TL;DR: Artists release sped-up versions of songs, but why? Norwegian duo sped up trance tracks in ‘00s, nightcore is born. Decades later, fans do the same with chart hits on TikTok, labels cash in. Shrinking attention spans, a new way of listening, or democratized music? You decide.
What you’ve just read is the sped-up version of this article. If you’re wondering what the hell we’re on about, then we’re guessing you haven’t been anywhere near TikTok in the past year. If you have, you’ve probably heard more than a few songs that sounded a little faster and more high-pitched than you remembered. No, George Ezra hasn’t dropped an Adderall and inhaled a lungful of helium - what you're hearing is the latest trend to sweep the music world. Forget Too Long, Didn’t Read - this is Too Long, Didn’t Listen.
Fans are speeding up songs by anywhere between 30% and 50%, and the fast-paced, high-pitched results are finding widespread viral success across TikTok and beyond. So much success that artists and labels have taken note, releasing officially sped-up versions of their own songs on streaming services in an attempt to hijack the phenomenon's staggering popularity.
Spotify's Sped Up Songs playlist has over a million likes and comprises four hours of songs that have been given the speedy treatment and officially re-released by record labels. Everyone from Grammy-winning established artists to trend-hopping fledgling acts are getting in on the action. It's not just new tracks, either: sped-up versions of older songs are finding new audiences on TikTok and boosting the original tunes back into the charts.
Outside the label-sanctioned realm of streaming services, the trend is even more prevalent, with YouTube, Soundcloud and TikTok hosting unofficially sped-up versions of tracks produced by fans. One compilation video, "Sped up songs that have such a good vibe its illegal", has racked up close to 3 million views in only 7 months. If that sounds like a lot, then consider this: the TikTok hashtag 'spedupsounds' currently has 11.1 billion views.
So, we know why labels are doing it: sped-up songs are generating streams in their billions. It's a cheap and easy way of making more money out of music that's already been recorded. But why exactly are songs being sped up in the first place? How did this sound end up dominating the TikTok algorithm and breaking into the mainstream? There's no simple answer, but it's likely that it has something to do with nightcore, a micro-genre that's been flourishing on dance music's fringes since the early '00s.
Nightcore artists have been jacking up the tempo of their favourite songs since long before it was cool. The genre is based around what are called nightcore 'edits', which are essentially the OG sped-up song: tracks pitched up and boosted in tempo by around 35% to be shared on Soundcloud, YouTube and Reddit, often accompanied by anime artwork.
Though the term nightcore now refers to a style of music, the term originated with a Norwegian DJ duo of the same name. Inspired by pitch-shifted vocals in Scooter songs, the pair began speeding up Eurodance and trance tracks in the early '00s, telling SUPERSUPER! magazine that "there were so few of these kinds of artists, we thought that mixing music in our style would be a pleasure for us to listen to [...] Nightcore has become a style of music, a way to make the music happier."
While nightcore is the most obvious antecedent for the current fascination with sped-up songs, there's more than a few alternative routes through which influence could be traced. Bubbling, a short-lived musical movement from the '90s, saw Dutch DJs speeding up tracks in similar fashion, after DJ Moortje mistakenly played a 33rpm dancehall record at 45rpm, accidentally inventing a new genre in the process.
Hip-hop artists have been experimenting with sped-up samples and pitched-up vocals since the turn of the millennium: a trend known as chipmunk soul saw '00s producers revving up soul samples to create unique melodic accompaniments for their beats. Or perhaps sped-up songs are the hyperactive cousin of the DJ Screw-influenced 'slowed + reverb' phenomenon, which saw YouTubers decelerating popular songs and cloaking them in atmospheric reverb in 2021.
So how did nightcore, a niche micro-genre, end up inspiring a TikTok trend and crossing over to the mainstream? One explanation is that the genre's pitch-shifted vocals and euphoric synths have influenced producers associated with the loosely-defined sound of hyperpop, including A. G. Cook and Danny L Harle. These producers have, in turn, worked with artists like Charli XCX, Lady Gaga, and Beyonce, introducing maximalist sounds from dance music's underworld to the wider musical mainstream.
Speaking with The New York Times, Harle described first hearing nightcore as like discovering “a new universe of expression“. “Nightcore was a revelatory discovery in my early life and in my musical development,” he said. “Part of what makes it so interesting is that it was one of the first musical scenes that was born on the internet.” Harle’s observation is a telling one, and points to one possible explanation behind the sped-up songs phenomenon.
If the internet enabled the nightcore community to speed up and share music in the early ‘00s, then it’s no coincidence that two decades later, the rise of social media has spurred the trend on to new heights and mainstream acceptance. It’s been widely documented that social media is drastically shortening our attention spans. Perhaps this is fuelling a collective desire to finish songs more quickly, and to reach the dopamine hit in a song's hook or chorus as soon as possible.
Instagram and TikTok are relentlessly training our brains to seek the next video, the next post or the next buzz of stimulation quicker and quicker each day. Arguably, the sped-up song is just the logical endpoint of this attention-shrinking process: an easily digestible, rapid-fire assault on the senses that does away with superfluous details like meaning and context in favour of an instantly catchable vibe, or an aural wallpaper. As Twitter user Heirmeg puts it: “sped up versions of songs be hitting that nice itchy ADHD spot in my brain”.
Sped-up songs are brighter, buzzier and more stimulating than their sluggish counterparts. What’s more, they give people a new way to experience songs that they know and love, but have grown bored of. For some, the idea of discovering a new track might seem unnecessary when it’s possible to experience your favourite one again, as if for the first time.
Surely, many will view the proliferation of sped-up songs as a sign of cultural demise. The album has gone the way of the dodo, and now, it seems, so has the song. Eventually, our scroll-addled brains won’t be able to comprehend anything more than a few seconds of music at a time, and we’ll simply be spoon-fed algorithmic playlists of bite-sized, AI-generated audio-nuggets by our Silicon Valley overlords as the Great Flood rises outside our window.
Forgive us, though, if this all sounds a little bit apocalyptic: there is a flip side. Technology’s rapid development might have enabled social media to decimate our attention spans, but it’s also made music production vastly more accessible. Now, pretty much anyone with a computer can access music-making tools cheaply and easily. Nightcore gave budding producers, empowered by this accessibility, a way to put their musical stamp on tracks they love, by creating what's essentially a rudimentary form of the remix.
Writing on Reddit, user u/Stonefieldbeach captures the appeal. “Music had been democratized with the introduction of DAWs and the barrier to entry was further lowered by the popularity of nightcore. It was a simple formula, just pitch and speed up a song, now you’ve made a cool track,” he writes. “This lower barrier to entry, and the community around the genre, likely helped the confidence of aspiring music producers and inspired them to try to create more music.”
The more one thinks about it, the more this seems like a revolutionary moment. Since music technology first gave us the means to make music in our bedrooms, the boundary between artists and their audience has been progressively dissolving. Now, everyone’s a creator, and in the age of the internet, people don’t just passively consume music and media, they participate in it - by sharing, editing, reinterpreting and recontextualizing it to make it their own.
Whether you think sped-up songs sound better or not (and there are plenty of strong opinions on both sides) their endorsement by big artists and major labels suggests that this boundary has now been demolished completely. Fans liked music faster, so they sent artists a message, and made it faster themselves. Then, the industry responded, by giving fans exactly what they asked for. Is this the beginning of the end, or just the beginning?
5 songs that might actually sound better sped up
1. Steve Lacy - Bad Habit
Steve Lacy's "Bad Habit" is up for Song of the Year at the Grammys this year, but fans seem to have taken to the sped-up version of the track more than the original: so much so that attendees at his sold-out gigs last year reportedly struggled to remember the words to the song's verses.
We're digging the song at both speeds, but the fast version of Lacy's dreamy indie-R&B bop has got us wondering if replaying sped-up songs might become our new bad habit.
2. Miguel - Sure Thing
Miguel's 2011 hit "Sure Thing" returned to Billboard's Hot R&B Songs chart this month over a decade after its original release, thanks to the recent popularity of its sped-up version. Originally a certified slow jam, the track's quicker cousin has undergone a radical vibe-shift, and Miguel's pitched-up lead vocal proves oddly emotive at a faster clip.
3. Cults - Gilded Lily
Cults' sweeping, orchestral dream-pop was rousing enough even before it got the TikTok treatment, but the sped-up version takes the track to new heights, with Madeline Follin's vocal sounding exquisite atop soaring synths arpeggios. If we didn't know this one was sped up, we'd never have guessed - it suits the song nicely.
4. Eliza Rose & Interplanetary Criminal - B.O.T.A.
Eliza Rose's B.O.T.A. (Baddest of Them All) was 2022's most unexpected hit, hitting No 1 in the UK after going viral on TikTok, and catapulting Rose and co-producer Zach Bruce to instant stardom. Speeding up the track enhances its cutesy, bubblegum '90s vibe and makes this sugar-rush of a song just a little bit sweeter.
5. Bruno Mars - 24k Magic
YouTube commenter mallsouu captures our feelings about this hyped-up version of Bruno Mars' ignominiously funky Grammy-winner better than we ever could: "THIS SONG IS SO GOOD IM CRYING SNOTTING I HAVE GOOSEBUMPS IM FLOATING IM DANCING I HAVE SHADES ON".