Building An Arc: Bringing Narrative Structure To Your DJ Sets

Giving some thought to the arc of your entire set can give it a lot more impact than just playing a series of tracks with no overall direction. Dubspot guest blogger Rachel Dixon offers advice to DJs who aim to take their sets further.

The Subtle Art of Programming

The art of creating a great DJ set is more than just placing the best new selections in a string and beatmatching them one after another. Anyone who has ever felt the power of a pulsing dance floor or witnessed the exodus resulting from a well-mixed but poorly-chosen track knows that one of the most important qualities of a great DJ set is structure.

Many factors come into play when planning a set: BPM, track selection and genre, to name the most obvious. But the skill that sets a great DJ apart from the herd is his or her ability to keep the crowd engaged and dancing over longer periods of time than just a few songs. While the possibilities of using DJ tricks and effects to spice up your sets may seem endless, the overall structure of a set is often the thing that will make or break the audience’s attention and willingness to dance.

As a DJ, it’s essential that the agreement made with the crowd at the beginning of the set is followed through. On the simplest level that agreement is: I will keep you dancing. And often that agreement is managed by controlling and varying the energy of the tracks. Other genres of music and art have used certain specific structures for centuries to control their audience’s energy and keep them on the edge of their seats. Let’s look at some of these and consider how we can structure a DJ set to effectively steer the energy and mood of the audience over the course of a night.

The Three-Act Arc And The Crazy Shark

The three-act dramatic arc is the most common narrative format in Western storytelling, and it yields a high-energy payoff with a climax, as many DJ sets do. Traditionally this is set up in three acts: in the first act, the characters and their differences are introduced; in the second act the tension rises, usually in a push-pull of events which lead to a climax in action; and in the third, order is restored and the energy tapers off. When diagrammed, the plot can look like an arc:

A classic example of this is the perfect arc of the movie Jaws. We’re introduced to Sheriff Brody in the first act, and the problem is established: there is a crazy shark in the water. In the second act, the tension between Brody and the shark heats up with a series of escalating attacks, which force Brody to face his fears and defeat the shark in a massive climactic scene. In the third act, the triumphant Brody returns order to the town! Conflict resolved! For someone watching the film, the ending is an emotional payoff; I know the first time I saw Jaws I could feel my heart racing during the action and slow down at the resolution. Structure has power, and using this kind of structure can do the same thing for your DJ sets if you do it right.

Three-Act Arcs In Classical Music

This three-act structure also appears a lot in classical music. For example, the classical sonata is a musical form that has three sections or “movements.” A sonata’s sections are usually arranged by tempo/energy level: the first part is allegro (faster tempo), the middle is adagio or andante (slower tempo), and another fast movement at the end. Mozart’s Piano Sonata #16 is a classic example:

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The third movement of Mozart’s work is a dramatic emotional change from the second, and its placement right after the slow second movement only emphasizes its energetic tempo. Just like the three-act arc, there’s a push-pull of tension, this time between fast and slow. As you can hear, the sonata form uses tempo as one of the main ways to increase or decrease energy. Mozart changed more than just the tempo of the music between the second and the third movement, but the tempo is the most obvious energetic change

For DJs, this example points to the power of tempo changes. Many DJs stick to small, gradual tempo changes over the course of a set, while others occasionally play a song at a radically different tempo to create a dramatic shift on the dance floor. It’s useful to think about using both tension and tempo to influence the energy of your sets.

Building An Arc In Your DJ Sets

The big takeaway for DJs from this narrative three-act structure is the basic format:

  1. introduce an idea or style
  2. build on that introduction with tension and lead up to a dramatic climax
  3. roll “down the hill” of the arc’s energy at the end

Personally, my favorite and most memorable experiences on the dancefloor have been guided by skilled DJs who have wowed me with their track selection, technical accuracy, and most importantly, the smooth glide into a peak at the top of the arc. Whether the DJ is dictating the structure of the set or the audience is guiding them over the arc is perhaps up for debate, but that peak is noticed and vital.

Many other factors may come into play when trying to stand out from the pack, but recognizing this kind of “overarc-ing” structure when we see it or hear it in movies, books, or other musical genres can help us guide us in structuring our DJ sets and giving them more of an emotional punch.


Dubspot guest blogger Rachel Dixon was a Handel and Haydn Vocal Apprentice, studied at New England Conservatory, briefly sang lead vocals for the Phoenix punk band Scrimshaw, managed the guestlist at Boston nightclubs Avalon and Axis, and was on the design team for the Dance Central video game franchise. She is a published fiction writer, bedroom songwriter, and poet who lives in New York City with her dog.

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The definition of DJing has changed dramatically in the last decade. Laptops, controllers, and software have emerged alongside more traditional turntables and CDJ’s, smashing the barrier to entry. In today’s digital age, anyone can become a DJ. To reflect this renaissance, Dubspot has created the Digital DJing with Traktor program. In both our physical and online schools, students will learn how to DJ entirely with Traktor’s cutting-edge technology. An emphasis will be placed on the concepts of DJing rather than simply learning how to use the software.

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