Song Tempo, and How it Affects Song Meaning

Experimenting with tempo can provide interesting subtext to your music that you hadn’t considered.


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Gary EwerHere’s a quick little experiment: listen to Willie Nelson’s version of “Always On My Mind.” Now listen to the same song recorded by Pet Shop Boys. Obviously, a completely different take on the same song, with a sound and instrumentation updated for the ’80s.

Ignoring all the elements that have been altered to appeal to a newer, younger audience, you’ll notice another important effect of the Pet Shop Boys’ version: the faster tempo subtly affects the lyrical subtext.

Subtext is simply the meaning of a lyric that sits in the background – implied meaning. It comes out in various ways, and particularly by tone of voice and visual expression. If you roll your eyes while saying, “I’m going over to Gary’s house to hear some music he’s just written…”, the implied meaning is that you’re not all that impressed with Gary’s music.

In songwriting, it can be interesting to see what happens to the meaning of a lyric just by changing the tempo of a song. In Willie Nelson’s version, we get a man who is broken up about how dismissive he’s been of his romantic relationship. He feels regret and sadness, pleading for a chance to try again.

When the Pet Shop Boys drive the tempo, you start to notice a new, implied meaning behind the words – the subtext. It’s not overly obvious, but you start to hear a “I’m ready to move on” implication to the lyric. It’s as if the singer is saying, “Sorry for never giving you the time of day, and I’m willing to give it another try. But if that’s not good for you, I’m actually just as willing to move on with my life.”

Music being what it is, that’s not to say that everyone will pick that up. But the song certainly comes across in a different way once you hear it in a fast-tempo dance style.

So if you’re just finishing up a new song, don’t assume that the tempo you’ve chosen is the one that will express everything you mean to express. Try it slow, fast, and everything in between, and make note of how the attitude of the music changes each time.

And you might be surprised how subtle that change might be. If you’ve been singing your latest song at 120 bpm, try 126, or 116. You might hear an entirely new emotion being expressed.

One of the best ways to hear the effect of a new tempo on a song is to listen to a studio version of a hit song, and compare that to a live version. Assuming the singer or band is playing live and not to a recorded track, it’s nearly impossible for both versions to hit the exact same tempo.

Playing around with tempo is not really a songwriting task, since it’s something you might try once the song is complete. But it’s definitely worth a try to see what it does to your music.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Pingback: Improving Lyrics By Improving Everything Else | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting

  2. Rhythm and Tempo (Beats .Per .Minute), can indeed change the song, it can enhance the song during the writing process enough to re write a lyric and finish up with something much better than your original .

    Ballad’s that go too slow can be condemned to the waste bin before the end of the first verse , an experienced song screener can often hear that it in a long boring intro.

    The Speed of a song is sometimes more important than the melody and the lyric,
    it has to suit the emotion the song is trying to portray, get that right, and then adjust your melody and hone your lyrics.

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