Thu, 29 May 2014

The intention of this study is to explore the question; Does a non-musician using interactive technology to create music immediately become a musician?

Throughout this research, DJs will take the role of the 'non-musician' and there are two ambiguous terms within the question that must first be defined. What is interactive technology and what are musicians?

The term interactive means; 'allowing a two-way flow of information between a computer and a computer-user; responding to a user's input' (Oxford Dictionary, 2014). The computer or technologies in context include a range of modern DJ equipment and software that is far too vast to be covered comprehensively within the confines of this debate, therefore, attention has been given to Rane's Serato Scratch Live interface, Ableton Live 9 and the audio analyzing software Mixed In Key. The body of the research will cover the following areas, the history of the DJ and their role within the music industry, the definition of a musician, skills that are required of professional DJs, the use of interactive technology and the effect technology has on the classification of a non-musician's status. They will be addressed in this order.

The first ever disc-jockey took his place in history in 1909 (University of Florida, 2014) and some would argue that DJs now play a pivotal role in defining and developing cultural developments within music across the globe. As Broughton and Brewster state;  'DJs are more important than bands when it comes to radical shifts in music' (2006 P.6). DJs have a unique advantage in an ever evolving musical landscape, they have an entire world of music at their finger tips and are able to define current trends as well as draw upon timeless classics that any given genre has to offer. In contrast;

'A musician, however phenomenal, is boxed in by the range of their instrument, the extent of their back catalogue and the scope of their musical style. A DJ has none of these limitations. A DJ is free to play two records next to each other made thirty years apart, or two records from different continents, or to play the one great track from an artists otherwise hopeless career' (Brewster, B. Broughton, F. 2006, P.6).

It is not always clear how it is possible to define a musician (Masolo, C. et al 2004), the common dictionary definition is a person who plays a musical instrument, especially as a profession, or is musically talented. A professional DJ may be considered musically talented, even under the assumption that they do not play a traditional musical instrument or have any knowledge of music theory. Talent is often subjective to the listener as Leong explains;

'Musicianship is a conceptual term that we all use and whose meaning we think we have a sense of. Yet our understanding of musicianship both as a concept and perhaps as a set of skills … is shaped by our values and our experiences' (2003).

It is however possible to assess someone's level of skill by studying the techniques that established musicians or DJs use to accomplish their results.

'Some of what makes a musician good lies outside the realm of science, let alone acoustics, but acousticians can contribute to understanding good performance by researching the player-instrument interaction, aiming to understand how good players achieve their musical goals' (Wolfe et al 2013, p.1).

That practice makes perfect (Smith, P.4) is a well know theory, although a definitive amount of time is hard to pin point, in his best selling book Outliners, Malcolm Gladwell (2009) explores his theory that regardless of an individuals natural aptitude, 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice is what it takes to achieve greatness. A study done in the early 1990s by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson identified that elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice and by contract, the amateurs had totaled two thousand hours. Music journalist Harry Webley (2006) claims 'a truly great … DJ displays musicality, originality, skill and dedication. If you possess these qualities you have the right to call yourself a turntablist'.

In times gone by it may have been easier to identify whether someone was experienced in certain aspects of DJing skills; cuing and beat matching 'getting two records to play together at the same time' (Broughton, F & Brewster, B 2002, P.48) was done by ear and by hand on a pair of pitch adjustable record players or turntables, modern technology now exists that can perform these tasks automatically and at the touch of a button, therefor, the expertise of track selection and music programing may become much more significant in the assessment of a DJs level of skill and professionalism.

'At a time … where beat matching and mixing can be (and often are) achieved through the push of a software sync button, programming can be said to have returned as an important way to distinguish a DJ' (Fikentscher, K. 2013, P125).

This suggests that there is much more to being a good DJ than being able to beat match, anyone can stand in front of a pair of turntables and play a few tracks together, but the true stars are able to read a dance floor, anticipate a crowds reactions and select their material accordingly.

'Proper DJs don't just trot out a load of nice tunes, they think carefully about the time, the place and the people in front of them. This is the real skill in DJing and it doesn't come easily. Knowing music, finding music, understanding music, is something that takes years" (Broughton, F & Brewster, B 2002, P.12).

'There are a number of skills that are associated with electronic dance music DJs' (Yu, J 2013, P.151), Ben Drohan claims that 'a good DJ is one that looks comfortable behind the decks - they don't stress about beat-matching, song placement, track selection' (2010). This would suggest that the use of interactive technology to relieve the stress in certain aspects of the performance is potentially acceptable and could therefor assist DJs in becoming musicians.

Rane's Serato Scratch Live is a popular piece of technology amongst professional DJs 'with cueing, looping, keylock, the SP-6 Sample Player and DJ FX, its easy to see why Scratch Live is the best and the choice of pro DJs' (Serato, 2014). As well as creative applications, the interface analyses the BPM of a track and allows the user to automatically adjust the second track's tempo so that the BPM's match. Now although this doesn't completely remove the art of beat matching, it does make it considerably easier and will remove some of the practice that is necessary for a stress free performance. Ableton Live 9 is a Digital Audio Workstation developed by a Berlin-based music software company, it has a feature that will analyse the tempo of a song imported into the software and time stretch the audio in line with the project tempo, although further time and effort is required to program enough music for a whole performance, it will significantly reduce the effort required to beat match and will help the DJ to feel more comfortable behind the decks.

Playing two pre-recorded songs together is fairly straightforward, especially considering the technology mentioned above, however, understanding music, developing a collection and programming an entire set would normally take years of effort and true dedication.

'The real work of a DJ happens behind the scenes - searching dark record stores, devouring endless lists and daunting stacks of vinyl, and sniffing out the wonders they contain. Playing records is rarely hard work, but doing the research and amassing the knowledge to do it well is a full time job' (Broughton, F & Brewster, B 2002, P.12).

The third and final software in question, Mixed In Key, is an application that analyses audio files and calculates their musical key and BPM. The Camelot Wheel, a color-coded system invented by Mark Davis in 1991 is then used to assist the user in identifying their with compatible keys when considering their selection, this can reduce the amount of time needed to learn theory in order to construct a set that is harmonically pleasing.

In conclusion, we have to consider that if a professional DJ, or any one for that matter, has applied years of practice to the trade or is simply using technology to assist them in achieving the same results, then perhaps they should be considered as musically talented. Therefore, in my professional opinion and based on the research above, I believe that a non-musician using interactive technology to create music does immediately become a musician. This being said, although the technology may assist in their first steps, DJs or 'non musicians' do not automatically achieve musicianship status by simply performing the act of mixing two records together, that individual will need to dedicate time to perfecting their skills and understanding the music; the use of interactive technology may be able to accelerate this process as well as allowing for creative possibilities that may otherwise not have been possible.

'One may state … that DJs aren't musicians. However, I feel that the ability to skillfully use turntables … and computers to make music that people love makes these DJs artists/musicians' (Myer, M, p.21).


Broughton, F & Brewster, B. (2002) How To DJ (Properly). London: Bantam Press.

Broughton, F & Brewster, B. (2006) Last night a DJ saved my life. London: Headline Book Publishing.

Drohan, B. (2010) DJ Master Course [on-line]. Available at: (Accessed 19th April 2013).

Fikentscher, K. (2013) DJ culture in the mix [Music Programming in Contempory DJ Culture]. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Gladwell, M. (2009) Outliners [The story of success]. London: Penguin Books Ltd

Masolo, C., Vieu, L., Bottazzi, E., Catenacci, C., Ferrario, R., Gangemi, A., & Guarino, N. (2004). Social Roles and their Descriptions [on-line]. Laboratory for Applied Ontology, ISTC-CNR & IRIT-CNRS. Available at: (Accessed May 5 2014)

Leong, S. (2003) Musicianship in the 21st century [Issues, trends & possibilities]. Sydney: Australian Music Centre. Available from: (Accessed 30 April 2014)

Myer, M (2011) Electronic Dance Music and Culture in the Pacific Northwest [on-line]. Linfield College. Available at: (Assessed May 5 2014)

Oxford Dictionaries. (2014) 'Interactive', Oxford Dictionaries [on-line], Oxford University Press. Available at: (Accessed May 4, 2014).

Serato (2014) Serato Scratch Live, features and specs [on-line]. Available from: (Assessed 4 May 2014)

Smith. (2014) Portfolio, D. G. A. [on-line] Available at:

(Accessed May 4, 2014).

University of Florida. (2014) So you want to be a DJ [on-line]. University of Florida. Available at: (Assessed 4 April 2014)

Webley, H. (2006). Are DJs musicians? Sound on Sound [on-line]. Available from: (Accessed 17th April 2013).

Wolfe, J., Almeida, A., Chen, J. M., George, D., Hanna, N., & Smith, J. (2013). THE PLAYER-WIND INSTRUMENT INTERACTION. Sydney: School of Physics. Available from: (Accessed 29 April 2014).

Yu, J. (2013) DJ culture in the mix [Electronic Dance Music and Technological Change]. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.


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