Lady Antebellum

5 Main Differences Between Fast and Slow Songs that Songwriters Should Know

Fast and slow songs have several basic differences in design that usually need to be there.

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As soon as you start listing the basic principles governing songwriting, you can also start a list of all the successful songs that violate those principles. We know this; some songs seem to work even though they run contrary to what conventional wisdom tells us.

That’s often because success in music is the result of how many different elements – tempo, key, rhythm, lyric, melody, chords – work together. And the results of that partnership are difficult to predict.

But we know something else: fast songs are different from slow songs when you compare their basic structure. Here’s a list of the main differences you will often see when comparing the architecture of a fast and slow songs. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll call a fast song anything that comes in at 120 bpm or faster.

  1. Fast songs often make greater use of repetition. Because fast songs generate and maintain a high energy level from the outset, the energy itself is a kind of propellent that benefits from short melodic ideas that repeat often. (My previous blog entry regarding Bruce Springsteen’s latest single, “High Hopes”, dealt with this issue.)
  2. Fast songs often use simple, repetitive lyrics. Any lyric should be interesting enough to keep listeners listening, but fast songs will tolerate more mundane “hookier” lyrics that repeat than slower songs. Even slow songs will use considerable repetition in a chorus (like Coldplay’s “Paradise”), but slower songs usually use lyrics that take the listener on a more interesting emotional journey. Some good examples: Fast song: “Good Feeling” (Flo Rida). Slow song: “I Won’t Give Up” (Jason Mraz).
  3. Fast songs will tolerate melodies without climactic moments. This also came up in yesterday’s blog with regard to Springsteen’s “High Hopes”. If a song has enough kinetic energy that it sounds self-propelled, the climactic high point doesn’t present itself as a crucial requirement.
  4. Fast songs will tolerate simpler chord progressions. This is a principle that’s been in existence for hundreds of years in music across practically all genres. And it’s not just that the chords themselves are simpler – sticking to standard circle-of-fifths kinds of progressions – you’ll also find that chords in fast songs will be held for a greater number of beats than chords in slower songs. Examples: Fast song: “Dynasty” (Kaskade), using 3 chords: Dm Gm Bb. Slow song: “Just a Kiss” (Lady Antebellum), using Bbm Gb Ebm Ab Fm…
  5. Fast songs tend to use repetitive rhythms. Once a song’s groove gets established, becoming too complex with the basic beat (and the rhythms that comprise it) can give a song a hyped-up, panicky feeling. Faster songs usually create a rhythm that repeats over and over (dance music, for an obvious example). For slower songs, the rhythms often don’t rise to any level of importance, staying out of the way of other important factors. But if you are going to find a song where rhythm is an interesting and changing component, it will likely be a slow one. Examples: Slow song: “Don’t Give Up” (Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush). Fast song: “Born This Way” (Lady Gaga).

As a songwriter, much of what you do to make your song successful will happen after the actual writing, during the production phase. And if you’re producing your own recordings, learn from the current pop song market: faster songs are simpler in design, usually using more straightforward chords, melodic shapes, lyrics and rhythms.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Quick question. Is there a difference between a chord progression whose notes all fall within a major key (for simplicities sake, if I use a progression for a song that only uses white keys on a piano) and a circle of fifths progression? Or is a circle of fifths progression another way of saying a song in a major key (or perhaps within a minor key as the key C maj and A min contain the same notes).
    And have you ever heard a track called “We Are the People” by a group called Empire of the Sun? It’s a commercially successful song that bends genres. The chords in the song also leave me scratching my head a bit. I think at times, one instrument, an acoustic guitar or synth, will strum a chord such as a D6 while another guitar strums a Bmin7 at the same time. It works well but it’s as if they use two chord progressions simulatiously at times in the song. At 123 bpm and a dance beat driven song, it is interesting that the chords are almost exclusively complex. There might only be one or two triads used out of a large number of chords total. But it works as a whole very well. I’d be interested what you think of the song with your ear and your knowledge. Cheers. Charlie

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