development section runs for an extended period of time. A possible structure for a long mixset would be:

conflict / relief /
conflict / relief /
conflict / relief,

As I stated earlier, this is the beginning of a definition of the musical form we call the "mixset". It is far from complete and I have based it on both my experience as a DJ, and my experience as a listener/reviewer of mixsets. I welcome all ideas and input to make this theory more robust and useable. The end goal of this project is to have a definition of "mixset" that people can consider when building or discussing mixsets.


See also

Is the DJ an Artist

Copyright Brent Silby 2007