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For many years I’ve been teaching people how to DJ, and there is only one topic that I’ve never found a way to explicitly teach. I use diagrams, sound bites, hands-on demonstration, and verbal explanation to convey every topic or technique that a DJ needs to know, save one: I’ve never been able to come up with a method to explicitly teach how to identify the downbeat of a song.

This doesn’t mean that I can’t help a person learn how to find it, and every student I’ve ever had has eventually been able to master the skill. For most, it’s second nature, but even for those to whom it isn’t, it eventually becomes so. This is fortunate, because a DJ who has mastered every other skill there is to master, will be ineffective behind the decks if he can’t tell which note is “the one.”

What exactly is a downbeat? Well, the dictionary defines it as “an accented beat, usually the first of the bar,” and that about sums it up. Nearly all pop music is in 4/4 time, which means a bar counts as 1-2-3-4. The downbeat, quite simply, is the one in that bar.

If you’ve been DJ’ing, or dancing, or playing an instrument for any amount of time, you may not even realize that you are constantly identifying the downbeat of a song, or “finding the one,” as some say. It’s second nature. And that’s why it’s so hard to teach. It’s based on intuition, not a method. If you aren’t completely confident that you can instantly find a song’s downbeat, keep reading and I’ll do my best to teach you!

First, consider this song:

https://heavyhits.com/browse/#/track/38456

Listen to either the radio edit, or the original mix, as the Heavy Hits edit has been remixed so that it starts on the downbeat. As an aside, one of the advantages of belonging to a record pool is access to edited versions of songs that add a mixable intro to the beginning of songs. It’s always easier to mix a track if it starts on the one, and with a steady beat, which is why Heavy Hits appends drum-based intros to tracks that lack them.

Listen to “Big Bad Wolf” and see if you can quickly identify the downbeat. And if you aren’t yet a Heavy Hits member, you can play it here instead:

Notice how the song starts with the chant “big bad wolf,” then launches into a beat. Were you to drop the song into the mix at the beginning of that chant, starting the song on the 1 of a bar in another song, the two songs won’t line up properly. Even if the BPMs are perfectly aligned, and you drop it precisely on the one, it’s going to sound off. Why? Because the chant of “big bad wolf” isn’t on the one. It isn’t the downbeat. You nearly always want to overlay tracks so that the 1-2-3-4 counts align, lest your mix resemble the dreaded sound of sneakers in the dryer.

I chose this song because it’s very easy to identify the actual downbeat. It’s the first drumbeat you hear after the chant. If you aren’t aware of this, it’s going to cause you huge problems. It causes DJ software huge problems, as Serato, and other software, uses a very simple algorithm to analyze tracks, and chooses the very first sound as the downbeat. So if you drop that track into Serato, it’s going to assume that the chant at the beginning is the downbeat, and adjust the remainder of the song accordingly.The beat grid will be off, requiring you to manually correct it if you want to use loops, effects, or the ever-so-controversial sync function.

Now let’s try a more challenging song:

This one isn’t as intuitive, as there is no drumbeat at the start to help clue you in. My only advice is to nod your head, or dance to the song, and you should find yourself instinctively bopping or stepping down on the ones and threes, and from there it’s fairly easy to tell the one from the three. If you can’t get it, listen until the drums kick in, at which point it should be obvious, then rewind and try again.

If you aren’t able to determine the downbeat yet, keep trying. You’ll get it down before long, and you’ll be a far better DJ for having learned this skill!

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