DJ Education: Modern Music for the Elementary Classroom

Jamie Solis
Jul 17, 2018 · 5 min read

Music is a universal language, older than spoken language itself. Infants respond to sounds before they ever begin processing words. Auto-didactically, parents adopt a sing-songy voice in their “baby talk” to generate a response from their newborn. Children’s songs are essential, and successful children’s television programming are embedded with a soundtrack of upbeat, catchy, melodic tunes — they’re designed to teach, elicit a response from the child viewer and maintain engagement (ie. Sesame Street, Barney, Yo Gabba Gabba, The Backyardigans, etc.).

Children encounter and engage with music in their daily activities — from radio and online video streaming, to songs used in schools, to the game soundtrack on the latest mobile app/game they play, to lullabies that serenade them to sleep at night. It has long been understood by research studies that young children have a natural inclination for music-making and derive concomitant pleasure from generating sound. Given an environment that allows them to explore, children will naturally satisfy their curiosity for musical expression. In this space, the newest DJ technology provides an additional avenue to enhance creativity. The child DJ is not driven by the desire to be a touring rock star or nightclub resident, but rather by pure curiosity and impulse for musical spontaneity. Take for example, 10-year old DJ Switch of Ghana, whose passion for DJing started from simply wanting “to try it” and “switching up people’s happiness.” Here is a girl whose future career aspiration is to be a gynecologist.

Popular Misrepresentation

The media representation of DJs has inspired the interest of many young artists. The image of a DJ playing before a festival crowd — spinning platters, pressing cue buttons, fists pumping up and down — has piqued plenty of imaginations. Yet, how many of these young dreamers know what DJs actually do?

Fundamentally, DJing is the art of mixing songs together. It seems easy at first. After all, you are just playing songs that other artists have made while manipulating the software and technology to go from one song to the next. Or, are you? Yes, technology has made it easier to learn, but it has also given rise to a population of “DJs” lacking in musicality. In the digital age, true artistry is diluted by what begets the most views, shares or likes.

It must be expressed that the true art of DJing is far more complex than what meets the eye. Mixing is essentially the layering of multiple songs together in order to achieve one seamless sound. However, these are only accomplished through the mastery of various techniques, like: the manipulation of lows, mids, and highs; the use of special effects (echoes, filters, etc.); or with a drop-cut transition from one song to the next that follows the beat pattern. DJ innovation happens in the mix and with the flow of the song selection.

Unbeknownst to many, DJing requires a deep understanding of song structure and flow, so as to be able to identify the optimal points upon which to transition. Yes, the technology can tell you that two songs “match” together in terms of speed and tempo, but do your ears tell you the same? What modern technological innovation has provided us is a scaffold for learning, but it has taken away from the focus on ear-training in the process. Consider: before Serato and CDJs, that’s exactly what DJs did — they matched songs using but their bare ears.

Students in grade 2 collaborate to beat-match on headphones by adjusting the tempo slider on a Roland DJ-202 controller

More than just “cool”

Coinciding with growing popularity of DJs in mass media, new apps and musical toys are being developed with DJ components to inspire musical activities in young children (Crayola DJ, Mussila DJ, Baby DJ, DJ Hero, etc.). A new genre of “DJ Schools” attempt to capture the widespread interest by launching their own DJ learning programs, from baby DJ to “professional” DJ certifications. However, the new genre of DJ “schools” are also laden with institutions lacking in educational impact. Because it’s still a fairly new field, there are no standards for how to teach, especially when the art itself is mainly considered as informal learning.

Without a deep understanding of children’s cognitive development and learning behaviors, there can be no long-term impact on a child’s educative processes or sustainable learning model with developmentally-appropriate scope and sequence. Thusly, the lack of a pedagogical foundation by many of the so-called “DJ Schools” runs the risk of not only wasting a child’s efforts (and a parent’s dollars), but of also throwing an exceptional opportunity for early childhood development into the common disrepute of entertainment and nightlife culture.

DJ education is an avenue for children to experiment with and enjoy music they love. The goal is not to learn how to DJ, but to provide an additional form of expression that nurtures a life-long love and appreciation for music. As such, DJ tools might best be understood as musical instruments, paralleled to a modern-day piano. Some schools are now embracing this rise in DJ enthusiasm with an equitable commitment to engage these tools as formal musical instruments. By refurbishing, if you will, a classical pedagogy of musical training with a more popular culture, schools in the United Kingdom have been able to sustain the interest of students from non-musical fields — a fact that demonstrates the inter-disciplinary benefit of developmental musical training.

As a creativity exercise, DJing allows children to control songs they know and make it their own with the press of a button. It removes the pressure of having to know music theory and quickly engages them in the process of experimenting and creating. There’s instant gratification with every tap, twist, and scratch on the controller, as each knob or button manipulates a song component that changes the overall sound. Children are immediately engaged in active music-making with simple experimentation on the controller, making it an ideal starting point for meaningful conversations about music and how it is made.

Similar to text innovation in creative writing, “remixing” is the DJ’s critical thinking workout for dissecting the different layers of a song and functions as a platform for developing a deep understanding of what sounds work together. It is a foundational musical skill set that is simultaneously a gateway into music production.

Student exploring the drum sequencer on a Roland DJ-202 controller to add original drum patterns to his DJ mix

Spinning decks and mixing sounds is no longer a foreign concept to most kids. With the Internet and social media, the spread of new and all kinds of music is much faster. What does this mean for today’s educators? It is a challenge yet our duty to engage with the technology in order to understand how children today organize and discover sound. Gone are the days for conservatory-style training. Instead of learning to play the piano or the violin, today’s children are more inclined to learn to DJ.

Pre-K students discover the magic of the filter knob


Thoughts and reflections on current trends in popular music…

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