Finding Flow: The Science & Magic Behind the DJ’s Holy Grail

Lauren Krieger

Ahh… the DJ’s holy grail, the “flow” – Dave Seaman

Flow and Electronic Music

Flow is a term we often hear in connection with electronic music, used to describe the quality of a track, or to explain a special experience when seeing a DJ perform live. Although not limited to only electronic music, we find that flow is especially connected to it through multiple levels.

Flow begins within each track. A smooth progression from start to finish, a rhythm that inspires movement, and the sensation of getting lost in the moment while listening, are all qualities that describe a track’s “flow”. Producing music that has flow is a vital part of the electronic music process. From there it’s in the DJ’s control to take it further.

The power of a skilled DJ is to create and lead the flow of an entire crowd, to bring the energy of everyone in the audience to a new level by connecting the individual sonic pieces to create something powerful and hypnotic. They use the flow of the music to inspire a flow state, to build an incomparable experience by using each track and combinations of sounds to form an energy that unites every one listening within a moment of magic.

A quality that makes something seem removed from everyday life, especially in a way that gives delight.

“When you’re DJ’ing, there’s a certain movement through your set (with respect to the audience’s energy and mood too) you’d want to create. Being “in the flow” is where you want to be, in control of that ascension and descension, all in part of the whole picture.

That’s the best feeling you could have. Reading a crowd isn’t easy, especially with smaller set times. If you can figure it out and get that momentum in sync with what’s around you, that itself is indescribable.” – Praveen Achary

“It’s when your programming just seems to unfold naturally and effortlessly. When it doesn’t feel like lots of individual tracks sewn together but instead feels like one long continuous piece. When you have the crowd eating out of the palm of your hand.”
– Dave Seaman

“You know when you’re in the flow or ‘in the zone’ when each track just goes together so easily and smoothly. It’s helped when you’ve just got the audience in your hands just wanting more and more from you, bringing up the vibe of the music, which can be really subtle. I love that; for instance, when it’s just an extra hat that comes in and the crowd go mad for it. That’s when you know you’re completely in that zone and so are your audience!”
– Paul Sawyer


How do you achieve Flow State?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian psychologist who recognized and named the concept of Flow, discovered that “Inducing flow is about the balance between the level of skill and the size of the challenge at hand.” It must be prepared for and cultivated by setting challenges that are neither too demanding nor too simple for ones abilities.

Beyond just a balance of skill and challenge, he discovered that there are many factors required to achieve Flow State (or get in The Zone)

– Action and awareness are merged.
– There is a feeling of control over the task.
– There are clear goals every step of the way.
– The activity becomes an end in itself / is intrinsically rewarding.
– There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
– There is a balance between challenges and skills.
– Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
– Self-consciousness disappears, losing self-conscious rumination.
– There is no worry of failure.
– The sense of time becomes distorted and transformed.

Go further inside the mind, and you find theories on how the brain reacts during a Flow State. It is believed to temporarily down regulate the prefrontal cortex, an area responsible for higher cognitive functions like self-reflective consciousness, memory, temporal integration, and working memory. When this area is inactivated, it is thought to trigger the distortion of time, loss of self-consciousness and loss of the inner-critic. It also may enable the implicit mind to take over, allowing more brain areas to communicate and engage in the creative process, while also relating to the dopamine reward circuitry since curiosity is highly amplified.

Before modern science analyzed it, we find that flow has been recognized throughout history and within various cultures. The teachings of Buddhism and of Taoism speak of a state of mind known as the “action of inaction” or “doing without doing” (wu wei in Taoism) that greatly resembles the idea of flow. Also, Hindu texts on Advaita philosophy such as Ashtavakra Gita, and the Yoga of Knowledge such as Bhagavad-Gita, refer to a similar state.


DJs in the Flow

Returning to our DJs, we realize that the Flow State they accomplish behind the decks is not only related to the music they are mixing, but to their own personal experience: to finding a balance between challenge and skill, removing self-consciousness, and feeling the reward of exactly what they are doing in the moment. As listeners, we all participate in this, becoming a part of the wave that the DJ has created through their energy.

Paul Sawyer describes his favorite Flow Moments:

“There’s been so many, from a recent event at Basing House in London I played stripped back melodic techno and progressive which wasn’t my intended set at the time. I switched sounds after my first track when I could see the crowd were completely open minded. Such an amazing event. My set from this is on Frisky Radio to listen to.

There’s been some really memorable events such as playing at Bedrock just before John Digweed that was amazing, playing for Airpusher in San Francisco that’s now become one of my favourite events each year and also last year in Rotterdam at Toffler. I played the Undercatt remix of Temper Trap’s Sweet Disposition, that was a really special moment! The video from this on my artist page says it all!! Rotterdam is one of the best places that I’ve played at too, I’ve made so many friends there and just love going back.”

For Praveen Achary:

“Too many to name, since every gig I’ve played has had its moments. There were a couple where I felt it was “in the flow” from the start, and that’s been a huge boost in confidence & motivation too. These are the moments some (or most) of us look for.”

Ultimately, Flow in electronic music is a combination of magic and science: the intertwining of music that inspires you to always be in motion, showcased through a medium that is built on creating journeys through sound, led by a guide whose skills and creativity are in line with their experience, designed to be shared in a moment that transcends time and space.

“To put it as simply as I can, it’s when all the pieces of the jigsaw fit perfectly together almost without trying. Like the DJ Gods are watching over you from above.

It’s what all DJs aspire to. Or at least should.” – Dave Seaman


Pursuit Of Happiness
Positive Psychology Program