We were in the local Gristede’s doing the weekly grocery shopping, when “These Eyes” by the Guess Who came on the store’s PA. I started groovin’ to it, like you do, but discreetly, because this was the frozen food aisle after all, not a disco. I remarked that I always liked the part where the singer sang faster lyrics in the chorus. When done well, it often seemed cheeky and clever to change the tempo in a pop song, always caught my ear.
For the rest of the weekend, we traded examples of songs that start slow, get faster and then get slow again. There are tons of examples of course, but a few distinctions emerged. Patrick pointed out that epic songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” are really mini-operas, and so they employ much more than tempo change to forward their story in each “movement”. We also wanted to exclude songs just like “These Eyes”, because the back-beat and chord progression essentially stay the same, although the singer double-times the lyric line on top of it.
I guess we were looking for music with the classic A-B-A-B-C-B kind of structure, but where the C section takes off like a jet-plane.
This reminded me of a radio project I produced about 2 years ago that explored the ways that pop culture seemed reflective, or even predictive, of the current economic recession. If you want to hear the whole thing, it’s right here:
In the final section of that story, I interviewed Philip Maymin, Professor of Finance and Risk Engineering at NYU-Poly. Maymin had come up with a theory. He took the top Billboard pop hits of the past 50 years and fed information about the songs into a vast music database, specifically how fast or slow the songs seemed to be according to their beats per minute. What he found was that there was a relationship between the average beat variance of the songs (high beat variance = lots of changes in speed or tempo; low beat variance = stable speed or tempo), and the volatility of the financial markets.
Maymin told me that during times of relatively high market volatility, when stock prices bounce up and down, our pop music maintained a pretty steady beat. In times of low market volatility, the charts showed we liked music with several changes in tempo. What’s more, he indicated that these inclinations towards bouncier or steadier music would happen a year or two ahead of market changes. For instance, he used Aha’s “Take on Me” as an example. There’s a pop song with a very steady machine beat. That was a Billboard Number 1 hit in 1985, before the markets went haywire in 1987.
It was a fun theory to play around with, and Prof. Maymin clearly stated that it was nothing you’d seriously use as a basis for your financial investments. But at times when the public is looking for any reason to explain why things are going so bad, it doesn’t seem that crazy to consult your record collection. So going back to our fascination with songs that do that slow-fast-slow thing so well, here’s a playlist to calm your jittery portfolio: