Sometimes, you start writing a song that you know has a lot of amazing potential, but you just can’t quite figure out how to get it there. Try playing with tempo. Surprisingly, this one simple change can do wonders.

 

For example, the song “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin started out as an uptempo bluegrass song. The song was originally inspired by an article about a man who got drunk and shot at his girlfriend’s car. The judge asked the man what he had learned, and he said, “you can’t make a woman love you if she don’t”. It started out as a fast-paced, humorous song, but just wasn’t sitting well with Reid and Shamblin. One night, they slowed down the piano part, and the song became a powerful ballad about heartbreak and loss.

 

“I Can’t Make You Love Me” has a spot on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 best songs of all time. Originally recorded by Bonnie Raitt, the song has been covered by an incredible amount of artists ranging from Boyz II Men to Adele. The song would not be what it is today if Shamblin and Reid hadn’t changed the tempo! Take a listen.

On the other hand, a song can also benefit from turning the tempo up. When Sara Bareilles went to write her second album, she struggled with the songwriting process. Say You’re Sorry started out as a ballad. She took a break from the song, and when she returned, decided to turn it into an uptempo. Looking at the lyrics without the music, the song is actually very sad. Once Sara sped it up, though, it was imbued with that bold, feisty humor that Bareilles is known for. The tempo change transformed the song. Listen closely to the lyrics, and you’ll notice the juxtaposition with the tone of the music.
Not only is it important that tempo change worked wonders for these songs, but it’s also vital to notice that these realizations took time. Sometimes the right direction for a song doesn’t come to you immediately. You’ve got to sit on it for a while. I like to go back to my old, unfinished material to see if there’s anything that piques my interest again or resonates with me in a different way than it did when I wrote it. It is ok to take a step back from your song; return to it when you’re ready.

 

Playing with tempo is an awesome way to shake things up in your own songwriting. Do you write mostly ballads? Try your hand at an up-tempo song. Or take a ballad you’ve already written and speed it up, see how it changes the emotional tone of the song. If you write mostly uptempo songs, take some time to figure out how writing a ballad is different, or, again, take one of your songs and flip it on its head by making it a ballad. You will most likely find that tempo has a big impact not just on how the song sounds and feels, but on how you approach the writing process.

Now, put this into practice! You never know, a song you never thought you’d work on again may just turn out to be one of your best.

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