Here’s something interesting, that’s not even a plugin. I hope it’s useful, though it’s one of the more out-there researches I’ve explored. If this works, it allows for fine-tuning of musical feel on a whole new level. Click on it for the full size jpeg, which you can save and use.
Tempo seems to show ‘nodes’ of stability and instability that are so powerful that they help define entire genres, and there’s an algorithm for how that works. I think I’ve found the algorithm (and Airwindows fan Bo Danerius helped to brainstorm and refine it, so the exactness of the result owes as much to his efforts)
I found that there were songs, of entirely different tempos, that gave a common feeling of great stability and steadiness. At the same time, there were songs that seemed to be exploding with energy, where the groove seemed to ride on this knife-edge of ultimate excitement. They fell into a pattern, an algorithm cycling through stable and maximally unstable nodes.
Looking a bit further gave me something else: exactly halfway faster than the stable point, meant a node of ultimate groove. Not just one: a whole series of tempos that seemed to burst with energy but in an accessible way. And then, starting from the stable point and exactly halfway SLOWER to the ‘edgy’ node, gave a series of tempos loaded with swagger and attitude.
So I’ve made a reference. It’s simply a jpeg: that’s all you need here. In big type is the tempos you’ll use: the first column is the chill, serene, effortless flow node. The second is the livelier groove node, with just enough energy. The third column is the edge zone, where the intensity is overwhelming and high drama. And the fourth column is the swagger zone, where it’s the relaxed flow zone but more… emphatic. So, ‘serene/flow’, ‘lively/groove’, ‘intense/edgy’, and ‘swagger/attitude’. It’s possible to derive tempos slower and faster than this reference shows: I’ll provide links to the calculators used, I just felt it becomes less useful. Super-high tempos just come off as doubletime and the slower you get, the closer the nodes become until it can’t possibly be meaningful.
That said, I know people like to go crazy over this sort of thing, so in tiny type under the big tempo numbers is the exact numbers from the algorithm, to three decimal places. If you want to really REALLY zero in on a desired effect, there you go.
What effect? I’ll give a rundown (not guaranteed to be perfect: I’m using internet data, from things like ‘workout song tempo lists’) of songs that clued me in to the existence of these ‘energy nodes’.
In the stable, effortless-flow tempos are songs like:
Back In The High Life Again – Steve Winwood | Best Of You – Foo Fighters | Blister In The Sun – Violent Femmes | Blitzkrieg Bop – The Ramones | Blue Monday – New Order | Brass In Pocket – The Pretenders | Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison | Dragostea Din Tei – O-Zone | Fly Like An Eagle – Steve Miller Band | Free Bird – Lynyrd Skynyrd | Gangnam Style – Psy | Heartbreaker – Led Zeppelin | Hey Soul Sister – Train | Hollywood Nights – Bob Seger | Hungry Like The Wolf – Duran Duran | I Can’t Tell You Why – The Eagles | I Kissed A Girl – Katy Perry | I Want To Hold Your Hand – The Beatles | I Want You Back – The Jackson 5 | I’m Free – The Who | I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) – The Proclaimers | Immigrant Song – Led Zeppelin | Join Together – The Who | Landslide – Fleetwood Mac | Like A Rock – Bob Seger | Limelight – Rush | Lola – The Kinks | Love Is The Message – MFSB | Magic Carpet Ride – Steppenwolf | Making Plans For Nigel – XTC | Message In A Bottle – The Police | Mirror In The Bathroom – The English Beat | Never Gonna Give You Up – Rick Astley | Penny Lane – The Beatles | Pon de Replay – Rihanna | Pump Up The Volume – M|A|R|R|S | Rock And Roll – Led Zeppelin | Sailing – Christopher Cross | Since U Been Gone – Kelly Clarkson | Smoke On The Water – Deep Purple | Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd | The Heat Is On – Glenn Frey | Up Around The Bend – Creedence Clearwater Revival | Video Killed The Radio Star – The Buggles
Wildly different genres and tempos, but with the naturalness and stability of the first node. Also note that here you don’t get the super edgy high-drama stuff: that’s the third node. This node is always stuff that sounds really together, whether it’s heavy or light.
In the second, lively groove node (halfway faster than complete equilibrium) are songs like:
3 A.M. Eternal – The KLF | 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover – Paul Simon | Alison – Elvis Costello | Axel F – Harold Faltermeyer | Bigmouth Strikes Again – The Smiths | Billie Jean – Michael Jackson | Born On The Bayou – Creedence Clearwater Revival | Boys Of Summer – Don Henley | Chariots Of Fire – Vangelis | Dancing Days – Led Zeppelin | Don’t Stop – Fleetwood Mac | Drift Away – Dobie Gray | Every Breath You Take – The Police | Evil Ways – Santana | Fire – Jimi Hendrix | Fly Robin Fly – Silver Convention | Freewill – Rush | Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones | Go Your Own Way – Fleetwood Mac | Graceland – Paul Simon | Green Onions – Booker T & The MGs | Hotel California – The Eagles | I Took A Pill In Ibiza – Mike Posner | I’m Still Standing – Elton John | It’s Raining Men – The Weather Girls | It’s The End Of The World As We Know It – R.E.M. | Lady Marmalade – LaBelle | Long Train Runnin’ – The Doobie Brothers | Man On The Moon – R.E.M. | Night Moves – Bob Seger | Roxanne – The Police | Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana | Solsbury Hill – Peter Gabriel | Star Wars Main Theme – John Williams | Stir It Up – Bob Marley and the Wailers | Sugar Magnolia – The Grateful Dead | Superstition – Stevie Wonder | Take The Long Way Home – Supertramp | Thank God I’m A Country Boy – John Denver | The Ballad Of John And Yoko – The Beatles | The Boys Of Summer – Don Henley | The Number Of The Beast – Iron Maiden | Time Warp – Rocky Horror Picture Show | Tom Sawyer – Rush | Umbrella – Rihanna | Uncle John’s Band – The Grateful Dead | We Are Family – Sister Sledge | What I Am – Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians | What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye | Wild Thing – The Troggs | Wonderwall – Oasis
I feel like in this node you can feel the additional drive. It’s not simply maximum flow, the energy is ramping up, whether that be for dance-floor energy or just to put across the concept. Again, these are all different tempos but all in the same category (barring mistakes in tempo reporting).
In the third node we’re as far from ‘smooth flow’ as we can get. I felt like this note is high in drama and intensity: even when the tempo is solid it feels like it’s not, like it’s on the ragged edge of something dramatic bursting out. It’s songs like:
Ace Of Spades – Motorhead | All Star – Smash Mouth | Bawitdaba – Kid Rock | Birthday – The Beatles | Break On Through – The Doors | Cocaine – Eric Clapton | Coconut – Harry Nilsson | Dear God – XTC | Don’t Stand So Close To Me – The Police | Drive My Car – The Beatles | Electric Avenue – Eddy Grant | Fields Of Gold – Sting | Flashlight – Parliament | Funkytown – Lipps, Inc. | Groove Is In The Heart – Deee-lite | Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger – Daft Punk | Have A Cigar – Pink Floyd | Here Comes My Girl – Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers | Hyperactive – Thomas Dolby | I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing – Aerosmith | I Saw Her Standing There – The Beatles | I Wish – Stevie Wonder | I’m A Believer – The Monkees | La Grange – ZZ Top | Let’s Spend The Night Together – The Rolling Stones | Low Rider – War | Mmmbop – Hanson | My Sweet Lord – George Harrison | Neutron Dance – Pointer Sisters | Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone – The Temptations | Pinball Wizard – The Who | Pride (In The Name Of Love) – U2 | Proud Mary – Creedence Clearwater Revival | Pump It Up – Elvis Costello & The Attractions | Revolution – The Beatles | Riders On The Storm – The Doors | Rio – Duran Duran | Roadhouse Blues – The Doors | Roar – Katy Perry | Rock Around The Clock – Bill Haley and His Comets | Shattered – The Rolling Stones | Start Me Up – The Rolling Stones | Strange Brew – Cream | Stripped – Depeche Mode | Take It Easy – The Eagles | The Great Gig In The Sky – Pink Floyd | Us And Them – Pink Floyd | Waiting In Vain – Bob Marley And The Wailers | Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ – Michael Jackson | Willie and the Hand Jive – Eric Clapton | Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd | Word Up – Cameo
This covers a lot of ground. It works for super wild and heavy stuff, but it also takes things that might be overly bland and infuses them with passion. I don’t think it’s an accident that hits like ‘Fields Of Gold’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’ sit on a tempo that makes them feel electrifying. Again, this is all sorts of tempos, not just a single tempo. It’s a node, in an algorithm that cycles between stable and unstable feels, and this third ‘intense’ node is as far from ‘stable’ as you can get.
And for the fourth node, which is exactly halfway slowed down from the ‘stable’ zone, we have songs with ‘swagger’ and ‘attitude’, if the theory holds. So it’d be songs like:
Another One Bites The Dust – Queen | Back In Black – AC/DC | Bangarang – Skrillex | Boogie On Reggae Woman – Stevie Wonder | Born To Be Wild – Steppenwolf | Can’t Stand Losing You – The Police | Cheap Sunglasses – ZZ Top | Cold Shot – Stevie Ray Vaughan | Cum On Feel The Noize – Quiet Riot | Eye Of The Tiger – Survivor | Fearless – Pink Floyd | Get Over It – The Eagles | Get Up, Stand Up – Bob Marley And The Wailers | Golden Years – David Bowie | Higher Ground – Stevie Wonder | How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) – James Taylor | Hungry Heart – Bruce Springsteen | I Got You (I Feel Good) – James Brown | I Love Rock ‘N Roll – Joan Jett & the Blackhearts | In The Air Tonight – Phil Collins | Jump Around – House Of Pain | Larger Than Life – Backstreet Boys | Legs – ZZ Top | Life In The Fast Lane – The Eagles | Long Tall Sally – Little Richard | Magic Bus – The Who | Money – Pink Floyd | Monty Python Theme – John Philip Sousa | More Than A Feeling – Boston | Mustang Sally – Wilson Pickett | Play That Funky Music – Wild Cherry | Powerhouse – Raymond Scott | Pretty Vacant – Sex Pistols | Rock And Roll Music – Chuck Berry | Sex Machine – James Brown | Signed, Sealed, Delivered – Stevie Wonder | Tainted Love – Soft Cell | Tempted – Squeeze | The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – The Band | The Weight – The Band | Tiny Dancer – Elton John | Tutti Frutti – Little Richard | Up On Cripple Creek – The Band | Walk This Way – Aerosmith | What Is Love – Haddaway | When Doves Cry – Prince | Where The Streets Have No Name – U2
And there you have it: speed up a hair and it’s back around to ‘perfectly smooth and stable’ again. I think it’s interesting how artists (Little Richard, The Band) find a tempo home in a particular ‘node’ even across different tempos. Each ‘flavor’ of tempo has its own uses and they seem, to me, to have a family resemblance that might have usefulness when deciding on a tempo. You can go with the flavor (like Hey Soul Sister in ‘stable’ or La Grange in ‘intense’) or play against the flavor, like Immigrant Song gaining inevitability through being at ‘stable’ tempo, or something like ‘Fields Of Gold’ or ‘Willie and the Hand Jive’ sitting on the edgiest tempo possible in spite of being very chilled-out songs. Or, you can just groove like ‘Billie Jean’ (or ‘Born On The Bayou’) in the groovingest possible node, or swagger as hard as possible like ‘Walk This Way’, ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’, or the far quicker ‘Get Over It’.
A theory that says the tempos to the heavily swaggering ‘Fearless’ by Pink Floyd, the seemingly quicker ‘Golden Years’ by David Bowie, and the midtempo ‘Higher Ground’ by Stevie Wonder have something mechanical in common that gives them a common tempo flavor, is a theory that might be fun to play with.
Also, here is the original ‘word association version’ connected to the final tempo numbers I arrived at.
Hope it proves helpful to you as you find tempos for things :)
Here is the initial experiment I did, outlining a starter set of tempos that I felt were unusually ‘stable’.
Here is an online calculator Bo Danerius used to zero in on the algorithm we were talking about (one of several attempts)
AirWindows-Tempo-Thingie.ods (this is a calculator in OpenOffice that Bo Danerius made, where I got the exact tempo numbers for each node)