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If you have made a few steps into your career as DJ but still regard yourself as a beginner, then the idea of phrasing might be foreign to you.
Perhaps your fellow DJs have started to use the jargon of phrasing, and the confidence you have started to gain begins to fade as you realize you have no idea what they mean.
Phrasing is a straightforward but effective tool when it comes to DJing and is helpful as a musician in general. You can learn what phrasing is and how to use it in your own mixes through this guide.
What Is Phrasing?
In musical theory, without getting bogged down in the details, writing a piece of music is much like writing a good story. Each section has its own expressive focus and a sort of narrative that interacts with the other sections.
Whether that is providing a good cliffhanger at the end of the chapter, or a large event of interest to the reader, each sentence has its own place and function within the story.
Phrasing has a similar function in music. Each phrase is like a sentence. Its punctuation provides pauses and helps you navigate the main message or expression of the sentence.
In musical theory terms, punctuation is the dynamics of a piece such as forte, which means to play harder, or piano, which means softer. More simply put, phrasing can be as simple as ending on a different note than the previous phrase providing a different sort of expression.
Cadence is another word you might have heard of that relates to each phrase’s ending. Like a full stop or an exclamation mark can change a sentence, the ending of a phrase can alter how the phrase, and others around it, feel and communicate with each other.
Each sentence and phrase builds into a rich tapestry of art that expresses a wider feeling based on how each individual phrase and sentence operates and changes the parts around it.
How To Apply Phrasing In Your Mixes
Using the theory of phrasing in mixes is a lot more simple than a broader musical theory would imply. Things like forte and similar dynamics don’t apply to electronic music or are more naturally evident without the use of notation.
What is more, you don’t need to know the intricacies of the theoretical terms, such as cadence, etc., but having an awareness of the wider theory will undoubtedly help your mixes.
The operation of mixing is to mix two songs together, so awareness of phrases means that we can align two different phrases in two different songs so that the two songs’ mix’ together and the musical phrasing of each song doesn’t clash but flows perfectly over each other.
For example, if the two songs are aligned so that the bass comes in simultaneously if you don’t take the bass out of one track, then the two songs’ basses will clash and sound off.
To avoid these clashes, you need to know when each phrase of the song comes in.
A simple exercise in learning about the phrasing of a song is to listen to it and count along. Each phrase is usually around eight beats in electronic music. So next time you listen to your favorite house song, count along and listen to each phrase change.
Each genre often has a different way of phrasing, but most genres usually change at around the 16th beat, which is usually two phrases.
Through counting, listen to how each song changes on the 16th beat, maybe the vocals come in, or the synth line changes, or another instrument is introduced. Following this, usually on the 32nd beat (4 phrases in), the main ‘drop’ will happen.
The phrase ‘drop’ isn’t a musical theory term but a colloquial term is referring to when the bass comes in. In electronic music, the bass is usually the leading part of the song.
This practice of listening to a favored song and paying attention to when each part changes is an essential practice when mixing.
This knowledge of a song allows you to mix it with another with the knowledge of when the bass comes in, when the vocals drop out, when the hi-hats change, etc.
So, when you are mixing, an awareness of phrasing is super important. Say one track has a great synth line and another has a great vocal. Bearing in mind the key, you can figure out when each phrase starts and time it so that the two songs phrases are aligned.
This means that you can utilize the build-up of one song when building up to another song’s drop, and when the phrase you are building up to comes in, you know what will happen in both tracks and can mix and equalize it with confidence as you know what happens in each phrase.
On a more superficial level, an awareness of phrasing means you know exactly when to start introducing another song. As each phrase ends, you should hit play on the next track as soon as it hits the final beat (one, two, three, FOUR, five, six, seven, EIGHT).
For instance, a mix can sound weird if you hit play on the second beat, as the phrases wouldn’t be aligned.
Once you have mastered the phrasing of each song in your library, you can start to play around with how the tracks mix.
One intermediate technique is to get two songs to drop simultaneously but can mix the bass out of one song and turn it up on the other track.
If you have a four-channel mixer, you can mix up to four tracks simultaneously if you know each song’s phrasing.
Mixing can be hard for beginners, and jargon such as ‘phrasing’ and ‘key’ can bewilder concepts. But you don’t need a degree in musical theory in order to mix. Just focus on the theory that applies to what you want to learn and the genre you use most.
Even the most basic understanding of phrasing can make your mixes a lot better and make your transitions seamless!