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I wrote a song that could be classified as Pop or Country that starts out at a medium slow tempo in the first two verses and bridge.

Then there is a section after the bridge that can best be described as an extended third verse followed by an outro that repeats the opening chord progression a few times before the song ends.

The intensity increases during this third verse and I can increase the volume on the instrumentation to convey an elevation of the intensity. But I would also like to increase the tempo from medium slow to medium. Not a doubling or even a big increase, but a noticeable increase in tempo - before slowing back to the original tempo on the outro.

Is changing tempo during the song and back again a common device used on modern popular music? Or is there a good reason to avoid this type thing?

Does it pose any particular problems for either the listener or the musicians who must play the song?

Assuming the negatives aren't prohibitive - are there certain guidelines that should be adhered to in an effort to make this type change more effective or less disruptive (ie. try to use a multiple of 2 on your Bpm)?

  • Who will perform the song? Will you be playing it with your own band, or is it intended to be distributed as e.g. sheet music? – Meaningful Username Mar 5 '15 at 9:29
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    That's like asking, should I paint with blue or green? – Dave Engineer Mar 5 '15 at 16:01
  • @DaveEngineer I don't see it that way at all. Not sure what type music you play or listen to, but in the type music referenced in the question, tempo change mid song is almost NEVER done. Read the answers and you will get the picture. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 5 '15 at 16:42
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    There are some great songs out there that do this already - but it is notable. – cloudfeet Mar 5 '15 at 18:01
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    The Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice" (youtu.be/nZBKFoeDKJo) uses this technique very successfully. At the 1:38 mark, it slows down noticeably and then picks up again at 1:58. It's really well done and serves to reinforce the emotion of that section. If The Beach Boys do it on Pet Sounds, then it's acceptable. – Alex Basson Apr 4 '17 at 11:10

12 Answers 12

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Is changing tempo during the song and back again a common device used on modern popular music? Or is there a good reason to avoid this type thing?

No, it is not a device commonly used in popular music. However, this technique is extremely common in other forms of music. There are no good reasons to avoid this technique, band musicians are still musicians. If a clarinetist can change tempo in an orchestra, a guitarist can change tempo in a song.

Does it pose any particular problems for either the listener or the musicians who must play the song?

For the listener, they are a little confused at first (depending on the nature of the tempo shift) but unless you're doing it every two beats, which could be a little disorientating, the confusion quickly subsides as the listener then adds temporal shifts to their aural vocabulary about the piece. The next time you do it, it'll make sense to them.

For the musicians, really the only problem is making sure you all move at the same time, the same speed, and arrive at the same tempo. If you don't read music, learning and incorporating this technique will be more challenging, but you should all be able to do it just fine. I would start by practicing going between double time and half time and move on from there.

Assuming the negatives aren't prohibitive - are there certain guidelines that should be adhered to in an effort to make this type change more effective or less disruptive (ie. try to use a multiple of 2 on your Bpm)?

Who cares about disruptive? Make your music interesting; if it's disruptive for them, that's their problem, not yours. As I said, I would practice double time -> half time, and then try different modulations. I would try (as a band) starting slow and then gradually playing faster, and then doing the reverse. I would purchase a metronome so you can all practice agreeing on tempi. I would also work out some sort of visual signal from whomever is the "leader" to everybody else so that you know when to start / stop speeding up or slowing down.

If you're doing really complicated temporal modulations, I'd recommend click-tracks you can place in your ears. Many 21st century musicians who play very complicated music use click-tracks to help make sure they play the rhythms correctly, stay in tempo, and not get lost.

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    I'm inclined to agree. If a) the music is expressive, and b) the musicians who will be playing it can stay in the pocket across the tempo changes, there is no good reason not to. (The musicians who cover it can look to their own resources. If they can't handle the changes, too bad for them.) – user16935 Mar 5 '15 at 16:03
  • Great advice. It felt like the right thing to do with my song but my songwriting friends thought I should keep it consistent. If I play the rhythm guitar and sing - the drummer and bass player will follow. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 5 '15 at 16:38
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    There have still been a lot of popular songs that DO change tempo. And if your bass player isn't the one leading tempo changes you're going to fall apart, sooner or later. – Darren Ringer Mar 5 '15 at 19:54
  • @DarrenRinger I would amend your comment by adding in the drummer. If a bassist and drummer are locked in together, you're good to go. Otherwise, you've got a nightmare. – jjmusicnotes Mar 6 '15 at 13:21
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It's not that common, but that's why it can work very well to make your song stand out. Often it's important to prepare the listener's ear for the change. Three great examples are

  • Billy Joel's "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant"
  • Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody"
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird"
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It's unusual - listen to a hundred songs and you may well not hear this idea in even one. However, the song is your baby to bring up how you like. Others may or may not like it when it's grown up!

When there's one performer - singer/guitarist, maybe, there's no problem, as he knows the acceleration rate. With multiple performers, someone will have to conduct. This would often be the vocalist, especially as he would be in front and in eyeshot of the rest of the band. A drummer could do it - after all, a drummer can change the tempo a band plays at, even if he's not aware he's doing it...

If the song is in the fast part, it may be better to 'stop' at the end of it, and revert to the original tempo, rather than slow down. Just an idea.

Classical stuff did this quite often, so it's not a new idea. A lot of modern stuff is partially for dancing to, and this song may not work in those circumstances too well.

It's a little like changing the number of beats in a bar. Adding a 2/4 bar in a 4/4 song often goes un-noticed. How many bands play the Big O's Pretty Woman and leave out the 2/4 bar in the verse, maybe, but put it in the intro? What I'm saying is that once a song has been heard loads of times, it often just gets accepted, with not much thought to how it's mapped out. Go for it!

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    To emphasise, while changing tempo is unusual, there's absolutely nothing wrong or improper about doing so. Done well, it will give your song a distinctive, memorable character. – Kevin Mar 5 '15 at 17:35
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    Classic example from my younger years: youtu.be/kDWgsQhbaqU?t=1m39s – cloudfeet Mar 5 '15 at 17:58
  • @cloudfeet Well the YT vid you linked has 35 million plus views so maybe I need to start using tempo changes in all my songs lol. BTW - cool how you linked to a specific part on the time line instead of the beginning of the vid. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 6 '15 at 0:09
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Nobody mentioned the point of view of dancers yet. Personally, I find it very difficult to dance to songs which change tempo, but I am not a very good dancer. Many people love it, especially if they have heard the song before and know that a change of tempo is coming up. Or if the change of tempo is telegraphed by the music (for example, I am not sure what the correct musical terminology is, but it builds up some excitement, then suddenly pauses, then starts again but at a slower tempo, gradually building up speed and volume until it is where it was before.)

  • I agree. I don't like tempo changes in music that I'm dancing to either. Can be rather awkward. Note to self - when writing dance music - keep an even steady tempo and strong back beat throughout the song. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 6 '15 at 0:13
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    Also, if it's partner dancing, keep most of the songs fairly short! Five minutes is a long time to spend in the arms of somebody you don't like, and in any case it can get tiring to dance for so long. – Flounderer Mar 6 '15 at 0:37
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Is changing tempo during the song and back again a common device used on modern popular music? Or is there a good reason to avoid this type thing?

It's not common, but there is precedent:

I could probably think of a few others, but it's getting late... ;-)

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if you have some of the same drummers i've had, you're not not going to have a choice, the tempo will vary! :)

seriously, you probably already vary tempos slightly naturally just as an expressive means, and doing so intentionally as you want to build or release energy is good practice.

Doing a big jump is sort of unusual, but there's certainly no law against it. if the song wants it, try it out. going from 112 bpm to 130 doesn't sound like much, but it's a huge change. doing something like doubletime is usually just silly and maybe trite sounding.

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If it works in your song then it is acceptable.

If it's there for the sake of being there, it's probably a bad idea.

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To add to others' answers I would say tempo changes are usually rare, but it can help a lot to add emphasis to a new section.

So don't be afraid of it! There's this myth of changing tempo being a bad habit (told by players who were unlucky to play with people who can't keep time), but NOT changing tempo can also ruin a motif that only sounds good in a certain tempo.

But listeners would want to have an explanation of why you have chosen to change tempo. For example if you tell a story of a guy that decides to run away at the middle of the song, increasing tempo would make it a really good story-telling device.

  • the link is dead – Dom Aug 15 at 0:46
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It may be challenging for the band to return to the previous tempo after the change as well as make together a smooth transition, but it definatelly has its use and it's a nice effect, even I have used it in one of my songs. Two examples that come to my mind, where I think that tempo changes are:

  • Time, by Pink Floyd (I think the chorus is a bit slower)
  • All and Everyone, by PJ Harvey (intro/chorus are a bit slower too)
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How about Deep Purple's "Child in Time"? I find that pretty acceptable.

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Sounds like an interesting technique. It could work quite well. I would say to keep going with the idea and something good could turn out.

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Metro -- System of a Down (the one on the Lonely Day Single) has an odd speed change that fits quite nicely in my opinion.

protected by leftaroundabout Mar 6 '15 at 14:17

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