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After you’ve learned the basic rules on how to write hit songs, it’s now time to learn how to write a slow song with hit potential. It will be important to produce an album that’s not boring, and having only a bunch of 120 BPM up-tempo songs will definitely render your album quite uninteresting. Therefore one, two, or maybe even three slower songs are always welcome to render your record less uniform.
If you write a slow song, when it should be a slow song with hit potential. Otherwise this track may become an absolute low point on your record, and you will want to avoid all kinds of low points anyway.
In some genres there usually are no slows, with includes some heavy metal subgenres, as well as some electronic subgenres. If you fit into one of those categories, then you should still continue reading, and maybe you will even kick off a revolution by being the first artist in your subgenre to try something really new.
But let’s start with a short analysis of what’s wrong with today’s slows. As you may already have guessed, most of today’s slow songs are just terribly bad and they will (hopefully) not be remembered, so the first thing we’ll need to check out is how slow songs changed over time. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, slow songs and ballads were known for their warm sound – just think of Elvis Presley and all of the classic 1960s slows for example, and you’ll understand what I mean. Back then, slow songs also often had insanely great instrumental arrangements (think of Motown and Phil Spector for example), and the lyrics were often quite meaningful. Slow songs were often not just ballads, they also treated social issues, just think of songs written at the time of the Civil Rights Movement for example.
While the 1950s, 60s, and 70 were well-known for their sound, this quickly changed in the 1980s, as already mentioned in the previous subchapter(s). Technological advances led to the cold and sterile sound of that decade, although things didn’t stop there. The trend to produce perfectly clean tracks (in contrast with the “warm” and “colored” sound of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s) continued in the 1990s. SSL introduced the SL9000 console with its “SuperAnalogue” circuitry, targeted at R&B, a genre that was already merging with pop and hip hop at the time, while vocal driven songs (Mariah Carey, Céline Dion, …) became more and more popular.
Music had already become highly commercialized, and the music industry was aware of the fact that you can sell a lot more singles with ballads than with standard up-tempo songs. Songwriting had mostly become a pure service by professional songwriters and producers, who would write their songs with the primary goal of making money and making it into the charts. In the 2000s, record studios moved from analogue 2” tape recorders to DAWs and digital recorders, and the lack of the so-called “tape saturation” further diminished sound warmth. Real instruments were replaced by virtual instruments, at the same time digital instruments (think of synths) were no longer performed, but programmed. Nowadays even real instruments are often no longer traditionally performed – you just record one or two bars, and then everything gets looped or copy-pasted, and sometimes even time-corrected.
Almost all vocals now are being run through Auto-Tune, effects are applied where feeling and emotions are missing. Instruments and arrangements have become boring and irrelevant elements mixed into the background, while all attention is focused on the vocal performance alone, a performance that’s flawless (thanks to computer aided correction), and sterile. If you read this, then you should understand how the evolution from insanely great slow songs to today’s crap was possible.
Today’s slow songs are purely commercial products that only serve one single purpose – they allow record companies, producers, and so-called artists to make some quick money.
So let’s try to create something better then!
The first thing you need to remember is that a slow song does not necessarily have to be a “ballad” or a “love song”.
There will also be songs that cannot be clearly classified to be slows or standard / up-tempo songs at all, they’re just something in-between. Songs like The Ronettes’ Be My Baby or Radiohead’s Creep for example cannot easily be classified as pure slow or up-tempo songs, so those categories don’t really have fixed borders. In the end this isn’t important at all, as those "song types" will just be labels you’ll use when writing your songs anyway. Here’s a list of some of the greatest slow songs of all times, and you’ll see that many of them aren’t ballads or love songs at all. This list will also give you an impression of how great slow songs of the past actually were:
Imagine , Jealous Guy & Woman – John Lennon
What’s Going On & I Heard It Through The Grapevine– Marvin Gaye
Hey Jude, Yesterday & Let It Be – The Beatles
A Change Is Gonna Come & Cupid – Sam Cooke
Blowin’ In The Wind & Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door– Bob Dylan
(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay – Otis Redding
You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ & Unchained Melody – The Righteous Brothers
I Can’t Stop Loving You & Georgia On My Mind – Ray Charles
One & With Or Without You – U2
When A Man Loves A Woman – Percy Seldge
Bridge Over Troubled Water & The Sound Of Silence – Simon And Garfunkel
People Get Ready – The Impressions
Hotel California – The Eagles
Mr Tambourine Man – The Byrds
A Whiter Shade Of Pale – Procol Harum
Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd
San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair) – Scott McKenzie
Pretty Woman & Crying – Roy Orbison
Every Breath You Take – The Police
Let’s Stay Together – Al Green
Walk On By – Dionne Warwick
For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield
At Last & I’d Rather Go Blind– Etta James
Space Oddity & Starman – David Bowie
I Started A Joke, Massachusetts & How Deep Is Your Love– Bee Gees
How To Disappear Completely – Radiohead
You should already see that no all songs in this list are usually considered to be traditional “slows” or “ballads”, and the definition we’ll use in this manual may not match traditional slow song definitons. The Golden Rules Of Slow Songs are less clear than the rules for up-tempo hit songs, although there definitely are some.
The Golden Rules Of Slow Songs
The songwriting rules for standard up-tempo songs and for slow songs are basically the same, although there are a few slight differences. Atmosphere is more important than groove, and you’ll also have to be more careful when writing the lyrics. That’s basically it, so let’s dive into it. Here are the basic points to care about when writing slow songs:
Length & tempo
Atmosphere & feeling
Inspiration & quality
Just like with hit songs, there is no perfect key and no perfect chord progression for slows. Do whatever sounds right and forget about traditional music theory.