What DJing means for childhood music learning

Jamie Solis
Oct 31, 2018 · 9 min read

“Why do you want to learn DJing?”

I just passed the first half of NOISE212 Labs DJ after school sessions with my group of third to fifth graders. While I started the semester with a clear idea of the scope and sequence of the goals and technical skills I wanted the students to acquire, this statement from one of them on the first day of session reminded me of the root of learning and the purpose of my program.

“I don’t know about learn. I just want to have fun.”

Simple enough, yet this remains an ongoing challenge for many classrooms.

Consider the traditional conservatory approach to music teaching. The theory-based curriculum that children are exposed to in formal education is overwhelming for many. The trend of decreasing music participation in elementary schools illustrates this fact, especially as students get older. This trend is ultimately a disservice to their long-term academic development, as arts engagement, including music, has proven to have positive impact on academic success.

Fundamentally, not all students need to have serious musical pursuits, but all students benefit from music participation.

Class discussion on pitch adjustment

DJing and the joy of listening: Do children actually hear music/songs today?

First and foremost is instilling in children the joy of listening. A large part of my childhood was spent listening on repeat to CDs on my Sony Walkman. This daily routine of repeating songs over and over again and developing relationships with each song is hard to replicate in today’s digital world. I was limited to the 12 tracks on my CD, and because of that, I listened, internalized and developed relationships with each song. My favorites had memories attached to them, but the same attachment is hard to achieve with music today. The quick turnover of interests — as dictated by the most popular or most shared — makes seldom the long-term engagement of depth, intricacy and intimacy.

Playing with filter rolls and knobs

“I don’t want to mix that one. I just want to listen to this song”

While I was so focused on getting the students to mix two songs, I lost sight of the importance of enjoying songs as they were already produced. I took for granted that many children are not given the chance to be still, to just listen and live in a song, as classic music appreciation.

One boy asked, “can I just DJ with one song?” I was momentarily taken back because the fun is supposed to come from hearing songs blend. Doesn’t it? Experience told me that DJing is about putting songs together. It’s not DJing if two or more songs are not playing together.

However, for a child just starting out, hearing two songs play at the same time can also be overwhelming. Without the command of necessary technical skills, the clashing sounds of two songs together is simply not pleasant to listen to. His frustration with the task grew because he couldn’t make sense of the two songs that he “beat-matched” together. Is he going to get discouraged and give up on DJing? Can you DJ with one song?

I quickly realized, then, that yes, of course he can “DJ” with one song. Given the functions on the Roland DJ-202 controller, he has ample things to do even on just one side of the deck. Between the filter knobs and rolls, he can make the song his own. After showing him these functions, his face immediately lit up. Twiddling knobs to make interesting sounds with just one song maintained his creative momentum. The troubled face relaxed and he spent the next 20 minutes exploring what he can do on one song. When it came time to share, his was the first hand up, eager to demonstrate how he “DJed” with filter effects and rolls to get his new song titled, Z-west (a combination of Jay-Z and Kanye West).

From the joy of listening grows a desire to innovate and get playful with the songs they know.

Independent DJ practice

DJing as playful learning

Playing and having fun is the work of a child and the optimal condition from which they achieve sustained learning. DJing makes sense for children especially because of its inherent open-ended nature. There is essentially no limit to what you can do as a DJ — what songs you can combine, what sounds you can add, and what genre of music you can create, etc. There is no proper song structure that one must necessarily adhere to. The only criteria is: does it sound good?

The availability of DJ controllers today, as opposed to vinyl and turntables with needles, makes the art form accessible to even the youngest audience. DJing has become fun and game-like, and the barrier to entry is a lot lower than it used to be. With the press of a button, they can make the beat roll. With the turn of a knob, they can hear a vocal echo. With the adjustment of a pitch fader, they can make the song go faster or slower. Simple actions with exciting, sometimes comical, rewards.

Fifth grade boys playing with left deck drum pads

Children are natural music makers, thriving most during open-ended learning conditions. Through active exploration on the DJ controller, children discover how to make music using their ears and determining with their friends what sounds good and what doesn’t. What DJing has provided us is an avenue for introducing and keeping children engaged in music. It is a way of sparking interest that would maybe entice them to want to learn the theory, or let them see the value in learning the theory.

DJing as social learning

As DJ educators, we have a unique opportunity to engage a whole student body into music learning that is responsive to individual interests while retaining the aspect of social learning essential to childhood experiences. Passionate learners are raised by giving them the space to share with their friends and explore together new ways to engage with the technology and music. The collaborative learning experience pushes their inquiry and engages them in conversation.

Partner DJ discussions

“Aaron*, listen to this. It sounds so satisfying,” beckoned a 5th grade boy to his friend.

The ability to perform instant mixes and share it with their friends is a crucial social learning interaction. While the mixes are far from perfect and at this point mostly experimental, providing the space to discover piques interest and invites ingenuity. They take charge of their own learning and construct new knowledge together with their friends. They talk about their songs, what effects they want to add, and help each other navigate the technology so that they can recreate what they hear in their heads.

A collaborative learning space that is founded on the authentic childhood friendships that they have nurtured with each other allows for meaningful understanding that cannot be accomplished from direct teaching.

“Hey Sean*, want to have a play date, so we can use my mom’s laptop and make our own DJ mixes?”

The learning does not stop when the children leave the classroom, and it shouldn’t.

DJing as reciprocal teaching

“That mix doesn’t sound good. I mean, the songs don’t sound good together” critiqued a student as I demonstrated perfect beat-matching of a hip-hop song with a house track.

“That’s right! Sometimes songs that match together don’t sound good together. Can you show me another song that you think might work?”

Talking about songs that “sound good” together

How children use technology and how we think they should use technology will not always align. When we expect students to receive the information and follow a step-by-step procedure for how to mix and which songs to mix together, then we are also creating a block to the development of their musical understanding. More than the mere transmission of musical and technical knowledge, DJing is fundamentally inspired from the constructivist approach to teaching and learning. They need to be invited to question and voice their opinions so that they can grow to be independent thinkers.

Each child brings his or her own music into the classroom. As DJ educators we are bridging generations and cultures, from the music we know and the music that the children tell us they want. Each session is a collective journey of discovery and having fun with the music. Together we are creating original mixes that we didn’t think possible, learning ways to use the tools that we didn’t think about before. It is a shared space, not just among the students but also between the teachers and the students. It is important to remember that the adults are not the only teachers in the room.

The concept of reciprocal teaching plays a major role in DJ learning. Yes, I come to class with prepared lessons that I see fit and based on what I know from the field. But it is also essential to listen to the music and thoughts that the students themselves come to class with. As the adult in the room, I have to let go of my ego and the perspective that “I know” what they need to learn. Knowing more doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m teaching well. Children’s instincts also reveal important lessons that need to be explored. They have the capacity to invent solutions to problems that arise and that sometimes make more sense to the class than what has traditionally been accepted.

As an after school program, I have the benefit of knowing that my students already have a pre-existing interest in the craft — that’s why they signed up for the class in the first place. That said, the battle is half won. Now it is my job to make sure that they continue to enjoy and learn the fundamentals without boring them with theory, technical training and my way of doing things.

Partner DJs sharing mixes

DJing for everyone

NOISE212 Labs aims to preserve children’s innate musical interest and the enjoyment derived from simply listening to good music. Entering the school space is only a natural progression towards bridging the gap between popular music and formal music learning. Interestingly, the children that chose to attend the class are not just the “cool” kids. DJing is for everyone because everyone has music in them. The quietest person in the class is just as capable of DJing and performing a unique mix as the one who brings in the latest music. DJing is universal and within the school space it becomes a safe platform for discovering and sharing music from all around.

During the age of creativity and innovation, music is an essential subject area. I am not arguing for the replacement of conservatory style or music theory — because an understanding of the principles behind each action is crucial to long-term understanding. Rather, I hope to bring forward a new approach to music learning theory through experimental practice on technologies that children are accustomed to seeing today, such as DJ controllers. Those who understand DJ controllers will eventually come to realize that there is so much more to the specialized technique required to DJ with vinyl and turntables. But music should first be accessible to everyone, and new technologies have allowed for it to be even easier to do so. Children can be exposed to DJing and begin to explore the fundamental concepts as the precursor to advanced study in the craft.

DJ appreciation begins with understanding that the art is more than just pressing play on two songs. It is the conscious coupling and layering of two songs in matching BPM with manipulation of the hi, mid, and low and the use of effects to achieve a unique, seamless sound. The goal is to nurture musical taste in young children so that they can grow up to be educated consumers of music, able to recognize and distinguish the qualities of a great DJ, and increase the pool of talents that occupy the electronic music space. The struggle with popular culture and social media is the rapid spread of what’s “cool” rather than what’s “good”. It is our responsibility to be standard bearers and leaders in DJ education to undo the common misunderstandings behind DJing as a legitimate musical craft. Bringing to light and educating on the actual artistry behind DJing will contribute to the mass understanding and increase awareness and standards for DJs in general

Young DJs at work

*All names have been changed


Thoughts and reflections on current trends in popular music and music education for the 21st century

Jamie Solis

Written by

Founder of NOISE212 Labs, modern music for school-age children, focusing on DJing and digital music production. @noise212 | www.noise212.com



Thoughts and reflections on current trends in popular music and music education for the 21st century

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