What Is Fast? Not So Fast!

Quick, which is more uptempo?

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2?

Or “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”?

“I Still Haven’t Found” sort of floats, wraith-like, through its four-and-a-half minutes. “Sunday” rocks. But their tempo is essentially the same, just under 101 BPM (beats per minute).

Ron Gerber’s “Between the Songs” is billed as “a step by step guide to creating radio magic,” specifically putting on a specialty show like his syndicated “Crap From the Past,” based at KFAI Minneapolis. It has a lot for music junkies as well. And my eye went immediately to one of the book’s appendices.

That’s where Gerber catalogs hundreds of songs — some enduring hits, many forgotten ones on the order of “Cross My Broken Heart” by the Jets — by their BPM count. The results may not surprise anybody who mixes for a living, but if you don’t happen to know these from memory, it’s a reminder when coding music that energy is much more than tempo. And why there are often such seeming inconsistencies in the coding of music databases. 

Are Def Leppard’s loping “Hysteria,” Blondie’s bouncier “Rapture,” and Bell Biv Devoe’s more kinetic “Do Me” really all the same 107 BPM? How then is J.D. Souther’s mournful “You’re Only Lonely” 107 BPM as well? Are Billy Joel’s “Allentown” and Animotion’s “Obsession” really both 117 BPM? Are Sade’s “Smooth Operator” and Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” really the same BPM (118)?

When I first looked at music coding inconsistencies, a number of readers chimed in, including Randy Michaels, who noted that “timbre is subjective. Tempo is not.” Tempo is indeed empirical, but it leads to situations where right is just as wrong as wrong.

When in Rome’s “The Promise” is 118 BPM, but so is Prince’s much hotter sounding “1999.” I would have no problem following the former with “1999” or “Hot Blooded,” even though they’re all likely 4s on a 1-5 scale. Following “The Promise” with a true mid-tempo would feel dreary, unless it was disproportionately high-energy, like Kris Kross’ “Jump,” which is only 102 BPM, but so busy that its opening scratching effect would feel abrupt without a splitter between the two songs.

Beyond timbre, there’s also the less empirical question of bounciness. “Believer” by Imagine Dragons is 62 BPM, one of the slowest songs on any station; it’s no faster than the ethereal R&B hit “Caroline” by Amine. But “Believer” is one of the songs giving CHR/Adult Top 40 radio badly needed energy right now. And it’s not just timbre, because there are a lot of slow-but-densely-produced songs with no bounce on the radio that just sound sludgy now.

To give an idea of the tempo continuum, here’s just a sampling of familiar Classic Hits titles arranged in order of BPM. Some rounding off of Gerber’s numbers takes place here. Also, when there’s a range of tempos, what I’ve used is usually the opening BPM number.

    1. 89 – UB40, “Red Red Wine”
    1. 91 – AC/DC, “Back in Black”
    1. 95 – Leo Sayer, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”
    1. 96 – Paula Abdul, “Straight Up”
    1. 98 – Pretenders, “Brass in Pocket”
    1. 100 – Culture Club, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”
    1. 102 –Kris Kross, “Jump”
    1. 103 – John Cougar Mellencamp, “Jack and Diane” (and not cited here, but also Chainsmokers & Coldplay, “Something Just Like This”)
    1. 106 – Commodores, “Brick House”; Color Me Badd, “All for Love”
    1. 108 – Aerosmith, “Walk This Way”; George Clinton, “Atomic Dog”
    1. 111 – Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, “It Takes Two”; Nick Gilder, “Hot Child in the City”
    1. 112 – Steppenwolf, “Magic Carpet Ride,” but also Chris Isaak, “Wicked Game”
    1. 113 — Blondie, “Heart of Glass”; Michael Jackson, “Black or White”
    1. 118 – Human League, “Don’t You Want Me”; Bee Gees, “Tragedy”
    1. 119 – Huey Lewis & the News, “The Power of Love,” but also 38 Special’s “Second Chance”
    1. 121 – Eddy Grant, “Electric Avenue”; Bangles, “Manic Monday”
    1. 124 – Chaka Khan, “I Feel for You”
    1. 128 – Dead Or Alive, “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” but also Captain & Tennille, “Love Will Keep Us Together” (which actually finishes at 135 BPM)
    1. 132 – Patrick Hernandez, “Born to Be Alive”; Cars, “Let’s Go”
    1. 135 – Billy Idol, “Mony Mony”
    1. 137 – Paul Simon, “Kodachrome”
    1. 138 – Madonna, “Burning Up”; Tommy Tutone, “867-5309/Jenny”
    1. 143 – Amii Stewart, “Knock on Wood”
    1. 146 – Knack, “My Sharona”
    1. 150 – Bobby Fuller Four, “I Fought the Law,” but also Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing”
    1. 153 – Go-Gos, “We Got the Beat
    1. 157 – Go-Gos, “Vacation”
    1. 160 – Monkees, “I’m a Believer”
    1. 164 – Ramones, “I Wanna Be Sedated”
    1. 167 – Pretenders, “Middle of the Road”
    1. 174 – Kenny Loggins, “Footloose”
    1. 177 – Hall & Oates, “Maneater”; Elton John, “I’m Still Standing”
    1. 190 – Adam Ant, “Goody Two Shoes”
    1. 196 – Prince, “Let’s Go Crazy”
    1. 205 – Cheap Trick, “I Want You to Want Me”
    1. 213 – John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John, “You’re the One That I Want”

Knowing that “You’re the One That I Want” is the fastest song typically heard on a Classic Hits station raises another issue. Radio stations don’t always do the work to maximize songs on the air.  For all its tempo and energy, the rumbly low intro of the “Grease” hit is rarely loud enough on the radio. And that’s why playing the fastest song on the station sometimes feels like slowing down.

Gerber is a longtime friend of the “Ross On Radio” column, having devoted at least two shows to topics covered here. If you’re in Minnneapolis for the Conclave next month, the show airs at 10:30 CT Friday night. Or you can stream an archived show here

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1 Comment
  1. donobrian says

    As someone who does a mix show for a radio station and has spent years mixing in clubs bars parties weddings etc, yes Imagine Dragon’s “Believer” is 62 bpm but it is also 124. I want you to want me is listed as 205 but for mixing purposes it is also 102. Outkast “Hey ya” is 160 bpm, but it will mix perfectly with Dj Khaled and Bieber “I’m the one” which is 80bpm. The idea is to keep everything on a scale of say 70bpm to 140bpm. Any song can be halfed or doubled to fit into that range. It keeps things simpler for mixing. Needless to say, tempo is a good indicator for how hot a song sometimes but as the article here makes the case, it is far far from a fool proof system. Most of it is how the song feels, the passion of how the lyrics are sung, the lyrical content of the song itself, and then how the beat goes along with the rest of the song.

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