When Tempo Shifts Gears

When Tempo Shifts Gears

(Or “When Songs Aren’t Always In A [Single] Mood”)

By Sean Ross

How do you code tempo and mood on a song that changes tempo eight times?

Phenomenal in every other way as well, “Driver’s License” by Olivia Rodrigo is slow, but with a pulse, when it begins. Its longest section is the 45-second bridge, slow but pulsating, that ends slow and acapella. In between, it goes through at least five other tempo changes. At various times, it could be both the slowest “1” and an airy “4.” It is definingly intense, but it is never hot.

Yes, analyzing a zeitgeist song in this manner invites mockery. (“Code it as a hit!” wrote one Facebook friend.) But radio programmers have a lot to negotiate these days. The song that opened slowly and dramatically was a standout in the days of “I Will Survive.” Now, it’s a formula. Even a song like “Sucker” or “Don’t Start Now” that is uptempo throughout is sparse at the outset, so it can further “kick in” during the first 30 seconds.

In a genre starved for tempo, there is a lot that merely tantalizes pop programmers—songs that are up, but never intense (“Go Crazy,” “34 + 35”); midtempo but at least bouncy (“Mood”); slow but rousing (“Bang!”). There are still the songs that are slow but busy (“Positions”) that were the core sound of Top 40 radio during its decline. And there is still enough somber music (“Lonely,” “You Broke Me First”) that those songs don’t have their traditional advantage of sounding like nothing else on the radio.

The hottest songs on the radio right now are “Levitating” and “Therefore I Am”—midtempo but bouncy and assertive. “Save Your Tears” is up, bouncy, but dour. The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” had its own brief wind-up but was close enough to traditional uptempo that radio powered it for a year. We have a lot of songs now that owe something structurally to “Don’t Stop Believin’,” perhaps our most enduring Classic Hit. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” endures pretty well itself, but one wonders if it comes in too hot to be a hit now.

Like many things in radio programming, “do listeners notice?” and “does it matter?” are not the same question. “If we’re too low key, or frenetic, for their liking, they’ll punch out and not even really think about why,” says KLJY/KXBS St. Louis PD Mike Couchman. Listeners will only know that “they got bored, or we made them feel edgy, or whatever.”

“Sometimes I listen to pop radio and think no one even looked at the music before they loaded it,” says Brian Woodward. “Sloppy segues lately.” In this column, we’re all about attention to transitions.

Asked how they coded “Driver’s License,” most PDs defaulted to one of two methods. WWCK (CK105) Flint, Mich., PD Jerry Noble offers, “There’s the ‘how it starts and how it ends’ theory vs ‘how do you feel listening to it?’”

“I’ve always coded them on the song as a whole,” says Justin Bryant of WMGB (B95.1) Macon, Ga. “The majority of ‘Driver’s License’ is medium tempo.” “I’ve coded ‘Driver’s License’ as slow, since the majority is slow,” says Michael Davis, owner/PD of Kentucky’s WMTA (Star 107.3).

“It’s all about how it starts and ends,” says Chuck Ingersoll. “Do whatever wild and crazy things you want in the middle, but let’s have some nice segueing and crossfades at the beginning and end, said the jazz show host.” (Ingersoll hosts a Sunday night jazz/R&B show on WGMC Rochester, N.Y.)

“I code it as slow,” says KFTZ Idaho Falls, Idaho, PD Viktor Wilt. “On my Active Rock station, I have a five- song separation for low-energy. There are too many low-energy new hit songs on Top 40 and Country to spread it out further than every-other-track from my experience, as much as I would prefer more energy overall in those formats.”

The late Canadian programming legend Pat Cardinal used to code only 1s and 5s. On his Classic Hits stations, Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” was a 5; “Dreams,” uptempo and emotionally intense, but never propulsive, was a 1.

In some ways, the recent changes in how hit songs are constructed makes it easier because a song like “Driver’s License” winds its way to the now customary cold ending. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for all its changes, is easy to code—you wouldn’t want to play another ballad on either side of it. (It’s a minute shorter, and the changes aren’t operatic, but “Driver’s License” is, in many ways, this generation’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its structure.)

“I code based on mood,” says Impact Radio Boise’s J.D. Garfield. “Tempo can change throughout a song. The mood normally stays the same.” He avoids two “sad” songs back-to-back.

“Unless there is a drastic change, I code tempo based on the intro. I also have mood coding,” says WJFX Fort Wayne, Ind., PD Rob Mack. “As far as tempo at radio now, sure there are ballads and slow songs, but I actually like our variety at CHR at the moment: Ariana, Pop Smoke, MGK, Olivia, AJR, Ava Max, Chris Brown, Dua Lipa, Bieber. That’s quite an array.”

Whether tempo matters will remain an open case for me until Top 40 and Adult Top 40/Hot AC put together a winning season without it. I’d be happy if programmers try to test the proposition this summer, have the right available product, and have an improving national mood to accompany.

Sean Ross is a veteran programmer, researcher, and the author of the Ross On Radio newsletter. Find him or subscribe free @RossOnRadio on Twitter. Contact him at rossonradio@comcast.net

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