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How to Use Tempo, Key and Time Signatures to Improve Your Song


Welcome to part 8 of our One Man Production Machine series, written by our guest contributor, Ed Elefterion. If you’ve missed the previous instalments, please check them out below before reading on.

Today’s topics are tempo, key and time. Let’s take a second to define each:

  • Tempo: How fast or slow something goes.
  • Key: The tonal center of a song.
  • Time: The measure of duration between seconds on the “clock of a song” – (in contrast to the clock of daily life on the wall).

These three tools are central to every song. Not just “important” but fundamental. As in, without them, there’s no song. Heck, there’s no music.  And often…you don’t think too much about them, do you?

I bet it goes something like this. You have a tune in your head, go to your keyboard or guitar, find the notes by plunking them out and, once you find what key you’re in, you don’t question it – you continue with writing.

Same goes for tempo. You just know how fast or slow it’s supposed to go because you hear it in your head first, and only pay attention to it when you tap it into your DAW.

Find the Perfect Tempo

When I record, the first thing I’ll do is turn on that Click Track. I will gladly spend however long it takes to find the tempo that makes me feel human. I know that sounds a bit crazy. But it’s true. I work to find the perfect tempo. Perfect tempo means:

  • I’m not fighting the click (not holding up for it or fumbling around trying to keep up)
  • I’m not thinking too much about it
  • I’m grooving
  • I’m free enough to feel something beyond that “click, click, click…”
  • I can not only play the song but have fun playing it

And yes…we all speed things up. Want proof? Turn on your metronome as you write. It should help to keep you steady, right? Then why’s it so damn annoying?

Because you’re fighting it. So am I. We’re human. And we experience time as something elastic not rigid. A metronome’s just a clock and a clock is a machine and machines can’t feel. (Yet.)

So once I’ve found the perfect tempo, I’ll always ask…

Does it Change?

Why would I ask a question that might undo all the work I just finished doing? I’ll say it again because it’s worth emphasizing.

Human Time is different than Machine Time.

To be clear, I’m not talking about using the ever-present “Humanize” feature for my drum track. It’s an important feature – depending on the style or genre you’re working for – because it helps create the groove. And it’s a relatively small and easy thing to do.

I’m talking about whether the tempo changes to support, define, or emphasize any section of the song.

And…

Does the tempo change deliberately, so that it grabs the audience, or does it change subtly so that the audience feels it without noticing it?

How Tempo is Used in Since I Gave Up Hope…

The songs starts without an obvious tempo. No clear downbeats. It floats. Then, in great contrast – (contrast is an important tool) – the piano comes in and sets an obvious medium tempo. It feels brisk at best. As that verse ends, it slows down, and there’s a short theme introduced that will return more fully later. The tempo hasn’t changed but it feels as though it’s organically developing because of the way the drum kit is used…in a word: sparingly.

Then, drums and guitars dominate, setting the tempo and driving with purpose as the next verse begins. Everything has built to this moment and, though the tempo hasn’t changed, it feels quicker because for the first time, we have a full drum kit (and very percussive guitar).

After the verse, that short theme returns – and develops both in tone and time. (I think of it as a mini-bridge built to connect two separate sections more smoothly and with increasing interest.) During this mini-bridge, the tempo gently increases a few beats per measure so that when we’re brought to the Bridge, we’re in a faster world…and gaining momentum.

The Bridge is 20 measures long…it’s like a different song. It has it’s own tempo because it’s a different world. The story has literally moved from one time to another. The verses were in the present and the bridge is in the past (in my character’s mind). During the bridge, he remembers his relationship to “the lady” he tells us “is gone” in the 1st verse.

As the bridge develops, and we realize we’re in a different world, it speeds up – again subtly so that it isn’t obvious to the audience – but the emotional urgency increases. When we are released into the Chorus, there’s a desperation in the music that affects the lyrics and how they’re sung. All of this is due to the much quicker tempo that was built during the bridge.

Key Signature

First and foremost: if you’re singing…pick a key that flatters your voice. I addressed this earlier but it’s worth repeating. Singing’s hard enough. Make it easy on yourself (or your singer). Sing in a key that invites you to feel – instead of challenges you to hit all the notes.

Key Signatures Don’t Change As Much As They Should

I’m not saying the actual key of the song must change but moving beyond the established tonal center – even for one measure – has an enormous impact. I’m talking gigantic.

Of all the songs The Beatles released – over two hundred – less than 30 of them stay in their original key. They used notes and chords from outside the key all the time. Whenever I think about that, and recognize how rarely that happens in the music I hear made today, I’m always amazed.

Try it for yourself. Move outside your key.

Different World, Different Key

The bridge in Since I Gave Up Hope (I Feel Much Better) – different key. Makes sense, right? Different world, different key. It feels natural because it’s a key that’s strongly related to the starting key of the song.

The song starts in E minor. The bridge is in G major. The minor 3rd of E minor. G major is the closest relative that E minor has in all the remaining 11 possible keys I could’ve chosen. That’s why I chose it.

I wanted it to feel the same but different.

That idea guided all my arranging choices for this song. I wanted things to sneak up and work on my audience without them noticing. Like a good magic trick. Or a good play, I suppose.

Chalk it up to my theater background. I’m a director, after all.

Time Signature

As much as I wish it weren’t so, there are only two time-signatures that popular music cares about: ones that feel like 4/4 (most songs) and ones that feel like 3/4…or simply put “in 3”…like a waltz.

Time in a Bottle by Jim Croce is in 3. Other examples: Norwegian Wood and She’s Leaving Home by The Beatles, The Times They Are-A Changin’ by Bob Dylan, Breaking The Girl by The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Jazz is a genre that loves alternative (unpopular) time signatures. Dave Brubeck famously has two entire albums dedicated to the subject: Time Out and Time Further Out. Both are classics well worth your while.

The power of time signature lies in locating the pulse or the beat of the music. Look here…

4/4: One, two, three, four / One, two, three, four

3/4: One, two, three / One, two, three

6/8: One, two, three, four, five, six / One, two, three, four, five, six

5/4: One, two, three, four, five / One, two, three, four, five

You get the idea. You can reassign that bolded text to any number you like and get a different pulse. I just choose those because they’re the most common pulses for those time signatures.

I hope now you’re seeing how important they are…and how powerful. And you’ll understand why I feel like it’s a shame that other, less popular time signatures aren’t used more in popular music. But, I admit…it is hard to dance to 5/4.

I happen to think that music is for more than just dancing.

Most of the time, these three tools: Tempo, Key and Time Signature are just a set-and-forget kind of thing. But now that you know you’ve got options…you can choose better depending on your goals.

Up Next…

We’ll look at song structure, which is basically what to do with your Verse, Chorus, and Bridge now that you’ve got them. And we’ll look at a totally new building block: the Pre-Chorus.

From there we’ll move into Orchestration, Intros and Outros.

I hope you’re enjoying the series as much as I am. It’s been a blast to write, and oftentimes… surprising. As in…”I didn’t know I worked like that.” I’m glad I’m writing it all down. (You should try it. You might surprise yourself.)

I’m going to use a lot of this material when I need help.

Coda

And here comes that ubiquitous Coda (another word for “outro”…an upcoming subject) that you’ve come to expect and, no doubt, enjoy.

Overwhelmed?

(If you’ve been following the series you’re sick of seeing this section. I kind of am too. But I tack it on the end for those who are just dipping in here and there so I can get the word out to as many folks as possible. Thanks for putting up with it.)

(And everyone else who’s confused by that last paragraph…you’re missing out. Go back through the previous posts and dig up some nuggets for yourself.)

If you’re overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Shoot me an email and I’ll help you out with a…

Free consultation.

I’ll listen to your demo, we’ll Skype for 15 min and I’ll tell you what I’d do. You can take my ideas (or not) and execute them yourself.

Or, if you want more direct help, we can talk about how much (or how little) you want me to be involved.

We’ll work out a fair price…I’m not in this for the money. I’m an artist, too, and I won’t exploit other artists. But more on this later.


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About me

About Björgvin Benediktsson

I’m Björgvin Benediktsson. I’m a musician, audio engineer and best-selling author. I help musicians and producers make a greater impact with their music by teaching them how to produce and engineer themselves. I’ve taught thousands of up and coming home studio producers such as yourself how to make an impact with their music through Audio Issues since 2011.

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