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An Easy Way To Do Your Song A Favor

As much as we might prefer it not to be so, the quality of a performance or recording of a song can’t help but have an effect, positive or negative, on the perception of that song. This goes for even experienced listeners who are used to ‘hearing past’ weaknesses in performances.

For most of us, with tempos it’s natural to rush (speed up) or drag (slow down) – sometimes both – as we play a song. And occasionally songs do have sections that sound better when played faster or slower than the previous or following section.

But I’ve found it to be true that most songs sound best at a steady or relatively steady tempo. And it’s actually a real skill to keep a piece of music at the same tempo throughout. Musicians call it ‘having good time’.

Most successful recordings have a steady tempo and a steady groove. There’s a reason why – no matter what the genre, momentum is created, and it’s easier for the listener to ‘feel’ the song… and move their body to it as well.

The rhythm carries it, and the building up of a steady rhythm, underneath the words, melodies, and harmonies, will usually really help your song. This doesn’t mean that it has to sound ‘metronomic’.

Problems in timing are more  often exposed in live performance than in finished recordings. Most recordings these days are done in computers, using loops or metronomes, which stay at the same tempos, as guides. Not to mention that, post-performance, it’s relatively easy to fix timing issues. This makes ‘good time’ a lot easier to attain, so current recordings usually end up being pretty tempo-consistent.

When playing live, though, it’s easy to get excited and speed up, or downshift and slow down. It feels right, if feels natural. But I’ve found it’s often not what’s best. A solid tempo (and a steady groove too) can be one of your best friends in putting your song across.

Even if you understandably have no interest in sounding ’metronomic’, it’s actually still worth playing your songs a couple of times with a click track (metronome) or an appropriate loop, just to hear where you tend to rush or drag. It’s a reality check. It’s also not a bad idea to record this and listen back to diagnose your tempo tendencies… as well as other tendencies… (recording is audio CSI).

This is also useful because when you do record for real and decide to play with a click track – which isn’t easy for most people to do without practice –  you’ll be ready.

If you’re not into steady tempo, try it… you might like it. I promise you, most of the people whose writing you admire have dealt with this and made it work for them. If you haven’t already, so can you.

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:

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10 responses to “An Easy Way To Do Your Song A Favor”

  • Hey Tony, great column!

    Much as I know many people think that ‘metronomic’ time can feel mechanical, I don’t believe that must be the case if the playing is done well. Rather, the groove can feel totally ‘weightless’ to me when there is no stress on the tempo – speeding up or slowing down. It’s an amazing feeling when done right: the groove can be incredibly delicate or extremely intense and have no tension where tension doesn’t belong. It’s a hard thing to describe, I know you know what I mean, and it’s what I always strive for. As I used to tell my daughter when she was learning to play, “Mr. Metronome is your friend.” He just happens to be the one person in the ensemble who is totally insensitive. If you don’t fight with him and accept his tempo, all is fine.

  • Nancy Kelel

    I enjoyed your article and appreciate all the input you share on this site. Always something thought provoking, helpful and informative. Just saying thank you Tony Conniff.

  • Steve Notice

    Thank you for the blog on timing. Feels better knowing others have the same tendencies. Never had a problem working with a drummer, but solo acoustic – having to keep time while building emotion – is a recipe for speeding up.

  • Good column Tony!
    I would add that when recording to a constant tempo, it can be key to pick that tempo wisely. It needs to serve the groove and serve the vocal, and serve the overall sense of tension or easiness that the song is supposed to convey, since you’re taking the potential to slightly nudge the tempo in different sections out of the equation.
    It can be a useful exercise to take a commercially recorded song that you like that has the kind of feel you want, and figure out the tempo as close as you can.
    I, for one, am often finding commercial tempos to be faster than I imagined, mostly because I can’t sing as quickly and precisely as the singers I am fortunate enough to be able to hire. It can be very useful to work a little with your singer, and with outside references, before the tempo is set in stone. If there’s something wrong with the vocal delivery, experiment, and make sure it’s not a tempo issue.

  • Rich Meitin

    Agree 100%

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