Exploring Tempo Can Make Radical Changes to a Song

You’ll usually find that changing the tempo of a song causes other changes to happen automatically.

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Eric Clapton

The further along you go toward completing a song, the less you usually feel compelled to experiment with changes. That could or should be seen as normal. Since all musical components work together to produce a good song, it stands to reason that it becomes harder to change things the deeper into that process you go.

What do you do if, once you’ve finished your latest song, it just doesn’t have the spark you were hoping for? One musical element to try experimenting with is tempo.

And there’s a good reason for that. As you experiment with a faster or slower tempo, you’ll find that many other musical elements also change, almost automatically. Let’s say you’ve written a ballad, but it feels lifeless. You might try moving the tempo faster to see what that, and other changes that occur as a result, does for the overall energy.

In taking a fast song at a slower tempo, or vice versa, other things tend to change as well:

  1. Instrumental technique. Instrumental technique is quite wrapped up in the tempo of the music. For one example, finger-picking on the guitar may change successfully to harder strumming when the tempo is faster. Other instruments change their performance styles as well: drums, piano, bass, and so on.
  2. Instrumental patterns and hooks. With a faster song, instruments usually instinctively work together in creating rhythmic patterns and other figures to pass around in a way that tends to increase musical momentum. Think of Derek and the Dominoes “Layla“, and then Eric Clapton’s unplugged version to hear the difference in instrumental technique between a fast and slow rendition of the same tune.
  3. Vocal style. As you move the tempo faster, you’ll often find that the lead vocal style changes match the higher energy. The singer often feels comfortable to possibly improvise melodic lines to include higher notes, with an edgier tone. Compare the slow version of Revolution 1 from The Beatles’ White Album, with the faster version released as the B-side of “Hey Jude”.
  4. Backing vocals. Backing vocals in a ballad usually switch from warmer “ooh”-type tones to matching the vocal line lyric and rhythm.
  5. Chord changes. When you move a song from slow to fast, chord progressions can sometimes gain a bit of a frantic quality as they change at a much quicker frequency. One way to mitigate this problem is to include pedal point bass notes under the chords – i.e., hold a constant bass note (often the tonic (I) or dominant note (V)) while the chords change.

The good thing about experimenting with changing the tempo is that most of these other changes (instrumentation, vocals, chords, etc.) happen instinctively. You don’t usually have to say to your players, “…and could you also play with a different style?”

As you hear with the two versions of “Layla”, changing the tempo, and then changing the performance style, creates two renditions that have almost no similarity. By simply changing the tempo, you create what almost sounds like an entirely new tune. It’s certainly worth giving it a try.

It’s interesting to note that “Layla” actually started in the studio as a slow ballad, but got pumped up to the faster tempo when guitarist Duane Allman created the famous guitar riff that starts the tune.

______________Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.  (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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3 Comments

  1. Tempo! is so important, I know writers who can not change a songs tempo
    because they are stuck in some sort of time warp, Sad means slow to
    them and Happy means fast ,

    There are so many exceptions to that just study the hits , as Gary states ,
    in fact the wrong tempo for a song can bore the listener in less that a minute

    Imagine Pretty Woman faster or slower than how Roy Orbison scored the song

    Imagine Please Please Me played at a slower tempo That is how they
    played it to George Martin, like a slow Roy Orbison song

    Yes it could have sounded okay but Martin in his wisdom said speed it up and
    you will have a hit and in fact it lead the way to many up tempo hits

  2. Pingback: Interesting Links For Musicians and Songwritiers – June 10, 2015 | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

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