I’ve been DJing for dancing crowds in West Michigan since 1974. When I was still in high school I did my first Jr High dance & then began working for Greg Miller & Company in Muskegon, MI. From the beginning it’s been important to me to segue from to current song to the next without emptying the dancefloor. When playing for a wide variety of musical tastes and a diverse age group typically present at a wedding reception, it’s critical to make people comfortable & stress free on the dancefloor so how you play the music is as important as what you play.
From my earliest memories of being a DJ, my nightmare has always been the same; I have a dancefloor full of celebrants & as the current song is ending, I have no idea what to play next. That’s what I call a nightmare! To insure I don’t have this happen to me in real life, I’ve devised a code system that helps me pick out my next tune, and have the next 5 or so songs “at the ready”. Back in the mid 1980’s, I came up with a system that tells me what I need to know as a DJ playing dance music. I call this the Wally Code.
The Wally code is simple. Every song is given a music type, degree of familiarity, tempo rating, an energy level rating, type of beginning and finally, type of ending. Here is an outline of what this might look like: Type/Familiarity/Tempo/Energy/Beginning/Ending. By employing this system, I can easily program an evening’s music even if I’m not familiar with the individual songs. Here’s an example of what the Wally Code would be for Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll”; Rock/1/5/4/I/F.
Long before there were MP3 files and the accompanying ID tag, I was employing these Wally Codes. I began with a database with fields for all the usual data, such as song title, artist, year & album. I also added a field for my Wally Codes, so I could organize my music according to this criteria. Remember what it was like…I had my Tandy computer with a 20 or 200 megabyte hard drive that cost me about $200 , dot matrix printer with fanfold paper & monochrome monitor. If I needed a particular rock song with a fast tempo, that everyone would recognize, with a dynamic beginning & high energy level, all I had to do was consult my database. Since the computerization of the DJ industry & the invention of MP3 files, I have been putting my Wally Code information in the comment section of the MP3 ID tags. With my MP3 managing software, I can easily sort my music using my Wally Code system.
In my market in West Michigan, there are limited opportunities to play for events such a Bar Mitzvah, and as of yet, I’ve never been approached for one of these celebrations. The bread & butter of my business is wedding receptions which would typically have music culled from pop, rock, country, Motown, rap & some polkas categories. Being familiar with these types of music is a must. In larger markets, a DJ will need to be familiar with more types of music popular in his region. Since Wally Codes were designed to be sorted in a database field, the type of music is most crucial. With MP3, files properly tagged, the music type in the Wally Code is considered with the genre in the ID tag. An example of this would be the song “The Dance” by Garth Brooks (Slow/1/1/1/D/F). The ID tag genre would be Country, but the music type would be Slow. Here are some music types, some are abbreviated to save space:
The next most important factor, after the type of music, is how familiar people would be with the music. It would clear a dance floor full of celebrants to follow a popular song with one that no one is familiar with, no matter how “good” the song is, if people don’t know it, they will leave the floor rather than be embarrassed by trying to dance to an unfamiliar song.
This numeric value is on a scale of 1-5. A song with a rating of 1 would be a song that is familiar to virtually everyone; one doesn’t need to be a fan of that particular music type to know this music. A rating of 2 means everyone familiar with songs of that music type and from that time period would know this song. A rating of 3 is given to songs that many people would recognize who are very familiar with songs from the same era within that music type. A rating of 4 is given to songs that are not that popular. A rating of 5 is one that might be an album cut that never gets airplay or made the charts.
When assigning a familiarity value for new music, it’s difficult since the degree of familiarity is often a factor of time. Often you’ll need to update this value over time when you find out that a particular song has become very popular or has dropped from everybody’s playlists. If you are very good at this, perhaps you have a future as an AR man. A song I got in October of 2010, is “Empire State of Mind” by Glee Cast. I think it is a very forgettable song so I gave it a Wally Code of Rap/5/4/3/D/Q
The music tempo is on a scale of 1-7. A song with a rating of 1 for tempo, is a slow song, such as “Crazy” by Patsy Cline (Slow/1/1/1/D/Q). I would give “What I Like About You” by the Romantics a tempo rating of 7, with an Energy Level of 4, but more on that later. Many slow songs are a little faster, but still would be considered slow dances, so I rate them a 2. By the time you get to tempos in the 3 & 4 range, they may be difficult to dance to. A tempo of 5 would be your typical rock/pop song. A rating of 6 might be your typical Polka tempo. A rating of 7 is for the fastest of fast songs, & generally reserved for the last song in a fast set of music, or for crowds that just won’t sit down! Sometimes the tempo varies and the letter V is used to designate these songs instead of the numerical value. An example of this might be “Touch Me in the Morning” by Diana Ross. It has a Wally Code of: Slow/2/V/3/D/F. If a song starts slow & then gets faster, such as “I’ve had the Time of My Life” by Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes, I make note of that in the beginning code so the Wally Code would read: Pop/1/4/4/S/F. The letter “S” stands for slow for the beginning value. More about that when we cover song beginnings.
Now we’re going to deal with a judgment of how much people “get into” the music. This is on a scale of 1-4. Most popular slow songs might have a tempo rating of 1 with an energy level of 1 as well. The song may be well loved by all, but the energy level or how much people “get into it” might be something different. A Wally Code for “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller Orchestra would read Swing/1/5/4/I/Q. The Wally Code for Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” would read Slow/1/3/4/D/Q; the energy level of 4 means it’s a great crowd pleaser and people really get into it. In comparison “1 2 3 Red Light” by 1910 Fruitgum Company would be Pop/3/4/2/I/F; it has an energy level of 2 because people don’t get into it that much.
Over the years I’ve learned that how I play the music is as important as what I play. An experienced DJ working a wedding reception would never play the music in a random order. This would regularly clear the dance floor. Even grouping by music type, is not enough. How a song begins & ends is an important factor when playing music to keep the crowd on the dance floor. A song with a dynamic (D) beginning means the song is danceable from the beginning such as “Heat Wave” by Phil Collins (Motown/3/6/3/D/F). Many songs have an intro (I), which is for the most part is not danceable. These songs typically have intros of 7 seconds or longer. An example of songs with a intro beginning is “California Girls” by the Beach Boys (Pop/1/4/3/I/F). Sometimes we come across a song that fades (F) in. An example of a fade in can be found in the song “Sleep the Clock Around” by Bell & Sebastian (Rock/5/4/3/F/F). Sometimes a song will start slow (S) and then get faster. We’ve already mentioned the example of “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” by Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes (Pop/1/4/4/S/F)
Now for the final value in the Wally Code, the ending. This is typically a letter standing for fade out (F), quick ending (Q), strong ending (S), many times live songs have this type of ending. An extreme example of this is “Free Bird (Live)” by Lynyrd Skynyrd (Slow/3/2/4/S/S). Sometimes a song has a weak ending that if played, will likely clear the dance floor. Many newer songs fall into this category such as “Need You” by Travie McCoy (Rock/4/5/3/D/W). Now that we have displays that show the remaining time for a song, the next example is not as important as when I used to use cassette tapes on the job. Sometimes a song has an abrupt ending (A). An example of this would be “Push it” by Salt-N-Pepa (Rap/2/5/3/D/A)
Two more examples come to mind that are much more rare, but need to be recognized. One song that I rarely play because the ending is impossible to dance to is “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince (Rock/2/6/4/I/B). This song has a designation of B for the ending. Why I picked the letter B escapes me, after all I did this back in the ’80’s. If you play this song, it will definitely clear the floor at the end of the song! The other song ending to be aware of is a fake ending. The song “Do You Love Me” by the Contours (Rock/1/6/4/I/*), is an example of this, so I use an asterisk to denote endings that fake us out. Another one is “Thank You” by Led Zeppelin (Slow/3/1/3/F/*).