There’s a new emphasis on mixing in key in the DJing world. Meshing songs with harmonizing keys, or manually adjusting the key of one song during the mix, will take your music from good to head-noddingly great.
Some people may think you need a music theory background to understand the workings of mixing in key, but it’s not that complex. DJ gear nowadays makes the mixing in key process quick and easy. Even if you don’t have the latest technology, you’ll be able to master mixing in key all the same.
What is a Music Key?
For DJs, it’s not necessary to grasp the concept of music keys. We’re adding it here for the overachievers. If that isn’t you, skip down to the Harmonic Mixing section.
A key in music theory is the group of notes, AKA the scales, in a song. Each song has a certain cluster of notes within a definable melodic segment. You can think of it as a musical summary of a song’s notes.
Whether you are a music producer with a background in music theory or not, you’ll create songs that have a recognizable music key. Your compositions will have different music keys, as each song uses a unique set of notes.
Music Key Labeling
There is a difference between how a music key gets displayed in DJing software compared with its classification in music theory.
In Music Theory
- A music key is named by its predominant musical note – Either A-B-C-D-E-F-G.
- Next, the key will have a Major or Minor scale position.
- Lastly, the key could have a Flat or Sharp emphasis.
Example: E Flat Minor, G Major, or F Sharp Major
In DJing Software
Each Music key will have a two-character value in most DJing software (some DJ software assisting mixing in key will display the traditional music key name). The music key will include a 1-through-12 number, with either an A/B or D/M letter depending on the software.
Example: D Minor = 7A, A Flat Major = 4B
Harmonic Mixing vs. Key Shifting
There are a few ways of mixing in key. Harmonic mixing in key makes the musical keys of two songs match or relate, so they fit well together sonically.
Key Shifting mixing in key is manually changing one track’s key, usually in semi-tone adjustments, to add a creative flair to your mix. A DJ should learn harmonic mixing in key first, and then they can master the art with Key Shifting.
There should be controls on the most recent DJ software or controllers to operate manual key shifting. You’ll want to splice it in sporadically. Don’t overuse it; treat Key Shifting like the special sauce in your mix.
For this article, we will strictly cover harmonic mixing in key, but check out this excellent tutorial of the DDJ-1000 that demonstrates the creative possibilities of Key Shifting!
Harmonic Mixing in Key – the Run-Down
Here is an easy step-by-step process to get you from clueless to performance-ready.
1. Analyze Your Library for Musical Keys
Most DJ software will scan and tag each of your song’s musical key once you upload your music library. You may have to go into the preferences and enable “key tagging.” If your DJ software doesn’t offer this feature, we recommend updating your software to the most recent version. This will help the mixing in key processes tremendously.
I know I’m terrible at letting things update for years at a time. The updates add critical features that may include music key tagging and other useful performance metrics.
If you still don’t see music key tagging after updating or mixing on an older rig, you can analyze your library using 3rd party software like BeaTunes & Mixed in Key. There is other software on the market for free, but you’ll have better luck using a paid service.
The software will export each song’s musical key in a custom field, comment field, or in the filename. Check the software’s key tagging preferences to ensure the key information gets put into your music’s metadata.
2. Mix with Matching Keys
Once you know your songs’ musical key, the first step to harmonic mixing in key is matching two song’s key. This is pretty easy. The music you are cueing will have the same musical key tag as the live song.
For example, if the playback song has a music key of 9B, a very common key, you’ll locate another song with the 9B musical key tag in your library that fits with the rhythm. You should be able to sort your library by the musical key, which will simplify the mixing in key process further.
Many newer controllers, CDJs, and even the software itself have an automatic mixing in key sync feature. The auto-key sync function works fine and minimizes time hunting out songs with the same key.
Once you’ve accomplished matching musical keys, you can move onto more advanced harmonic mixing in key practices.
3. Camelot Wheel Mixing in Key Chart
One wheel to rule them all in the music realm that contains all the musical keys with their number/letter & music theory labeling. The inner ring of this mixing key wheel chart shows Minor Keys, while the outer ring shows the Major Keys. The Camelot wheel mixing in key chart is so useful in harmonic mixing because it shows correlating musical keys. It’s a quick visual guide to mixing in key so that you can switch a song’s musical key to an adjacent or related key.
Google “Camelot Wheel mixing in key chart,” and you’ll see plenty of information pop up. Download it to your desktop (and set it to your desktop for quick reference while DJing.)
4. Mix Using Related Keys
Mixing with the same musical key is a good starting place, but meshing a new song with an adjacent musical key will liven things up! A related musical key is “in the same neighborhood” on the Camelot Wheel. A corresponding musical key is either across from or one increment up or down on the wheel.
Swap a musical key with its linked Major/Minor key for an easy way to start the process.
Here’s a step-by-step process:
- Establish the musical key of the playback track.
- Locate the playback track’s musical key on the Camelot Wheel.
- Select a relative musical key to use for the cue song.
- Locate a song with the chosen relative key, or manually change a song’s key if your DJ software offers that capability.
- Mesh the cue song into the playback song and listen to the magic!
Here’s an example:
- Playback Track Musical Key = 9A
- Relative Musical Keys = 9B, 10A, 8A
5. Get Creative
The more you use the Camelot Wheel, and the more you practice mixing in key, the more you’ll get used to all the musical keys. You’ll start to remember all of them, one at a time. Your brain will begin to recognize the keys, and your ears will begin to crave keys that fit with each other. Mixing in key will naturally become more instinctive.
Once you start to get comfortable with harmonic mixing, set free the creative possibilities. Some Musical Keys on the Camelot Wheel can mesh with completely different keys on the opposite side. Shifting specific keys up or down 4 notches will seem intuitive. You’ll pinpoint various Majors, Minors, Sharps, & Flats that work well together.
Mixing in Key: Difficult or Nah?
Dj’s mixing in key is all the rage right now! It’s the new way to leave your mark on the crowd. Don’t let a little bit of music theory scare you. You got this. It’s not that difficult to wrap your mind around.
You can start by only matching the keys of all your songs you mix. After that, you can use the Camelot Wheel to harmonize the music even further. A simple way to go about it is by shifting up, down, or sideways one key on the wheel.
Once you start to learn the keys of your songs, the process becomes second nature. After that, you can begin manually Key Shifting a song throughout your set to give it some super cool character. We leave it in your capable DJing hands to master mixing in key from here.