Music Selection: The Basics

April 8, 2008 by Mobile Beat Staff Writer

Your music selection is the most important aspect of your performance. In a nut-shell, the customer and guests at a given event will decide whether you were a good disc jockey or a poor one based primarily on the music that you play at their event. For newer DJ’s who have not yet mastered their interactive and MC skills, it is even more important that you quickly learn how to choose and mix GOOD music.The first suggestion I have, especially for newer DJs, is the use of a “Quick Reference” system. The Quick Reference system that I use for my company is basically a “cheat sheet” with all of the good songs listed. This way, I generally don’t leave a gig, and on the drive home, think of a song that I should have played! I know we have all done that at one time or another. Even after 17 years of experience, I still use my Quick References to choose my music. (See the article on Quick References for more information and a listing of my company Quick References.)

Since most of my company’s events are weddings, or other events that require a broad variety of music, most of the concepts and ideas that I teach my staff are based on the “variety gig”. Use common sense, and deviate from my suggested concepts for events that do not require this variety (such as clubs).

Basic Principles

A “set” is a group of two to six fast songs that go well together for varied reasons, such as genre, era, or bpms. The length of your set should vary according to the type of event you are playing, and how the people are reacting on the dance floor. At weddings, and other similar events that require a variety of music, it is generally accepted that you should keep your sets short in the early stages of the event. As the night wears on, you can lengthen the set, provided that the dance response warrants it.

Generally speaking, you should organize your sets beginning with the slower BPM’s, and gradually increasing in speed. This strategy typically generates excitement on the dance floor.
Don’t let your personal preferences in music influence your decisions on what to play. This is one of the most frequent mistakes made by “rookie” DJ’s. Newer DJ’s show up at an event all hyped up to play their favorite kind of music, only to turn people off, and make a bad name for themselves.

One of the first signs of a DJ who has matured into a professional, is that he or she can almost totally put aside personal preferences in music, and play what is necessary to make the event a success.

Another sign of a mature DJ, is one who aquires a taste for music that he or she previously disliked. Generally, this comes about when you receive a request for a type of music that you do not usually play. There is something about seeing people enjoying themselves on the dance floor that allows you to acquire a taste for a type of music that you previously hated! Experienced DJ’s know EXACTLY what I am talking about here.

I teach my staff to think of their music library like an auto mechanic thinks of their tools. Each song is like a tool, and certain tools work well for some jobs, and not so well for others. When you learn what tools to use with your music selection, you will quickly become in hot demand for your services.
Play a selection of music that will appeal to as many people as possible. It is never possible to satisfy everyone, but you should attempt to play a variety that will please the majority of people, most of the time.
It is easy to forget the older people in a crowd when top 40/dance music is working well at an event. However, you should constantly be asking yourself, “when was the last time I played country, or oldies, etc” to satisfy the older people. If you wait too long to play a given music group, you will get complaints from guests. When a variety of music is necessary, your main objective is to prevent someone from coming up to your table asking, “When are you going to play some country (or oldies)?” Keep in mind what you have been playing and making sure that you blend in the necessary variety of music in your rotations.
The larger the variety of people and music tastes, the shorter the sets you should play, and the more frequently you should rotate the variety of music necessary. EXAMPLE: If you have a large group of people and you are getting requests for country, oldies, top 40/dance music, you should keep your sets shorter (three to four songs typically) so that each type of music will be heard more frequently. You would not want to play 7 songs of urban-dance music in a row in this situation. This will surely draw complaints from the older people who want to hear a different type of music.

Let’s look at this a little more in depth. For those of you who say “I play 7 fast songs in a row on a regular basis!”…….I am simply looking at the length of time you are devoting to one type of music. In the above example, with such a variety of taste in dance music, seven fast dance songs in a row translates into 28 solid minutes of one kind of music(based on 4 minutes per song). This gives the majority of the guests far too much time in which to conclude that you aren’t going to play what they want for dancing.

In my experience, you will typically draw complaints from the people that dance to other kinds of music. This does not mean that I NEVER play seven fast songs in a row; I am speaking in general terms here. However, at weddings, I feel that there typically isn’t time to be playing seven fast dance songs in a row.

One other factor to consider, is how long people have been dancing. People tend to wear out, and get a little tired after fifteen or twenty minutes of fast dancing; don’t forget to give them a break!
A common situation occurs when the older people want to dance to the slow songs, and the younger people will dance to the top 40/dance music. In this event, choose two slow songs in a row to cover two different music groups, such as country and oldies. This will accommodate the older people, and allows you to jump back into the top 40/dance music for the younger crowd. It should be emphasized however, that you cannot do this for the entire night!

Two slow songs in a row are strongly suggested in other situations also. If you are having success with all types of up-tempo music, your second slow song should be from the same music group as the next fast set you intend to play. EXAMPLE: If you are going to play a fast Motown set, the slow song you play just prior to starting the fast set could be “When a Man Loves a Women” by Percy Sledge. Of course this is a slow Motown song, and will likely draw the “Motown crowd” to the dance floor. In turn, you can then hit the Motown crowd with the fast Motown set, because they are already on the dance floor. The same method of strategically playing a slow song prior to a fast set can be used for any type of music.
Play the basics; the dance floor is not the place to educate the public on the latest and hottest new music. More often than not, you will clear the dance floor with a new song. The exception to this principle would be for school dances.
“Two and Out” Rule – Don’t beat a dead horse………if you start a set of up-tempo songs and get little or no dance response after two songs, it is time to slow things down and try something else. The key is to play no more than two fast songs of any given music group if you are getting little or no dance response.

“The Slow Song Is Your Crutch” – At most events, there will be approximately twice as many people willing to dance to a slow song as a fast song. If you recognize this, you will learn that when nothing else works, the slow song will normally draw people on the dance floor. This concept ties in with the “two and out” rule listed above.
If you try a particular type of music at the beginning of an event, and it doesn’t work, you should stay away from that type of music for a while. However, just because something doesn’t work in the early stages of the event does not mean that it won’t work later on. Remember that the guests might not have been ready to dance at the time you tried this type of music at the beginning. Often, later in the event, the guests will pack the dance floor to a type of music that didn’t work in the beginning of the event.
If you have a group that requires a variety (this is the situation 90% of the time), play the variety quickly in the event so that you “send an unspoken message” to everyone that you have a variety of music. This will help prevent people from leaving(very typical at holiday parties).

The following is an example:
1. I Swear – John Michael Montgomery

2. That’s What I Like – Jive Bunny (a five minute oldies medley)

3. Crazy – Patsy Cline

4. Unforgettable – Natalie Cole

5. Gonna Make You Sweat – C & C Music Factory

6. Move This – Technotronic

7. Show Me Love – Robin S.

8. Moonlight Serenade – Glenn Miller

9. Unchained Melody – The Righteous Brothers
In the first 9 songs of the dance, you have played country, oldies, big bands/40’s, basic top 40 and urban dance music. You have “sent a message” to your audience that you do, in fact, have a variety of music for everyone, and that you intend to play it. This will put people at ease, especially the older people who thought that you might play music for the younger people only.

When playing for a party or dance, if you notice that there are not many people there yet, and more are expected, you might not want to play many of your “absolute best” songs that are your best tools to motivate people to dance. In this event, you should wait thirty to forty-five minutes prior to playing the best that you have. You should, however, be careful not to delay playing your best music for too long of a time frame; you may lose the people that are present!
If you are playing for a wedding, you should play only the best songs that you have, because all of the people that are coming to the event are already there.
If you play a particular song that packs the dance floor, you should attempt to play another song that is very similar to it. For instance, if you play “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” and pack the floor, you should play a similar song such as “I Can’t Help Myself”. Another example: If you play “Shout”, a logical follow-up would be “What I like About You”, and so on. IMPORTANT!! When something works, keep them going!!

It is important to stress, however, that you cannot play one type of music all night. You may be justified in adjusting your music rotation to play one type of music more than another. However, if Top 40/dance music is working well with the younger crowd, you cannot play that type of music for the rest of the night. You must still provide a variety of music.
Oldies are an important part of your music selection at most events. There have been many movies and TV commercials that have included songs from the 40’s to the 80’s. This makes these songs familiar to the young and old alike. When playing for a variety of age ranges, try to select songs that appeal to two different generations. You can use these songs to appeal to two different generations, thereby attracting more people to the dance floor. Some suggestions are: Unforgettable – Natalie Cole, Unchained Melody – The Righteous Brothers, Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong, and Do You Love Me – The Contours. These are only a few suggestions. New movies that come out will continue to introduce old songs to a new generation. You should be observant of this and take advantage of those songs when they come out.
If country is a category of music that is needed, but only in small quantities, play popular slow country songs to cover this need. I have found that uptempo country songs do not usually go over very well for the “upscale business professional” type of crowd. This may vary, depending on geographic region.
One frequent mistake by inexperienced DJ’s is to apply the ingredients for success from the last gig that they performed. What works at one event, may not necessarily work at the next. This is why you must always go through an “assessment” phase for each event that you perform.

Reading the crowd is an important aspect of your job. You must observe the people that you have on hand. Look at the ages of the people and check out what they are wearing. Are most people dressed like “business professionals”, or are they wearing informal clothing such as cowboy boots, that suggest that they may enjoy country music. Be observant!! You should assess each crowd by ages and observe how many people there are of each age range. Your music selection should be based on the percentages of the ages you have in the crowd.

The following illustration can be used to assess your music rotation:

Out of 100 people at an event, the make-up of the crowd is:
• ages 20 to 30 there are 25 people

• ages 30 to 40 there are 40 people

• ages 40 to 60 there are 25 people

• ages 60 and up there are 10 people
With the audience listed above, you should be playing a mix of oldies, country and a little top 40/urban-dance music for the younger people. The key is: Your music selection should be proportionate to the age ranges of your audience.

The rotation of music is a very important part of your job as a disc jockey. If the function that you are playing for requires 50% Top 40 and 50% of oldies, you certainly wouldn’t play top 40 for the first two hours and oldies for the last two hours. While this is an exaggeration, it demonstrates the need to think about how to play and proportion your selection of music.
Music knowledge is an important aspect of your job. The people that attend the events in which we are hired expect the DJ to be an “expert” in music. We obviously do not expect you to be an expert, but you do need to be knowledgeable in all types of music. You should constantly strive to improve your music knowledge.
At weddings, there are always a few older people in their 60’s and 70’s. It is very easy to forget these people in your selection of music. For this reason, you should play a minimum of one song from the 40’s era at every wedding reception, without exception. This is an easy principle to carry out in today’s trends in music, since “swing” music has made a comeback.
As a general rule, you should not play the same song more than once per event. There are some exceptions to this rule, but you should try to avoid repeating a song. Sometimes a song is extraordinary, and will be requested twice, such as when the Macarena was new and hot. Make exceptions only in this case.

If you know that a song is so popular that you will have to play it twice, make sure that you space it out.

This means that you shouldn’t play a “really hot” song early in the event, because then you may be asked to play it three times!!!! Don’t repeat the same song within one hour. It is unprofessional, and you may get pressure from the guests to play the song a third or fourth time (absolutely do not!!). However, use common sense. If there is a great demand and interest from several people for a song to be played more than once, than play it.

There are so many factors that go into how you select and group your music. I have listed a number of ideas and concepts that I teach my staff. These concepts have proven useful over the years for me. Something that I missed??? Please feel free to email me and let me know! We are very open to suggestions for future revisions!

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Mobile Beat Staff Writer (228 Posts)

This is the general editors account for Mobile Beat Magazine and Website. Who reads Mobile Beat online and in print and attends Mobile Beat events? DJs, VJs and KJs to start with, especially those who own and operate mobile entertainment services. They provide music, video, lighting and a myriad other entertainment choices for corporate events, wedding receptions, dances and innumerable other gatherings.


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