There are countless small aspects of music that make each song unique. The melody, the chord progression, the way that the artist sings it; all of these are incredibly important aspects of what makes a song special. There are a virtually endless number of ways to combine these different elements into new songs, and it would take thousands of years to truly exhaust all the different combinations of music that can be made. Music is a wildly endless and infinite type of art, simply because there are so many different ways to approach the creation of songs.
With all of these different elements, there needs to be ways to tie them all together. If there are just random chords happening throughout the course of a song, it’s going to sound confusing, dissonant, and just inherently “wrong.” Of course, there are people who create and appreciate that kind of music, but it’s generally not mainstream. Even those people will likely admit that the reason why they like that kind of music is that it just sounds wrong. So how are all of these elements supposed to be tied together in a way that keeps them unified? The answer is the tempo.
The tempo, fundamentally speaking, is the speed at which the music is played. But in practice, tempo goes much deeper than that. It is a huge emotional driver in many songs and can have a massive influence on the way that songs are listened to. The feeling of a song comes largely from the rate at which it is played. This is what tempo is and how it can be used in music to its greatest effect.
The tempo is the rate at which notes are played. This is the simplest definition, and it can have massive effects on virtually every other percussive element in a song.
Tempo is measured in a term called “Beats per Minute,” or BPM. This measurement informs the musician or producer how many beats of music will be played for every minute of time. A song at 60 BPM will have a single beat for every second of music, and a song at 120 BPM will have two beats for every minute of time. After that, the math gets a bit more complicated.
To get a better understanding of what a BPM means in the real world, a good place to start is with the beat that you are constantly producing: your heartbeat. A normal resting heart rate for most adults ranges from around 60 to 100 BPM. If you check your heart rate, you can feel this pulse that occurs every time your heart beats. Essentially, your heart rate is almost like your own body’s tempo. The rest of your body is interacting with itself based on that set tempo that your heart is producing, just like a song interacts and moves in time with the BPM that the tempo sets.
The song’s speed affects many areas of how the song will feel to a listener and a musician. Slower tempos will often make a song feel more somber and relaxed, while faster songs often will come off as higher energy and more intense. These tempos set and propagate the song’s energy and can often bring out different moods from the musicians and people who listen to the music.
For example, take the song “500 Miles” by The Proclaimers. There is a moderately fast tempo, which gives the song a lot of energy and more positive feelings. It sounds exciting, uplifting, and inspirational. Once you’ve listened to that song, listen to the cover version by Sleeping At Last. Even though these are essentially the same songs, the feelings and emotions behind them are entirely different. A lot of that massive difference comes from the tempo and how that affects the overall song. Sleeping At Last’s version is much slower, and that makes the song more somber and mellow, even though a vast majority of the lyrical and harmonic content is similar.
The tempo of songs can significantly impact the way that musicians feel like they should play a song. When a song is slower, it makes more musical sense to deliver the music in a more melancholy and subdued way. But when the music’s tempo is fast, it makes sense to play the music with a lot more energy and passion. Understanding how the tempo can deeply impact how a song is created and consumed will impact how you can create music that fully captures the mood you are trying to create.
Going back to your heart rate, there’s a special hack that many musicians have learned to use. The active heart rate for many people tends to fall somewhere between 120-130 BPM. Perhaps due to that phenomenon, researchers have discovered that many hit songs have BPMs that fall within that specific tempo. This could be because people’s bodies physically interact with a song’s tempo, as the sounds that we hear can emotionally impact us in ways we may not even realize.
This is why the vast majority of DAWs have a preset tempo at 120 BPM. Not everyone is trying to write a hit all the time, but in case you are, that steady 120-130 BPM range may be exactly what you need to capture just the right energy you’re looking for.
One of the best and most common tools used to maintain a steady tempo is a metronome. This is a tool that will send a pulsing sound to musicians so that they can maintain a steady beat. It usually doesn’t change, so the tempo of a piece of music can stay the same for the entire duration of the song. These are used in almost all popular songs because maintaining a consistent BPM helps a song feel as tight as possible and helps when aligning sounds to a grid for recording purposes.
However, many people intentionally don’t use a metronome while recording because they love the change of energy levels that occurs when a song slows up and speeds down. This “breathing” aspect of music happens a lot in a live context and can bring a lot of life to the right song. It’s not a method or mindset that fits well in every context, but it can work really well, especially in a more acoustic or rock song. Sacrificing tightness for humanness can be a scary move, but if done correctly, it can make a song sound much more vibrant and full of life.
Here at Unison, we’re super familiar with how choosing the right tempo can make your break your track. That’s why we’ve created specific tools that’ll help you structure your tracks in the optimal way, and make your music infinitely more relatable.
We have MIDI Packs to help create new memorable chords, progressions, melodies and drum grooves, Vocal Packs to help you add the missing ‘human’ element to your tracks, and our exclusive Artist Series Sample Packs were created by the world’s top producers and are proven to general millions of plays. Check out the ways Unison can help take your music to the professional level today.