What exactly is Harmonic Mixing?

DJs and music producers tend to want their sets, tracks, loops, samples and sounds to fit together in a musically coherent way and Harmonic Mixing – picking tracks and sounds in the same key or a complimentary key – is one tool in the box when it comes to achieving this goal.

Is it necessary to understand music theory to use Harmonic Mixing?

While there is a relationship between the Circle of Fifths and Harmonic Mixing you do not need to know the Circle of Fifths or music theory to use take advantage of Harmonic Mixing however it is helpful to at least have some idea of what is meant by “key”.

So what is the “key” in music theory?

The key of any track is determined by the first note – aka the “tonic” – of the scale on which a piece of music is based. Scales are simply centuries old sequences of 7 notes (in most cases) going up or down the keyboard, in a particular pattern of notes and intervals.

Why do some loops and samples work better together than others?

In general loops and samples “play nicely” with each other when they are in the same key or a key that has a measure of “closeness”.

There are plenty of exceptions to this rule so do not be afraid to experiment with sounds in the “wrong” key but professional DJs and producers understand the power of using sounds in the “right” key.

Working with the “right” keys applies as much to mixing complete tracks in a DJ set as it does to picking individual loops and samples to drop into your current track. (If you think about it, a complete music track is just another sample in your DAW or DJ software, albeit typically a longer one.)

If your sounds are clashing or something sounds “off” or your mashup isn’t working, it could be you are attempting to introduce something new that is in the “wrong” key.

Getting started with Harmonic Mixing:

To use Harmonic Mixing you just need to know either the key of the tracks you want to play or the key in which you are producing the core elements of your current track(s).

Each track – or a part of your track such as the melody or bassline – can be classified using a simple number system and color depending on its key. These numbers and colors are displayed as segments on the ‘Camelot Wheel’.

The Camelot Wheel explained:

The Camelot Wheel represents different musical keys by a number/letter and color combination. The segments of the wheel that are adjacent to each other are harmonic matches and tend to work well together.

The outer rings of the Camelot Wheel represent Major chords.

The inner rings of the Camelot Wheel represent minor chords.

(If you’re a complete beginner when it comes to music theory you might not even know what a chord is but fear not, a chord is just any number of notes played at the same time. The most basic chord is a three note chord which is known as a triad. Some combinations of individual notes are considered to work better than others.)

By moving around – or up and down – the Camelot Wheel from one segment to any other adjacent segment you can ensure your mixes and track elements flow together.

As an example, if you begin in E minor (either a complete track in the key of E minor or a melody, bassline or other core element of your current production in the key of E minor) which is 9A on the Camelot Wheel, you could mix the next track in your set, or element in your production, in A minor which is 8A on the Camelot Wheel. From the 8A you could opt to mix into the C major key which is 8B on the Camelot Wheel or mix into the D Minor which is the 7A on the Camelot Wheel.

Should an entire DJ set be in the same key?

While you could make life easy for yourself by sticking to one key for an entire set, in practice this is restrictive and potentially boring for both yourself and your audience (assuming your audience notices). Remember the DJ’s task is to keep the dancefloor heaving so it is important to surprise an audience and to take them on a journey.

Should all elements of my track be in the same key?

As a general rule if your bassline is in C minor, for example, then your melody and leads are also going to be in C minor however this rule is a guideline which can be played with and broken during the track.

People who are new to music theory and music production can quickly establish a fear of playing notes “out of key ” or using loops and samples in the “wrong” key. This fear has gotten worse in recent years thanks to the number of hardware/software products and DAW features that promise to help people with little or no music theory knowledge stick to the “right” key.

Sometimes, elements of your track being in the “wrong” key might be just what your track needs.

Also remember that there are no “key police” out there who are going to bust your studio door and arrest you for using the “wrong” key.

If an element of your track is incidental and fleeting, chances are its key does not even matter whereas if you have a longer sequence of notes in your track, such a melody, the key is more critical unless you are determined to flout conventions.

Ultimately sound triumphs music theory and maths – if you are happy with how something sounds and want to keep it then keep it. Do not delete an element of your track just because it’s in the “wrong” key.

On the flip side, if everyone who listens to your track winces when an element comes in and tells you it’s in the wrong key then it is clearly sticking out like a sore thumb and maybe it’s time for a rethink and to start searching for a different sample or a different note or chord on the keyboard/piano roll.

Best Harmonic Mixing software:

Your DAW or DJ Software likely has some kind of automatic key detection built-in however if you’re looking for industry leading key detection software then Mixed In Key is widely regarded as the world’s most accurate and popular key detection software.

Version 10 launched in 2021 and boasts an improved algorithm said to be at least 10% more accurate than any other key detection software.

What dose Mixed in Key do?

Mixed in Key will scan your music library and tell you which key your tracks are in and code your tracks according to the Camelot Wheel system, ready for Harmonic Mixing.

Who uses Mixed in Key?

Mixed in Key is used by some of the world’s biggest DJs and producers. Known users include:

  • David Guetta
  • Pete Tong
  • Steve Aoki
  • Armin van Buuren
  • Diplo
  • Hardwell
  • Dada Life
  • Paul Oakenfold
  • BT (Brian Transeau)
  • Above & Beyond
  • Dubfire

Is Mixed in Key a plugin?

Mixed in Key software is available in both standalone software version (for DJs) and a VST plugin version (for producers).

If you’re Mac based you can also get Mixed In Key Live. This handy app detects the Key, BPM, and specific notes of any audio you play on your Mac in real time including audio from video streams, Spotify, sample libraries and your DAW.

I’m making electronic dance music – do I need to know about music theory?

The short answer is no. You can start creating your own music even if you know nothing about music theory just by firing up a DAW or playing around with suitable hardware such as drum machines, a quality sampler and a synth or two.

The longer answer is that even a little music theory can help you take your music in pleasing and interesting directions.

Think of it like this: While it’s possible to have a music track which consists of nothing more than a wooden spoon tapping on a metal chair for 6 minutes, maybe that track – great as it sounds – could really benefit from the introduction of a C minor chord at the 5 minute mark!

If you’re new to music production and beat making do be aware that you shouldn’t put off creating music until you think you have somehow mastered music theory. Learning practical music theory should be something you do in addition to having fun creating your own music and playing around with your music gear, not instead of.

Further reading:

  1. The Circle of Fifths (Wikipedia)
  2. The Camelot Wheel (mixedinkey.com)

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