Club DJs – Why Structure Matters

Have you ever seen the movie The Shining?

If you haven’t, go watch it right now and come back to this article.  There’s no reason for you to have never seen this movie (unless you absolutely cannot handle horror films).  Just ask my girlfriend, who was appalled when she found out 2 or 3 years ago that I had never seen it.  She made sure that changed real quick!

Okay, so you’ve seen it?  Good, because this article contains spoilers!

Anyways, to give a quick recap: the film is about a writer (played by Jack Nicholson) that takes a caretaker position at an isolated hotel during the winter.  He has a son who possesses psychic abilities and is able to see things from different points of time (including ghosts that haunt or inhabit the hotel).  Jack eventually becomes influenced by a “supernatural presence” that slowly drives him mad until he tries to murder his family.

Yeah, I know, this is a weird introduction to a post about DJing in a night club.  But all work and no play makes David a dull boy.

The reason I bring up this movie is because it’s a shining (heheh) example of tension and release.  It doesn’t come out swinging with all kinds of crazy, shocking horror right out of the gate.  The entire movie follows the whole “three-act arc” structure to great effect.  In the beginning, small elements are introduced that give a hint of what is to come later in the film.  The action rises and rises… falling here and there, but trending up overall.  Eventually, a climax is reached (Jack’s murderous rampage), and the action falls as the movie reaches resolution.

The Shining

Maybe you can see where I’m going with this, now.  Tension is one of my favorite things in music.  It doesn’t have to be the nervous, anxious kind of tension that you find in The Shining… it’s just an analogy.  I thought about using human “reproductive activities” as a comparison instead, but figured the movie would be more appropriate.  I’m sure you can see the correlation if you use your imagination.  The Shining contains a lot of foreplay.

There are a lot of factors that come into play when playing a DJ set, such as tempo, style of music, track selection, etc.  But the real art is in the DJ’s ability to keep his audience engaged.  Keeping a dance floor on the edge of their proverbial seats is one of the things that sets a DJ apart from the plethora of people who can just mix adequately.  Certainly, we’ve all witnessed that moment when a dance floor clears out because of a poorly chosen track.  Nothing will empty the floor faster than that.  A trainwrecked mix will make a few sober DJs cringe… a poorly chosen track will kill the energy entirely.  Whether the crowd realizes it or not, it is often the overall structure of the DJ’s set that determines the level of interest and engagement given unto it.

“A trainwrecked mix will make a few sober DJs cringe… a poorly chosen track will kill the energy entirely.”

This isn’t a new concept, as this sort of structure was common even in classical music.  Many sonatas contain the same push and pull of tension (by making changes to tempo and dynamics, for example).  Haydn and Mozart would have made great DJs.

The whole idea here is to introduce ideas, build on that introduction slowly over time (adding tension), lead up to a dramatic climax, and then “wind down” to some sort of resolution.  And, by the way, that doesn’t necessarily apply to just the hour or two you were slotted to play.  Let’s keep the whole night in mind, here.  (This is why a good event promoter/planner is worth his or her weight in gold.)

Adding new ideas and elements subtly to your set is a great way to test the waters, too.  The structure of a set should be a perfect storm of a DJ’s desire vs. a crowd’s direction.  And I have never been wowed more by a DJ than when they are able to slowly guide me to the top of the arc.  It’s the ones that are able to “hypnotize” you… to draw you in and maintain tension and interest… that are going to give you a memorable night.  This isn’t to say that a “coming out swinging” set can never work, but it’s few and far between, in my opinion.  More often, I find myself annoyed at the “wall of sound” being hurled at me without any peaks and valleys for two hours.

“The structure of a set should be a perfect storm of a DJ’s desire vs. a crowd’s direction.”

Programming a set (whether preemptively for a recorded mix, or live in front of a crowd) is a subtle art.  It’s more than stringing together the Beatport Top Ten or Billboard charts with adequate beatmatching and phrasing.  And it’s one thing to add to your arsenal that can help prevent you from being replaced by an iPod… or some other mediocre DJ.

The structure of a mix set does not need to be explicitly defined.  For example, if you happen to be playing a 6 hour set, it may not be in your best interest to build-build-build until you find yourself playing speedcore at a chillout lounge.  The idea is to have a sense of ebb and flow.  A particularly long DJ set might look something like this:

  • Introduction
  • Build & Develop
  • Conflict / Relief
  • Conflict / Relief
  • Conflict / Relief
  • Conflict / Relief
  • Resolution

This is what experienced DJs talk about when they say “journey”… as in, “I try to take the crowd on a journey through music”.  Peaks and valleys allow you and your listener to create a story between you… based on your direction and their perception.

I’m not trying to convince you to take yourself too seriously when playing out.  I’m simply saying that music seems to have greater impact on people when it’s trying to tell a story.

What are your favorite “Here’s Johnny!” moments that you’ve experienced live?

Here's Johnny