We’ve all noticed, as we get older, that time seems to speed up, as in “Wow, was that really a year ago?” or “Is that the time already?” You may have also noticed that songs seem to be getting shorter, but in this case, that’s not an illusion, it turns out to be fact. The average song length in the Billboard Hot 100, at 3 minutes and 30 seconds, is 20 seconds shorter than it was five years ago. This raises two questions 1) Why are they getting shorter? and 2) What is the 'right' length for a song anyway?
Why are songs getting shorter? Simple answer: the digital revolution and hard cash. Streaming services such as Spotify or I-Tunes now provide 75% of the music industry’s income. Payments to artists are on a per play basis, so they get paid the same amount for a 2 minute track as for an 8 minute one. Since payments for streaming are notoriously small, it makes sense to squeeze in as many tracks as you can. A prime example of adaption to digital is the American rapper Tierra Whack, who on 'Whack World', fits in 15 songs in 15 minutes, each with its matching Instagram video, timed to come in at just under the one minute Instagram limit.
It’s also possible that attention spans are getting shorter. Certainly, with thousand of tracks available at the click of a mouse, a new song needs to grab the listener’s attention pretty quickly, so no time for a lengthy intro.
Why are most songs about the same length? The usual reason given for the average pop song being around 3 minutes long is that in the days of shellac 78 rpm records, that was the limit, without the sound quality deteriorating. But that raises the question, how long were songs before the invention of recording? The answer is, not very different.
The oldest popular song most us of could name is probably 'Greensleeves'. This was written around 6 hundred years ago, reputedly by Henry VIII, though this could be an early example of the old music biz custom of giving the star a share of the writing credits and a chunk of the royalties. 'Greensleeves' comes in at around 3 minutes 20 seconds.
Fast forward to the Victorian music hall. The popular songs, generally associated with one artist, and sold in the form of sheet music, are all around the 3 minute mark. Here, at 2.35, we have Charles Coborn with 'Two Lovely Black Eyes', written in 1886, but recorded in the 1920s.
So in the era of the shellac 78 rpm record, roughly from the 1920s to the 1950s, technical limitations reinforced the 3 minute rule, but it was pretty much there already. This is partly because of the standard structure of a popular song. The most common format is known as the 32 bar form. Without getting too technical, you get four sections of eight bars each, first two as verse/chorus, a bridge or middle eight followed by repeat of the second eight bars. At the common tempo of 120 beats per minute, that works out at just over a minute. Repeat the whole thing, possibly with one of the eight bar sections as an instrumental break, and there you have your two and half minutes.
Then, with the advent of the classic pop single on a vinyl 45 rpm disc, we seem to get a shortening of songs. None of the early Elvis hits are much more than around two minutes.
This certainly wasn’t due to technical reasons, since this era also brought in the 'Extended Play' format, where two or even three tracks could fit into one side of a 45 rpm disc. Instead, it seems that money was talking. Juke box takings depended on how many tracks were played, so the shorter the songs, the more money the kids fed into that big shiny machine. This was also the heyday of commercial radio in the US, and commercials were inserted between songs, so if more songs were played, more ads were sold. Hence also, the advent of the fast talking DJ, not wasting precious air time with long introductions.
Although radio in the UK was, apart from the infuriatingly unreliable signal from Radio Luxembourg, non-commercial, the Brits, as usual in those days, followed the Americans. Home grown heart throb Adam Faith, he of the eccentric pronunciation, gained fame with just 1.37 minutes of 'What Do You Want'.
And then came the sixties. The Beatles, prime movers in the musical revolution that followed, initially stuck to the two minute format, with 'From Me to You' lasting a mere 1.56. Even their album tracks, until Sergeant Pepper, rarely hit the 3 minute mark.
Meanwhile, in the US the times had been a ‘changing. In early 1965, Phil Spector had put out 'You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling' by The Righteous Brothers. The track was actually 3.40 long, but in order not to scare off the radio stations, Spector labelled the record as 3.04.
Then, later that year came one of the most influential records of all time. Bob Dylan’s 'Like a Rolling Stone' was a full six minutes long. At first the radio stations refused to play it, but eventually had to give in to the demands of the fans.
The dam had broken. The late sixties saw the advent of not only longer songs, but also the lengthy guitar jam, especially on albums. Clapton’s 'Layla', his most successful record is seven minutes long. Don Mclean’s 1971 classic 'American Pie' comes in at 8.30. As for album tracks, the only limit was the time available on each side of the record, with Pink Floyd pushing to the boundary with 'Shine on You Crazy Diamond' at 26 minutes. At the other extreme we have Napalm Death’s 'You Suffer', at just over 1 second.
So, to return to the question, what is the right length for a song? This partly depends on the listening context. If you are relaxing of an evening with some herbal refreshment, half an hour of Pink Floyd might be just the thing, but it’s hardly going to work on the daily commute, when you are waiting for the traffic update
The main thing, however, is content. A minute and a half of Adam Faith is probably enough. There’s a verse, a bridge, and the message that he’s bit cheesed off with his “buybee”. Not much more to say. 'American Pie', on the other hand, has a story to tell, plus a sing along chorus. By the time we get to that final wind up verse and chorus, it feels just about right.
Let’s end with the masters, The Beatles, whose instincts were almost invariably correct. As mentioned earlier, their early output stuck to the sub three minute format. Take 'For No One', one of McCartney’s masterpieces, yet just a throwaway track on 'Revolver'. Not a word or a note wasted, a story told, and all in spot on two minutes. Their most successful song is 'Hey Jude' which is seven minutes, but is actually a three minute song followed by four minutes of sing along “nahnahnahnahs” . It works. The only track where they definitely out stay their welcome is 'She’s So Heavy', off “Abbey Road”. Two lines of lyric and a guitar riff dragged on for a dreary seven minutes surely indicates some chemical interference with the creative process. The last track on Abbey Road, the last album they recorded (though 'Get Back' was issued later) is 'Her Majesty', a little half song just half a minute long, which comes after the grand finale of the 'Golden Slumbers' medley. Even the last note is missing, probably a recording glitch, but deliberately left in as a hint that The Beatles weren’t finished. But they were. And so am I, with a final conclusion. What is the right length for a song? If it feels right, it is right.