Improving Your DJing With Free Improvisation

Improvisation. The knack of feeling a crowd and adjusting the music intuitively is one of the few things that elevates the DJ above an iTunes playlist. So while we still remain ahead of the machines in that respect, is there anything to be learned from the improvisational musician? As the boundaries between DJ and musician become ever more blurred (turntablists, controllers, etc), can we find any parallels in the way they approach a performance?

What is free improvisation?

Improvisation is most commonly associated with Jazz music and masters of the art like Miles Davis (above) but it can be found in all styles of art including DJing!  Classically trained UK musician Simon Jones grew up on Bach and Beethoven but became frustrated at the limitations of musical notation (“if you do try and notate everything it becomes insanely difficult to play”) Instead, he began to explore just the opposite – music that is never decided until it is played and now leads improvisation workshops for Frakture – an organisation which promotes experimental music in the UK.

Simon explains that any musicians can take part in improvisation and there are no strict rules, indeed that is the beauty of it:

“What I like about improvisation is the ability to explore – you might start out with one idea but then you just go exploring from that idea and find new things that you might not have thought of before.”

This is experimentation with a capital E. An improvisation might start with a musical motif – anything from a simple guitar melody to a complex and random series of piano notes.  The other musicians then respond in their own ways. It’s about expressing a feeling through sound by responding to others or indeed leading them – just as a DJ might try to lead a crowd.

How does Improv fit into a DJ set?

Ean suggests 4 Ways to use improvisation in a set

  1. Go off the map and pick songs from instinct – not a set playlist. Did a random song just pop into your head? Try it out, be bold!
  2. Work in build ups and transitions as they come to you, and really listen to the audience to work with their response.
  3. Have a set of samples or notes ready to play over a track in a third deck.
  4. Drop an accapella over a track and start to cut it up as you feel inspired. In the video below I heard a mix in my head and decided to try it out on the spot. The resulting harmony was so nice, that I just went with it and explored the combination for as long as it felt good. This moment was a perfect example of 1,2 and 4!

Guidelines for improvising…

1. Play With Others

Having a conversation with yourself can be limited. If you improvise with others you open up all kinds of possibilities – when musicians improvise they can express feelings, interrupt each other, or argue with each other all using sound – it is the unpredictability that is so exciting.
Simon says: “Say I throw a riff out there or a sound, someone may react to that in a way I could never have dreamt of and then that creates something interesting for me and for that person…and hopefully for the listener as well because if I’m controlling everything it’s only what is in my mind.”

Ean Golden explains:

A simple question and answer session is a great way to practice playing with others. I personally have not played with DJs nearly as often as I would like but Q-bert is a pro at the art form of improvisation with another musician.

2. Feel The Music

What mental approach should be taken to an improvisation? How much of the process is unconscious and how much conscious? Simon explains:

“You feel how someone else is moving – they might be going into a crescendo and building the music up and you feel that and you really start to follow that…your natural instincts might be to counteract that, but also you do need that to have that conscious decision-making process as well.”

This last point is crucial – be careful not to rely only on your intuition.

“If all you’re ever doing is just reacting subconsciously, you never really do anything new. You’re always just relying on your memory and the way you’ve reacted before”, adds Simon.

Here are a few tips for ways to stay relaxed, feel the music,  get more into the moment:

  • Take your time: Rushing things increases stress which decreases creativity. Take your time and play the first note when ready.
  • Breath Deeply: Most people stop breathing when they get nervous and that can cause a vibe killing freeze. Focus on your breath and take a deep one!
  • Listen to the other musicians! Just like a good conversationalist, its better for everyone if you focus on listening first and then talking second.  Watch this video of Miles Davis again where he seems to be listening to his own playing!

3. Teamwork


Improvisation is not just about doing whatever you want and hoping it comes together as Simon describes:

“If you’re doing whatever you want then you might impinge on the other people you’re playing with and so you can’t have total freedom of the individual within a group.” “You have to have dialogues within the group whether they’re musical dialogues or conceptual dialogues…a call and response type thing even.”

The video above is not improvised but a great example of quality DJ teamwork. The most notable aspect is that each musician is playing his part, without everyone trying to solo or stand out at all times.

4. Work From a Position of Safety


Most improvisers have a little bag of tricks they use to ease the improvisation.

For the turntablist there is a set palette of sounds and voicings that many DJs start with before the gloves really come off.  The point is that you can use these tricks as a basis to experiment from.

However, beware of relying too much on the same tricks as this can freeze up the organic nature of the improvisation and will reduce the chance to invent anything new. In the video above, Ean’s part is improvised, but built on a set of samples he was very familiar with. The familiar notes and progression provided a comfortable place to start with but the results were ultimately based on what the other musician contributed.

5. Experiment with randomness


This one is for the more anarchic among you and fans of the composer John Cage – the guy who created the controversial composition 4’33’’ (four minutes and 33 seconds of silence to encourage the audience to listen to their surroundings). Ask yourself how will the sound be different if you are not in control of it?  What is it possible to create?  This random element can be seen already in production software with features such as a random setting on an arpeggiator. How can you deliberately provide randomness with the opportunity to show up in your practice?

  • Touk

    Fantastic article, great videos.  A true contribution.

  • Touk

    Fantastic article, great videos.  A true contribution.

  • Touk

    Fantastic article, great videos.  A true contribution.

  • The improvising is def the fun part but I dont think you can really enjoy it until you really learn playing your instrument/decks …that is when you dont think and can just express. Dont play whats there, play whats not there – Miles Davis

  • The improvising is def the fun part but I dont think you can really enjoy it until you really learn playing your instrument/decks …that is when you dont think and can just express. Dont play whats there, play whats not there – Miles Davis

  • The improvising is def the fun part but I dont think you can really enjoy it until you really learn playing your instrument/decks …that is when you dont think and can just express. Dont play whats there, play whats not there – Miles Davis

  • DJAR

    Great article!  DJing started out completely as improvisation. I’ve been a DJ for 34 years and we did not have sets like most do today. It was thought of as phony and uncreative. Everything was spur of the moment. You read the crowd and acted on their response.  Today i hear most DJs playing the same set of songs in the same order doing the exact same mixes at different clubs. You might as well play a mixed cd. Real DJs play it all and play for the moment. I played in a club where one DJ was like “dude i was going to play that song in my set”. My reply was Improvise and find another song. It’s good to see someone write an article on improvisation and the importance of it.

  • DJAR

    Great article!  DJing started out completely as improvisation. I’ve been a DJ for 34 years and we did not have sets like most do today. It was thought of as phony and uncreative. Everything was spur of the moment. You read the crowd and acted on their response.  Today i hear most DJs playing the same set of songs in the same order doing the exact same mixes at different clubs. You might as well play a mixed cd. Real DJs play it all and play for the moment. I played in a club where one DJ was like “dude i was going to play that song in my set”. My reply was Improvise and find another song. It’s good to see someone write an article on improvisation and the importance of it.

  • nice one folks, I was always inspired by instinct vibes. But sometimes those moments are not there, so it’s always safe to have a proven playlist set on the standby just in case. lol

  • nice one folks, I was always inspired by instinct vibes. But sometimes those moments are not there, so it’s always safe to have a proven playlist set on the standby just in case. lol

  • Alex Wild

    Can anyone tell me what that instrument is that looks like a bongo, which the guy sitting down is playing? It sounds brilliant and he plays it in just the right places.

  •  Absolute food for thought! Thanks for this TT!! Keep ’em comin soundboy!

  • Hans Kulisch

     great article and so true… there is so much you can do with just a cue button and lately i promote the concept of aleatoric djing, so playing whatever comes handy and try not to mess up or playing completely new records for surprise of me and the audience, most time people think…great preparation or ask me, whats that, and i say no idea, just played it. sometimes it can get quite psychedelic this way…john cage and especially john oswald here are great inspirations. oswald was known as playing two totally different records together both on full volume, whatever….could be noisy but if you make a break that keeps the audience happy then everything is ok again….cheers hk

  • Calgar C

    awesome… a great improv set has to be the stuff Sylvain Luc did with Bireli Langrene… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXXe2ukYQlY

  • ameganoise

    An excellent article & that Jon Cage Video is very thought provoking

  • Pieter

     So what is great, I haven’t heard this live version before, thanks for sharing 😀

  • I am a jazz saxophonist as well as being a DJ. This article is on point, and I approach DJing the same way I approach the saxophone. 

  • Dan Leach

    If anyone would like more information about Frakture (UK Experimental music organisation): http://www.facebook.com/pages/frakture/24681989004Simon Jones’ new project: http://www.hothail.bandcamp.com/track/coramwww.facebook.com/pages/frakture/24681989004Simon Jones’ new project: http://www.hothail.bandcamp.com/track/coram

  • Ajay

    Great article! I really liked what you were doing with the acappellas in your mix. Looking forward to listening to the full set.

  • this article is in line with the way I have been DJaying for a while. I call it the “no playlist movement”. I think about what song I am going to play next (or after that, or after that) before i set eyes on my computer. It’s harder than browsing a well curated playlist, but it can be a more fluid and rewarding way to DJ.

  • Noelflava

     Nice article. A bit like Kung Fu class for Dj’s. I think there is actually this element in just about every aspect of life wether it be art, music, or physical activities. You could relate this to the way you cook a meal as well. 
    Tasty bites for these hungry students. Keep servin em up DJTT… : ) 

  • Thanks for the article. inspirational stuff. Gotta practice now..bye.

  •  This is something you have to do spuratically during the course of 2-3 set… esp if you want to drastically change tempos (BPMs). These types of improv set-ups really help make the night lively for the audience…

  •  Wow great article DJTT, really enjoyed it !!

  • Ezra

    This article is on the weak side of things. DJing, with the exception of a couple touring house heads, has never been about a set playlist for the whole night.

  • Jeet Kune Do applied to Audiovisual = Tooltablism (or vacummness formless)

    If you are gona teach, then learn from the Masters:
    http://www.martialinfo.com/article.asp?gbfspn=145

  • Nerve racking at first but feels great once you can get comfortable doing it

  • That’s why I use machines  only and have not taken up the DJ thing. However, I do love Traktor with 4 decks as it is the closest I have come to playing machines in an improvised way. I just get too board playing tracks, I want to change them too much…

  • DJ Irias

     A thoroughly inspiring and informative article. Keep kicking ass, Mr. Golden.

  • Dur

    A great article on why beatmatching will always be superior to SYNC.

    • Garygary1

       How the hell is that relevant at all?

      • Mylestec

        Its relevant because manual beat matching often can provide a improvisational feel to the music… If you’ve ever tried to remix any old tunes you’ll notice that you must first get that tune completely in perfect computer time… but that takes part of the organic feeling away from it… manual beat provides part of the swinging organic feel… in fact… sometimes, depending on the genre, you can move one record to syncopate against the other.. just by a momentary squeeze of the spindle or finger break against the platter…. lots of improv here mate!

      • Mylestec

        Its relevant because manual beat matching often can provide a improvisational feel to the music… If you’ve ever tried to remix any old tunes you’ll notice that you must first get that tune completely in perfect computer time… but that takes part of the organic feeling away from it… manual beat provides part of the swinging organic feel… in fact… sometimes, depending on the genre, you can move one record to syncopate against the other.. just by a momentary squeeze of the spindle or finger break against the platter…. lots of improv here mate!

    • Sirchone6

      Awesome stuff right here.. More posts like this please 🙂 Hey Dur, I can’t wait until you post a video of your amazing beatmatching skills! You must have some place on the web where we we can see what a wonderful dj you are. Please give us a link ! -_-

      • Dur

        A video of beatmatching… you like your boring.

        • Sirchone6

          Nah, I just live in 2011 .. Let us know when you get here.

        • pros and cons, pros and cons, proooooosssss 

        • I 2nd that request. Show us a video of your epic skills!  

    • Rockludret

       Well, perhaps. But you will never be able to have the same freedom of harmonic mixing if you lock pitch and tempo.

  • Ivanthegreat

    Very inspirational. Great article!!! The lines between DJ and musician are more blured than ever and thats why I made the jump into DJing.

  • Lnreed

    awesome thanks for the info. !!!!