Tempo is defined as the speed of a piece of music or a given section of that piece.
There are certain Italian words that indicate different tempos, such as Largo, Adagio, Allegro, etc. But, it’s 2016, and these days it is customary to measure and discuss tempo in terms of beats per minute (often abbreviated bpm).
Tempo is a concept most music creators are already intuitively familiar with…
But, did you know that you could actually change the tempo in your songs? :: Gasp! ::
If you are a music creator, you need to face the music (pun intended) and admit that you are likely in one of the following two categories:
- I never change the tempo in my songs
- I sometimes change the tempo in my songs, but I do so without much forethought, planning or knowledge
But don’t beat yourself up too much. Musician’s are known for making decisions without much forethought, planning or knowledge.
But, let’s get serious for a second. Tempo change may seem like it’s a small, unimportant topic, but sit down and listen to Michael Jackson or Zeppelin albums and you will hear effective tempo changes. Don’t you want the same to be said about your music?
Today we are going to look at 14 examples of tempo change in songs by artists like Diana Ross, Rush, R.E.M., Lana Del Ray, and so many more. We will observe the tempo change and see what we can learn from each example.
Along the way, we will present action tips that you can apply to your own songs. That way, next time you are working on one of your own compositions, you will be armed with the knowledge to implement an effective and impactful tempo change.
1. Diana Ross – Love Hangover
Diana Ross – Love Hangover
We are starting with this classic example of a tempo change. Legend has it that Diana Ross (who became known for fronting The Supremes) recorded this song under a strobe light to get that disco feel.
The song starts off as a slower tempo ballad, and at around 1:10 into the song (excerpted above), the tempo abruptly speeds up as the song transitions into an uptempo disco beat. This adds another dimension to what would otherwise be a simple disco song.
This is some great inspiration for those music creators who are producing dance songs. Try taking an uptempo, danceable song that you’ve written, and compose a new, related section which is slower. Then, start off the song with this new slow section. After a short time, somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-60 seconds in, transition into the dance section, signaling to the listener – it’s time to dance.
2. The Smiths – Miserable Lie
The Smiths – Miserable Lie
Next up: The Smiths – Miserable Lie. This example is next because, in terms of the tempo change, it’s actually very similar to the Diana Ross song above. Just the UK, indie/punk version.
The tempo change here continues along the same line of thinking. Slow intro > uptempo main section of the song.
This song demonstrates that no matter what genre of music you are writing, if you are putting together a fast, uptempo type song, you might want to try out a slower tempo introduction. It’s a pretty classic move, and it just plain works.
3. R.E.M. – Shiny Happy People
R.E.M. – Shiny Happy People
Fun trivia: Apparently Michael Stipe and fellow R.E.M. bandmates hate this song. (I just learned this.)
I’ve put this third example here to really drive home the point that you ought to try a slow introduction in your uptempo song.
What’s interesting about this example, however, is that about 2/3rds of the way through the song, they actually go back to the slow introduction. Although it almost comes across as awkward, it also lends to the carefree and whimsical tone of this song.
Edit: The slower tempo section is also in a different time signature (6/8). The rest of the song is in 4/4. Thanks to urbannerds on Reddit for pointing this out.
4. Alice in Chains – Sickman
Alice in Chains – Sickman
OK, this Alice in Chains song doesn’t just change tempo, but it also changes time signature. I have actually been planning on doing an entire post on time signature changes (a personal passion of mine, and hopefully yours too).
Specifically, the song goes from a relatively quick 4/4 to a plodding 6/8. The song continues to go back and forth between the two.
Try combining a change in tempo with a change in time signature. For example, if you’ve already written a song that has a time signature change, go back and try changing the tempo of that section as well.
5. Lana Del Rey – West Coast
Lana Del Rey – West Coast
The tempo in this Lana Del Ray song is very unique. There are two sections of the song, the verse and the chorus, each with it’s own very different tempo.
Specifically, the verse is ~123 bpm whereas the chorus is ~100 bpm.
The result is fascinating. Maybe I am biased, because I am a sucker for the chord progression in the chorus. But the tempo change really is working for me – it’s very original and creative.
In my opinion, it seems like it would be very challenging to pull this idea off under normal circumstances. If you are going to try and emulate this tempo change idea, and have each section of your song have a different tempo, I would proceed with caution. You risk writing a song which is inaccessible to the listener.
6. Rush – The Spirit of Radio
Rush – The Spirit of Radio
If you are one to geek out over lots of time signature and tempo changes, Rush is a great band to listen to.
The insane time signature and tempo changes common to prog rock generally come across as playful and intellectual, although they can risk being showy and overelaborate.
This tempo change in “The Spirit of Radio” comes across as whimsical and carefree. It’s a lot of fun, if you are into this type of thing!
7. Slint – Don, Aman
Slint – Don, Aman
Any math rock fans out there? Raise your hand (mine is up).
Slint’s original and dynamic album Spiderland is something you might want to check out, if you’ve never heard of it. This is the kind of band that other musician’s like.
I am placing this example after the Rush song because both bands employ lots of tempo changes and time signature changes – however with Slint the tone is significantly more serious, even somber.
If you listen to this entire song (over 6 minutes long), you find that the changing tempo creates different “movements” and creates a sense of epicness.
Notice that there is a gradual slow-down in tempo in this example. The music theory term for this is a ritardando.
8. The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour
The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour
There are lots of interesting things going on in this song. The tonic wanders all over the place, from E to D mainly. 1:12 is my personal favorite, which is when the song briefly goes into the key of B-major. Then, at 1:27, there is a dramatic tempo change, where the song more or less goes back to the beginning, but slower. This part is excerpted above. This adds needed depth to the song (which mainly consists of two simple sections going back and forth).
One interesting effect of this tempo change occurs at 1:57. Sorry in advance, but this section is not excerpted above (you can go listen to the full track on your own to hear this). The triplets in the vocal at 1:57 (“the magical mystery tour is coming to take you away“) against the horn section creates a somewhat jarring but interesting 3:4 polyrhythm. This polyrhythm is exposed and highlighted because of the slowed down tempo.
In the book Revolution in the Head, author Ian MacDonald called the tempo change in this song “unconvincing.” I like the tempo change, but overall, the song is definitely not as accessible as many other Beatles tunes. After all, they have set the bar pretty high.
9. Dexys Midnight Runners – Come on Eileen
Dexys Midnight Runners – Come on Eileen
Here’s a unique tempo change. Here we have an epic slowdown followed by progressively speeding up faster and faster until we are back to an uptempo section again (in this case, the new tempo happens to be even faster than it was before).
In music theory, the opposite of a ritardando (gradual decrease in tempo) is the accelerando (gradual increase in tempo). That’s what we are observing here.
Struggling with an idea for a bridge for one of your songs? Try using a super-slow version of another section of your song. And then speed it up, gradually…. gradually… until you are more or less back at the original tempo. This isn’t going to work 100% of the time, but it’s worth experimenting with.
10. RZA – Brooklyn Babies
RZA – Brooklyn Babies
Another example of a progressively speeding up tempo. I don’t think this happens very much in hip hop. The only other example I can think of is that Blackalicious song where he keeps rapping faster and faster. If you can think of any others, let me know in the comments.
11. Queen – Don’t Stop Me Now
Queen – Don’t Stop Me Now
Queen – making musical theater sound actually kinda cool.
But seriously, I should have probably used Bohemian Rhapsody as the example, since I am pretty sure that song is the mother of all tempo changes.
12. The Beach Boys – Wouldn’t It Be Nice
The Beach Boys – Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Brian Wilson melts all of our hearts with this legendary tempo change in Wouldn’t it Be Nice, which is one of my fav songs of all time.
If you have any interest in doing a slower tempo bridge in one of your songs, this Beach Boys song should be your template, as it is THE textbook example. It is incredible effective. The slower tempo brings out the message and the drama in the lyrics (“you know it seems the more we talk about it, it only makes it worse to live without it…”). This is songwriting in beast mode.
Take a bridge from one of your songs and slow it down – how does it sound? The Beach Boys accomplished this by using a ritardando (remember that is a just fancy word for a gradual decrease in tempo). Depending on the structure of your bridge, you could try it this way as well. Otherwise, an immediate decrease in tempo is the other strategy you should try.
13. Discovery – So Insane
Discovery – So Insane
I am a sucker for bad sounding drum machine samples. Not only does this song have them, but the tempo slowdown brings them out even more.
What is also cool about this song is that after the slowdown excerpted above, they speed the song back up and do it again a minute or so later in the song.
14. The Smashing Pumpkins – Tonight, Tonight
The Smashing Pumpkins – Tonight, Tonight
OK, so we’ve talked about several types of tempo changes so far – slower introductions (Diana Ross + others), slower choruses (Lana Del Ray), slower bridges (Beach Boys).
Now it’s time to talk about our last classic tempo change move – and this is the perfect note to end on – the slow outro.
The risk of the slow outro, in my opinion, is that it could come across as cheesy. In this Smashing Pumpkins song, it fits in well with the rest of this song which is highly emotional and dramatic.
If you can think of any other songs with slow outro’s, let me know in the comments below.
That’s it, folks
While we’re on the topic of outros, let’s end it here.
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