If you’ve ever seen a classical music score, you’ll notice that throughout, the composer has included markers to tell the musician at what speed the section should be played. Typically, these instructions are in Italian – allegro, moderato, etc. Those words aren’t just instructions about how fast or slow to play the music, they’re instructions about what kind of emotion the music should generate in the listener. So, allegro isn’t just fast. It’s also happy.
For DJs, understanding tempo, rhythm and percussion is vital. It allows you to beatmatch different tracks when mixing and to create a particular vibe in the room.
But why bother learning how to do this by ear? Isn’t there an app for that? Well, yes, actually. There are lots of ways that DJs can get software to do the work. The problem is that software is not perfect. Imagine putting your trust in software, lining up two tracks that should, according to the technology you’re using, match, but they don’t. BPM counters can’t be relied on to work consistently. Technology is amazing. But, it doesn’t know how to tell you if a song changes tempo halfway through. It’s also not failproof.
Look at it this way. You call yourself a DJ, and that means that you love everything about your work. (Ok, maybe figuring out how to get all the tax write-offs you might be eligible for isn’t most DJ’s definition of a good time.) So, why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to expand your skills? You’re not going to be playing the same songs over and over throughout your career, right? A good DJ will continually learn about new music, what’s popular where and when, and how to get the most from all that equipment you’re spending so much money on. Brushing up on skills, even those you don’t think you’ll use all the time, is worth it. Here’s why:
• You’re ready for anything. Let’s say you show up at a gig and, for whatever reason, it’s a vinyl only affair. No other technology or equipment is supported. You won’t be sweating it because you’ve got the skills – old fashioned though they may be – to handle it.
• You live and breathe rhythm. Technology is wonderful because it saves us from having to do a lot of things ourselves. The drawback is that we’re not experiencing DJing in a kind of full-spectrum way. Taking the time to beatmatch manually forces you to really hear the percussion, tempo and rhythm. Once your ear is trained to pick up on those elements unaided by technology, you can turn your skills to any genre and tempo. Imagine how original and creative your mixes could be.
• Getting it together will be easier. Training your ear isn’t only about beatmatching. Deep listening skills will improve your ability to use the EQs and volume. What if you wanted to do an impromptu set alongside another DJ? You could totally manage that if your ear is trained for detail.
How to learn
Kids have it so easy these days! All that digital technology can make DJing a breeze. Before digital, DJs had no choice but to train their ear. While the first DJs didn’t have a lot of sophisticated equipment, and learning could take longer, modern DJs who cut their teeth on digital sometimes find that they have to go back and re-learn the basics if they want to improve.
It’s not hard to learn, but you do need to put in some time. Try these tips:
• Do a little everyday. At first it will feel like you’ll never get it. Then the day will come when you find yourself beatmatching song after song nearly effortlessly.
• Don’t have any turntables? No problem. Turn off the sync function and go it alone for a while.
• Try pushing the pushing up the pitch fader on the cued track. It will make that track play faster. Then you can slowly adjust the tempo as you mix that track.
The question of whether or not DJs should learn how to beatmatch by ear is hotly debated. Which side are you on? Tell us: Have you spent time training your ear? Has it helped your DJing?