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Creating a Pop Song Part 2: Tempo

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Have you ever wondered what defines a pop song? Well I have, and decided to find out. I gathered data from 52 Number 1 hits, the most successful from each year spanning 1960 through to 2011 as determined on the Australian pop music charts, and came up with some interesting recommendations as to what technical aspects this group of songs has in common.


Pop Music

52 songs were chosen for this study, as determined by the Kent music report, archived by the National Film and Sound archive and also the ARIA music charts. The songs chosen can be viewed in Part 1 of this series.

I would like to state at this point that the information I will present over this four-part series of Quick Tips is to be taken with an amount of jest. Treat it as seriously or as comically as you wish.


Tempo and Timing

In Part 2 we will focus on the tempo and running time. Each song was imported into a DAW (in this case Pro Tools) and the tempo, time signature and running time of the song noted

The overwhelming majority of songs were written in common time, which is four beats (or quarter notes) per bar, usually written on a stave as a 'C' or 4/4. With only 2 songs in 3/4 time and 1 in 6/8 time.

The average, median and mode were taken for the tempo and running time of the songs. The average is all values added together then divided by the number of values, the median is the middle value when all values are sorted into an ascending order, and the mode is the most occurring value within the set of values.

The Modal value can probably be discarded with regards to this information, as it relies on there being groups of data with the same value, but is interesting none the less.

I have collated four of the 52 songs, that fall within 4 bpm of the average tempo. They are Roy Orbison's 'Penny Arcade' from 1969, Ricky Martin's 'Cup of Life' from 1998, Eminem's 'Without Me' from 2002 and the 2007 hit from Fergie, 'Big Girls Don't Cry'.

Tempo example:

When we compare the median tempo and running time on a decade basis, we see an interesting anomaly.

We can see a loose trend that suggests that the tempo is slowely decreasing, while the running time was initially increasing and then plateaued. There is little notable difference between the average and median which therefore helps to add weight to this conclusion.


Tempo Conclusion

Like the instrumentation in Part 1, it may not come as a surprise that the average running time of a song is 3 minutes and 46 seconds. Commercial radio, the often frequented domain of popular music is unlikely to play anything over this length, if you are an audio engineer, producer or musician you are probably familiar with the 'radio edit', whereby a longer song is cut to conform with the radio's requirements.

But what can we state about the averaged tempo, perhaps it is linked to the resting human heart rate, the lower end of this being around 60 beats per minute. Wild conclusions I know, but food for thought. In Part 3 we will look at song form. Stay tuned, and remember that no matter what you create, let statistics only be a guide.

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