When a band decide to play a new song, it can be based on many different factors like people’s tastes, technical skills, arrangements, orchestration, speed, etc. But there is one type of song that is usually deceptively hard: the ballad, the slow song.
These are tunes like Eric Clapton “Tears in Heaven” or “When a man loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge. We listen to them and think they have an easy to replicate charm and swagger. Not at all.
Because, you see, slow songs require much more than just playing the right notes at the right time: they require more precision, more dynamics, more conviction than a faster number quickly cooked on the stove. Playing slow is difficult because there is a moment when the audience pretty much knows what you are about to play, the chord progression is familiar after the 1st verse, so is the bass line or the hook on the guitar or the melody coming from the singer. All has been discovered, and discovered slowly, the crowd has had the time to memorize everything. So, how do you keep it fresh till the end? That is a difficult question, sometimes impossible to answer. How many songs have been abandoned by a group who realized it wasn’t able to sustain the intensity of a crawling tempo?
I regard slow songs as extremely difficult because something has to retain the listener’s attention and you can’t count on fast surprises. You have to work on just the beauty of the tune, almost nothing else. On the piano, I invite my students not to rush, to play every note at the same speed. But I can see the challenges. That’s because a slow song requires a very rare asset among beginning or even intermediate musicians: confidence. You have to be certain that people will listen to you. If you’re not sure, you’ll want to rush, or slop up the notes. That arpeggio, that bass drum pattern is stretch over what seems an impossibly long period of time. If you doubt yourself, you’ll start shrinking that time period.
Percy Sledge pours his heart into the song, he grabs us from the very beginning and doesn’t light up. Eric Clapton tells a poignant and tragic story. What about the “Hallelujah” of Leonard Cohen? Again, the lyrics and the beauty of the melody will do the heavy lifting. Every slow song is a miracle. Our world spins faster and faster, informations bombards us at an increasingly quicker rate. A slow song goes against that. It reminds us that we need to take deep breath and just exist.