Many songwriters don’t think a lot about tempo when writing songs. For many (perhaps most), songs start with improvising ideas over a catchy set of chords, so it’s often the case that a tempo is chosen almost on a subconscious level.
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I’ve always felt that tempo is one of the characteristics that holds the most potential for affecting the sound, mood and attitude of a song. In other words, it’s definitely worth experimenting with the tempo of a song, even if you’re pretty sure you like what you’ve first chosen.
But what do you think about when you experiment with tempo? Here are some ideas for what to think about as you try different tempos:
- Think about how the tempo affects the meaning of the lyric. This applies to speaking words just as much as it does to singing words. Slower tempos tend to deepen the meaning of your words.
- Allow for the possibility that your song can use two or more tempos. It’s possible to set one section of your song at a slower or faster tempo. In a way, it’s not unlike choosing to put part of your song in a minor key as a contrast for the rest of your song. Changing tempo has a way of grabbing attention.
- Think about how the tempo affects the overall musical energy the audience perceives. Faster songs tend to sound more energetic. If you tend to write songs that are slower and ballad-like, a faster song can be a welcome contrast for your listeners.
- Think about how the tempo affects the mood of your song. You may have written a mid-tempo ballad, with lyrics that are upbeat and positive. But if you’re not happy with the mood you’re picking up from the song, sometimes simply speeding things up slightly will enhance the mood of the song and get it all sounding more optimistic. Slowing it down can make songs sound more pensive and introspective. Sometimes the results of tempo change, though, are unpredictable, so be sure to listen with an open mind.
- Think about how tempo affects the singability of the melodies. You might have chosen a tempo that sounds great with the instruments, but once you start singing everything starts to have a frantic feel. In this regard, tempo can have a greater affect on the singer than on the players. Fast playing can be exciting, but fast singing has the added danger of sounding panic-stricken if it sounds like the singer is scrambling to get all the notes in. Tempo choice needs to take all performers into consideration.
These days most audio software will allow you to play music back to you at any tempo you choose without changing the pitch of the notes, and this is a great tool for experimenting with tempo.
As a preliminary exercise, head over to YouTube, choose one of your favourite songs, and then change the tempo to be either slightly faster or slightly slower (click on the “Settings” icon and select “Playback speed.”) Most of the time, you’ll only need to change it a small amount to hear a profound change to the mood and energy of the music.
Try this with your own songs. This is where you really need to practice your objective listening skills, since you may already subconsciously have chosen the tempo that you like.
When you experiment with the tempos of your songs, be open-minded. Be willing to change your mind. Think of tempo as an element of your song that should get the same kind of attention as key, chords and melodic choices.
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