How Tempo Can Affect a Song’s Impact and Feel

Experimenting with the tempo of your songs may reveal hidden gems.

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Gladys Knight & the PipsWe don’t often talk about issues like tempo or performance style when focusing on songwriting itself, because they really are two different worlds; a song can be great, but have a bad performance. When the key is wrong for the singer, or the tempo too fast or too slow for the text and/or meaning, and then performed by lower quality players – these things will adversely affect a song’s impact. Getting the tempo right may not even have been an issue you had considered before. But finding the right tempo can be part of the equation that can make your song successful.

Tempo is a difficult area to study, because once you’ve settled on a tempo for your song you’re likely to stick to it. But I highly recommend thinking of tempo as being part of the songwriting process.

There’s a funny story in Classical music circles about the eminent American composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, who had just finished conducting Stravinsky’s monumental “Rite of Spring.” Bernstein had just discovered that Stravinsky, his idol, had been in attendance at the performance. When Bernstein saw Stravinsky, he extended his hands to his hero. Stravinsky immediately said, “Lenny, your tempos were all wrong!

For many songwriters, the right tempo is as crucial as the right chord or the right lyric. And it’s obvious that the best way to assess the power of tempo in your own music is to try your songs at different speeds.

Changing the tempo opens up a world of opportunities for making other modifications. In particular, changing tempo gives you opportunities for changing the backing accompaniment. A good example of this is “Layla” (Eric Clapton/Jim Gordon). The original version of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos is a 2-part tune, but it’s mainly the first part you want to focus on here. In its original form, part 1 of “Layla” uses a tempo of 115 b.p.m. Eric Clapton re-released the tune as an unplugged acoustic version, with a much slower tempo (94 b.p.m). But it’s not just the tempo that changes. An entirely new feel is created for the slower version, a kind of shuffle that works really well.

But tempo change for your song may be even more subtle. Once you’ve got your song in a more-or-less completed form, try just nudging the tempo slightly faster or slightly slower. That subtle change can make a world of difference.

YouTube is a great tool for researching the power of this kind of subtle tempo change; in many cases you often just need to listen to the studio and then live versions to make the comparison. But because so much of today’s hit music is electronic and computer based, it’s easy for performers now to do live versions at the same tempo as what was created in the studio.

But you can do some useful studying of the effects of tempo by checking out older hits. Listed below are some interesting examples, many comparing the studio versions to live performances of some of rock music’s greatest hits. And try to determine how the impact of the song and even possibly its message changes with a different tempo:

You’ll notice that in some cases, like “Behind the Lines”, entirely new instrumental accompaniments are created that work at the different tempo. In others, like “Out of Touch”, the difference between the live and studio version tempos is very subtle. But even that small difference creates a very noticeable difference in feel. It’s definitely worth experimenting.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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3 Comments

  1. I’ve been researching sound recordings lately and I came across a guy who uses a DAW for his songwriting but to compensate for the perfect beat he speeds the track up slightly during the song to emulate a ‘live’ feel. Which I both understand but find mildy amusing as well.

    • I’ve always wondered about musicians doing that – purposely programming an uneven beat or tempo, to simulate live performance. In my opinion, the best live performers in the world have rock-solid beats, and a rock-solid sense of tempo. (drummer Buddy Rich, for example: http://youtu.be/E2t4-R4bL0c). I feel that what makes a performance sound live has more to do with the millions of different possible sounds that happen when you play a note live. Even an instrument like a snare drum will sound different as you hit it in a spot only a millimetre away from the previous hit. Ask a pro sax player to play 20 notes in a row, and the timbre and articulation of each note will be ever-so-slightly different. Most won’t notice, but it’s there. It’s the nature of the instrument. One of the things that is far less erratic is the player’s sense of timing. That’s usually (at least for the best players) rock solid.

      -Gary

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