Mixing in key explained

Reposting my old article from orju.net before that site dies completely.

Having commited about 250 DJ mixes over last 7 8 years, recently I tried something new. Taking an advice of friend, I investigated mixing in key, that is mixing tracks in harmonic progression. If feels very different than my ususal approach – ordering tracks in logical progression for example by tempo, energy or style. However, it works and results are impressive. Example mix that merges a variety of styles in key can be found here.

So, what’s the mixing in key? First of all, you need to know what key is.
All the western scales (major and minor) use seven notes out of 12 in total available in octave. These 24 keys can be arranged into graphical representation called the Circle of Fifths, as depicted:


Anybody who composes music for real has seen that for sure. But not many really understand. Let’s see how it works.

First of all, locate the C major key on a  chart. It consists the following notes:
C, D, E, F, G, A, B
Yes, that’s pretty simple. According to Circle of Fifths, it’s relative minor key is A minor. Which consists of notes, suprisingly
C, D, E, F, G, A, B
These are just same notes, just used in different role! The dominant of A minor key is A,  as in the picture.


Mixing tracks from C major to A minor will result in shifting the bass, but otherwise these are just identical notes and will be perfectly in tune.

Okay, now investigate what happens if we move around the wheel to the right or left hand side:


One note is different. One note, F, moved just a semitone up and from dominant became major tone. Still, other six notes are still here. This is true for each step on the wheel. Since both the tone and tone of the note moved up, the overall energy of track also rises a bit, but does it in a very consistent way.

A shift to the left is also possible


Here again, only one note changes. This time, however, it’s a move down, so energy of the track decreases a bit. Still, transition is difficult to hear. It’s much more easier to feel it. Like magic :)

So, mixing in key is basically reduced to these three simple moves. This can be very limiting, however, as this way you won’t be able to reach your favourite track from the other side of the wheel before the mix ends. I also propose another move.
Since most of EDM music begins with and ends with bassline, which is always in key, it is possible to move from minor key to same major key seemlessly. There is a good chance that transition will be unnoticeable, as it never existed. In fact, teh same note is playing all the time. But the impression on listeners will be great. Try that, I tell you.

In case you couldn’t locate minor and major keys with same root, in this picture they are painted same colors


This technique is not advisable when mixing melodic tunes with lots of content, certainly not in mashup style. But for the basslines it does wonders.

Okay, now how do you know the key of a tune? Music veterans may use piano or even absolute ear to determine the key of a tune, but it’s still take stime not easy to manage them by memory. Try dedicated software, such as recordbox (free for registration), which can not only store the key in tags, but also can analyze them on its own! It is not perfect, but in most cases it hits nicely. Sometimes it’s more certain than I am. Still, trust your ears – these are people who listen to music in the end, not computers.

A practical advice – always prepare more tunes than you are going to play. Otherwise you will find yourself unable to arrange them in order. If you try to prepare tracklist before performance, print yet another Circle of Fifths blank, like this chart

Just write down your tunes and try to link them with a line, making only one of 4 moves mentioned in this tutorial each step.

Circle of Fifths

Remember, the more tunes you have at your disposal, the more creative you can get! Mixing in key allows to blend even quite different genres and phase them back and forth, as you may hear in the mix provided. Certainly it will be a great step if you didn’t try mixing in key before. For these of you who do, it may still give some insight in music harmony in general.

Hopefully you find this tutorial useful and inspiring :)


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