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TikTok's obsession over sped up songs

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

What is the effect of changing a song's speed? Why are so many people downloading and streaming these songs?

Over the last year or so, TikTok has had more and more sped up or slowed down songs available to choose from that creators can use as an accompaniment to their video clips. In the wake of this popularity, some record labels are even releasing sped up and slowed down versions of their artists’ music. To work out why these songs may be so popular, let’s have a look at what happens to a song when the speed is changed and investigate the appeal of this.

When a song is ‘sped up’ there is collateral damage to two further musical elements beyond tempo. The pitch is affected and so is something called the formant.

Musically speaking, a sped up song leaves little room to create a musical journey in the mind. A faster speed will also make the musician’s technique sound more flawless - greater agility and harder to hear blemishes in the voice. A slowed down song leaves lots of unoccupied space to feel emotional surges in the music. This is found most often in more sensual videos on TikTok, like ‘thirst traps’.

Higher pitch does not do much for this phenomenon. The lowest frequencies will be higher than original, so will play out of the phone’s speakers more successfully, but I can not think of any other benefits.

I think the success of this trend lies in the change to formant, which occurs due to the squishing of the waveforms. Formant is the tonal colour, or sonic quality of a sound. A high formant in the voice sounds like the person has inhaled a load of helium. So in these sped up songs, the vocal formant is brighter, making it sound more cute or childlike. When the formant is shifted up or down, the unique characteristics of the voice are often lost, so the singers will all sound very similar.

Humans’ ears are designed to pick up the harmonics that characterise the vocal formant, as it is these frequency bands that make each person's voice unique. It is for this reason that we can hear opera singers over a large orchestra; tuning into the voice is an evolutionary trait. If a song is transformed around this axis, it may trigger a kind of subconscious awareness. This, along with the cultural connotations of cutesy-ness that comes with sped up vocals may therefore do a lot of the heavy lifting regarding the visual content. A video of a dog is nice and all, but with a sped up vocal it is adorable.

A record label bisecting the tempo of a song and pushing up and down the BPM scale may make the song marketable in two new ways. These cute sped up songs play off the familiarity of TikTok sounds. Familiarity is usually a comforting feeling. Further to this, TikTok is now such an engrained part of some people’s lives, that playing these songs as ‘music’ for passive listening can give users a sense of living out a TikTokable life. The slower releases of the songs tap into the ASMR and Lo-Fi crowds as the whispers and consonants of words are enhanced and drawn out, and the quality of the overall track becomes more granular. These songs are used for sensory stimulation as well as ‘study beats’, more commonly recognised as ambient sound.

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