For this week’s top 10, we’re going to explore one of the most overlooked tools in a songwriter’s toolbox. But don’t worry, even if you don’t write songs, I’m sure this will inform your musical listening (if nothing else, you might just hear these songs in a different way). Unfortunately, it seems as though a good tempo change in a song is becoming less and less popular in today’s music. It’s virtually non-existent in most hip-hop, dance, and pop styles, and we think that’s a shame. A common musical device of classical music, a tempo change (speed of song) is something that should be explored and celebrated for its musicality. As humans, we’re rhythmic by nature, and an increase or decrease in tempo has unique physiological effects on the listener. So let’s check out some sweet tempo changes that work wonders in the songs we love.
10) Jack Johnson – Bubble Toes *(change at 0:48)
Great example of an instant tempo change that doesn’t get crazy – it’s still laid back JJ style here. What I like from a production standpoint is how both tempos help each other. The beginning tempo would not work well for an entire song, right? And likewise, if ‘ol Jack started the song with the second tempo, it would “work”, but it wouldn’t be near as cool as how it is now. Sometimes the beauty is in the subtle things – even if they’re as “drastic” as a significant tempo change.
9) Radiohead – Paranoid Android *(changes at 3:34 and 5:36)
When you’re going to go to a slower tempo, it’s common to have cymbal swells and a slight pause before the new material. Radiohead does this well, all while maintaining the feel of the overall song in the middle section. The two parts work together so well, you think the song is going to end that way, but they have one more trick up their sleeve – returning to the rock riff played earlier. This time, they trigger the tempo change by a everything cutting away and guitar taking over. This has been a common technique to “switch gears”, and it works excellently in Paranoid Android.
8) Ike & Tina Turner – Proud Mary *(change at 2:59)
I like this one because tempo is the main characteristic of this cover. When you cover a song, you need something special to set it apart and make it your own. Ike and Tina did it here by going both extremes. In the words of Tina, “We’re gonna take the beginning of this song and do it easy…but then we’re gonna do the finish rough.” So by making the first part extra slow and soulful, they could crash in on a wild finish. Point here? Extreme tempo changes can work wonders to spice up something familiar or routine.
7) System of a Down – Toxicity *(change at 2:40)
Quick note for music geeks: While you could technically argue that the tempo of this song never changes (hearing overlapping polyrhythms of 6/8 and 4/4), I would still call it a tempo change, because it really comes down to feel. And after the chorus, we definitely start banging our heads to a different speed. Like Radiohead at #9, the guitar starts this tempo change, but I especially like this because of the two complementing time signatures – it makes it all work in the end. And again, if this is all over your head, don’t worry about, just enjoy the music…
6) Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody *(changes everywhere)
Which one do we even talk about? This song is loaded with tempo changes, right? Actually, surprisingly, the tempo changes less than 10 bpm (beats per minute) in the song – which is quite natural for a band to ebb and flow somewhat with tempo. Queen does a genius job of creating so many contrasting feels and placing different emphasises (yes, it’s a word) on the beats, that you’d swear the tempo changes drastically, especially at 3:08. But what this top 10 list lacked was a good example of a “ritardando”, a gradual decrease in tempo. And you’ll find a beautiful example after the guitar solo (at 5:00). Again, they actually end up at the same tempo, but mask it with a half-time feel. Such a well-crafted transition to the bittersweet ending, especially with a little classical flair of the slowing piano arpeggios. Well done.
5) Arcade Fire – Crown of Love *(change at 3:43)
This is another example similar to System of Down at #7. Every 4 feel has an overlapping 3 feel that can be counted instead (and vice versa). In this case, Crown of Love has an awesome 12/8 feel that transitions to its counterpart 4/4 feel (this is just really hard to explain without sounding too academic, so just listen to the music, and nod your head, ok?) I like this example because it’s done more subtly – not as drastic a transition as “Toxicity”, but it still shifts in an instant. You won’t find many songs that use these two timings together, and the dance flair of the second sets it ahead of the rest.
4) Santana – Black Magic Woman *(change at 3:41)
I’m not sure which version this is (it’s not in the studio version), but this is what I grew up listening to, and the tempo change is the best part of the song. Santana does a great job as a band transitioning into this faster paced, jam section, with the bass really taking center stage. Add to that a switch from minor to major, and this tempo change is brilliant. Again, the goal of most tempo changes is increased energy, and they pull it off here well.
3) Lynyrd Skynard – Freebird *(change at 4:43)
This is definitely the best example of a song split into two sections, each with their own tempo. As a producer, what I appreciate here is that all too often, songs that end with a different “upbeat” tempo lack in beginning content. What ends up happening is that the listener intuitively fast forwards to the “good part”. In this case, you have to listen to both. Sure, the whole ending defines “Freebird”, but it wouldn’t really make sense without the first three minutes. This tempo change is great because it’s set up with a dramatic vocal bend and rapidly increased drums. And let’s be honest, is there a better jam section in rock music than the next 4+ minutes?
2) Dexy’s Midnight Runners – Come on Eileen *(change at 2:27)
This is one of my personal favorites because there just aren’t enough good songs today that make use of a gradual tempo increase. It’s a genius idea though – all they do is cut the time in half, and build back to the original tempo. Such an effective way to get “energy” in a song, isn’t it? And because they do it in a short amount of time, it has such a dramatic effect that makes the last chorus even stronger. Question, if you’re a drummer, why wouldn’t you want to do more stuff like this? It’s just so fun.
1) Isley Brothers – Shout *(change at 1:16)
There’s a good reason why this is an absolute must at any wedding reception. One of the best dance songs of all time, “Shout” has more energy than you’ll find today – 40 years later. Why? Because the Isley Brothers mastered the “feel”. While today’s producers/artists try so hard to get the right “trendy” sounds and hip studio tricks (it’s all novelty, isn’t it?), the songs that will last are built on “feel.” Trust me, Gaga won’t be blaring 50 years down the road. While this song is technically an example of “half-time” (the tempo just becomes twice as slow), there’s no better display of drastic tempo change in a song that just plain works. It never feels like two songs; just two different flavors that beg for the other to come, and that’s the beauty of it. And when they get back to the original, faster tempo? It’s all over, folks.