Mark E. Perry

From Disco to Rave: DJ Set as Improvisation

During the 1970s, DJs working in dance clubs in the United States developed the practice of utilizing two turntables in conjunction with a mixer to create a new musical genre of continuous dance music. Many music scholars accept the turntable as a musical instrument, an electric scraped idiophone. I argue that the music sets of DJs (clubs and raves) also must be recognized as improvisation. The music created by the mixing of previously recorded music is not simply playback; instead, DJs adjust their model, an end-weighted form as its point of departure, to suit the direct needs of dancers and club owners. My paper addresses the creative processes that take place in the course of performance of modern-day DJs at dance clubs and raves.

In the field of ethnomusicology, the understanding of improvisation has been informed primarily from the study of composition in the course of performance that took place within jazz, Indian classical music, and Iranian music; my examination of DJ sets utilizes these analytical tools, which places emphasis on investigation of how risk, a musician’s competence, the handling of unanticipated situations, and the building upon of missteps that might occur in an improvised performance.

The collection of data took place through extended fieldwork in North America and Europe (principally Chicago, Atlanta, Madrid, Barcelona, and Ibiza), as well as participant observation as a DJ and dancer in clubs and raves. A striking element of improvisation remains the making of musical decisions extemporaneously. Reading the dance floor, a DJ selects music that dancers respond enthusiastically. Dancers appraise the abilities of DJs by their capacity to both follow and deviate from conventions (i.e. mastering beat matching, genre connoisseurship, ability to read a crowd, and capacity to blend tracks). In most improvised musics, a point of departure serves as the core of the performance. These obligatory features become the model that improvisers employ in their performance. DJs bring thousands of music tracks to a performance, albeit only utilizing a small number in a particular night. In the course of the evening, a DJ selects and blends prerecorded music to create a set that stimulates dancers to fill the dance floor all night.

Many approaches to improvisation exist. Today, music scholars recognize that the creative process in the course of performance involves many subtle experiences and processes—in my examination of continuous dance music encountered in DJ sets, I strive to contribute to a better understanding of improvisation as a musical phenomena.


Oklahoma State University, USA

He serves as assistant professor of ethnomusicology and historical musicology at Oklahoma State University. He holds a Ph.D. in music from the University of Kansas, and his dissertation explores Catalan nationalism in relation to the early works of Roberto Gerhard. His research interests include Spanish music, Roberto Gerhard, minimalism in music, and electronic dance music. He has presented papers at conferences such as the American Musicological Society, SAM, SEM, and ICTM. Engaged in publishing, he has contributed to the Roberto Gerhard Companion (Ashgate, 2013) and many articles to such important music dictionaries as Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart and the Grove Dictionary of American Music. He has also served as the recording review editor for the journal American Music. Under the moniker hund3rbunny, he deejays and produces electronic dance music.