The photo above shows a small section of Arjen’s studio desktop this morning. Right now he’s in the initial stages of composing a new song. One of the first things he does after coming up with the basic chord structure is to figure out what tempo(s) the song should be. This is harder than you might think, because your perception of what tempo sounds right changes depending on how you’re feeling at the moment. For example, if you listen to a piece of music first thing in the morning (before the caffeine kicks in), 80 bpm might sound just right. But if you check the same piece right after doing something that gets your adrenaline pumping (like working out or jogging, in Arjen’s case) 80 bpm will probably seem excruciatingly slow; you’ll need to raise the tempo quite a bit before it feels right.
This type of contextual variation can make it maddeningly tough to decide which tempo to commit to “tape.” Sometimes it takes several days of experimentation before Arjen finds the “Goldilocks zone” of tempo, the one that feels “just right.” Part of the problem is that when you’re comparing two tempos, you are influenced by the one you hear first. A slower tempo will seem even slower if you listen to it right after its faster counterpart, and vice versa. This works in visual perception as well — in the image below (courtesy of Wikipedia), the grey bar in the middle is one solid color, but your brain perceives it as a gradient because it’s fooled by the contrasting colors that surround it.
In the song section Arjen was working on today, 100 bpm seemed too fast, but 95 seemed too slow. In the end, he opted for 97 bpm. It may seem like nitpicking, but you really don’t want to end up having already recorded the final drums (a one-shot deal, as we have to use an external studio) and discovering that the tempo just doesn’t sound right.
Back again tomorrow with another inside report!