The Novice DJ’s Most Important Skill To Develop: Counting Beats, Bars and Phrases

in music •  last year


Beats.png

(this is a follow-up to the article The Novice DJ’s Introduction To The Art Of Mixing)

For an upcoming DJ, one of the most important basic skill to develop is:

Active Listening

This means developing the ability to count beats, bars and phrases.

Why is this so important?

Well, the number #1 question a DJ must answer when playing music is:

Where do I start mixing the new song in?

As mentioned in the previous article, a DJ cannot mix a new song in anywhere he would like.

Well, not unless he wants to make a fool of himself.

For a good sounding mix, there are some simple rules that must be followed.

One of the rules is…

Mixing In Phrase

A quick reminder of what is a musical phrase:

A group of 8, 16 (or even 32) bars, that makes musical sense on its own.

When mixing two songs, the musical phrases of those songs must overlap.

Any good DJ should be able to identify the musical phrases by ear, without the aid of any modern DJ software.

He must develop a feeling of when exactly he should drop in the new song and start mixing. It’s kind of a 6th sense for DJs.

How to spot when a new musical phrase starts?

All modern DJ software will show you visually where your position is in the currently playing song. You can use these visual cues to mix in and mix out.

For instance, in Traktor Pro 2, you can enable the option to display the current phrase, bar and beat, just like below:

Traktor Phrases.png

Also the coloring of the waveform gives you helpful visual hints about where a phrase might start or end.

But what if you have to play music on DJ gear that has no visual helper displays whatsoever?

Then what?

The key is to learn how to see the music with your ears.

Let’s start easy, you will see in a minute what I mean.

Counting Beats, Bars and Phrases

Level 1: Counting Just Beats

The first level is to count just the beats.

When the song starts, on the first beat we start counting

One – two – three – four
Five – six – seven – eight

…and so on, until we’re up to 32

Twenty nine – thirty – thirty one – thirty two

It’s a good start, but it becomes quite tiring after a while.

The best way is…

Level 2: Counting Beats and Bars

You need somehow to count the bars in a phrase, to be ready to start mixing the new song.

When you are starting out, you can also use your fingers to count the bars. When a new bar starts, just raise another finger.

Something like this:

It’s perfectly OK to use this approach when you are learning how to DJ. You can also beat your fingers on the table, in sync with the rhythm.

In the long run, you will learn how to do the counting counting inside your mind.

And after a while you won’t even have to think about it, as your mind will do it automatically for you.

The best way that I’ve found and works for me is the following:

Start counting the beats, but each time a new bar starts, instead of saying 1 (one) again, just increase the number of the bar. Something like this:

Bar 1: 1 2 3 4
Bar 2: 2 2 3 4
Bar 3: 3 2 3 4

Bar 7: 7 2 3 4
Bar 8: 8 2 3 4

Here, I'll show you:

If you count this way, you will always know which is the current bar. It’s extremely helpful when you want to mix by starting in the middle of the phrase instead of the beginning.

Learn to count this way and you will have a lot of room for creativity.

Cues to listen for (the last bar)


As you will learn how to count beats, you will notice something interesting in many, if not most songs.

The last bar of a musical phrase will be a little different from the first 7 before it.

That’s intentional.

In dance / pop music, there is usually a subtle melodic change in the last bar, to notify the listener to pay close attention, because something is about to change in the melodic line.

For a DJ, this is perfect, as it helps him get ready to press play and start mixing in, at the beginning of the new phrase.

As you practice, you will start noticing this more and more.

Knowing how to mix in phrase requires active listening, or listening with intent. It requires lots of it.

The bad news is that the novice DJ has to listen to tens or hundreds of songs to get the hang of it. And to count. And count. And count. Until he “gets it”.

The good news is that, by mastering this ability, the upcoming DJ will start developing that 6th sense I was talking about.

Actively listening fun fact

Personally, when I was learning this out, I was training my musical ear every time I was out for a coffee, or with friends.

Every time there was some music playing in the background, I was always counting beats, bars and phrases, in the back of my mind.

Sometimes I even asked my friends to wait a few seconds, until I finished counting. Yes, I know, it’s a bit weird to do this, but as you’ve probably noticed, I was and still am really passionate about this.

Every time I got it right and anticipated correctly when the next phrase would change, I was jumping for joy (well, on the inside).

If a novice DJ is serious about this, he too will seek out each and every opportunity to train his ear and to become better and better at active listening.

Ok, this is it for now. Probably in the next article I will talk about

Mixing In Key (or Harmonic Mixing)

Until next time, take care and be a cake.

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Great article! A lot of these are exceedingly important when you are starting to learn any musical skills, but it was really interesting reading it in the context of DJing. Keep it up man. I look forward to reading more of your writing.

~Follow @strangeanimal

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Thanks, @strangeanimal. Indeed, these skills are useful when you are learning music production as well. Thanks for stopping by

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