What exactly is a song anyway? Part 1: Duration

[All the songs mentioned below can be listened to here]

Much debate (often in the pub, and not always of a particularly academic standard) has been had in the name of trying to answer the age-old question of just how long a song ought to be. Three and half minutes is a figure often touted, and by this metric alone (and many others you may argue), Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time has got it well and truly nailed. Well, that may be the case, but I suspect its more complicated than that.

A word on technology

In fact, song length in the early days of recorded pop music had as much to do with technology as it did any lofty artistic intentions. Seven-inch, 45 rpm vinyl singles could be considered the earliest widely available format at a price consumers could afford, and were breaking into the market at a time when teenagers were starting to find themselves with money in their pockets, and a new found freedom to squander listening to pop music. These records were the fuelling formats of the jukebox, and radio. (Winterson, 2003. p108).

“In November ’52 EMI launched the first 45s, and pop’s truest format – the firewood for future youth clubs, mobile discos and furtive fumbles at teenage parties – was born… the three- or four-minute playing time was much better suited to pop [than classical music].”  (Stanley, 2013)

Since those days, during which the medium itself imposed its own restrictions on the maximum feasible length of a song (leaving songwriters little choice but to comply if they wished their work to reach a wider audience), many new formats have come along, with varying degrees of longevity. Rapid advances in technology saw formats adapt and evolve to suit the song as it evolved away from the three-minute pop nuggets of the 50s and 60s to the sprawling rock epics of the 70s. In a Vox magazine article entitled A hit song is usually 3 to 5 minutes long. Here’s why, Kelsey McKinney analyses a body of data on song duration over the years, writing that…

“…the length of songs had its biggest jump, according to this data, between the ’60s and ’80s,” (McKinney, 2014)

However, technology’s impact has been muted in more recent years and the continued, massive changes in the way we consume our songs don’t appear to have had a particularly profound effect on prevailing duration, even now the constraints of physical media have been removed altogether. While it would be fair to say that in general songs have been getting longer, as McKinney points out…

“The average song length is still — even as the industry has evolved almost entirely to digital media — under five minutes.” (McKinney, 2014)

One constant, in the face of all this development has of course been radio, and in particular commercial radio, where longer songs mean that commercials (its raison d’être) are less frequent, making selling things that little bit more difficult. So important was it in the early days for a song to be suitably lean, that it could expect be cut short using that most imaginative of editing techniques, the fade-out.

To meet the demands of radio, or the limited runtime of one side of a vinyl single, they had to make the record fade out early. (Weir, 2014)

In fact, it turns out there lots more to the fade-out than might first meet the… ear. Check out the rest of Weir’s slate article here. Its brilliant.

Short Songs

I recently took it upon myself to engage in some (again, not incredibly scientific) investigation, into the lengths of some of the most popular songs of our time, and as a result of my amateur sleuthing, I can reveal that of the all time top 100 best-selling UK singles, no less than 13 come in at under three minutes. Furthermore, corroborating our discussion above regarding formats, of these 13, all but three date from 1965 or earlier (including five by The Beatles alone.) The three anomalies are the uncommonly brief Tainted Love by Soft Cell (1981), the epically concise You’re The One That I Want by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John (1978) and the temporally bijou Wannabe by The Spice Girls (1996), unlikely trio I’m sure you’ll agree.

On the subject, my particular favourite particularly short song (sadly missing from the top 100 list) is College by Animal Collective. After a pre-amble of some vocal and sonic befuddlement, it delivers a clear, and somehow liberating message which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself, just once, and then its all over. I suppose it could be argued that such a song, whose ideas don’t breathe and develop in the expected way is rather literally selling itself short. However, I will go out on a limb here and say that its brevity (53 seconds) plays a major part in its impact. Just as the more obvious musical elements (melody, harmony etc) are deployed to convey meaning in a song, so too I would argue can sheer duration. Much like a short-story when compared to a novel, when a message is simple, it doesn’t need hammering home using a thousand metaphors when eight words will do.

In skilful hands, short songs can pack a beautifully succinct punch, stripping away the fat of an already fairly streamlined form to even barer bones. As fellow blogger Gary Ewer puts it in his post entitled ‘Can Songs Be Too Short?’

Brevity in songwriting is often a blessing. The more succinctly you can communicate something through music, the more powerful the effect it will have on a listener. (Ewer, 2017)

Long Songs

At the other end of the scale, the longest song on the top 100 list is the original 1983 release of Blue Monday by New Order. At over seven minutes, the song was released on 12-inch vinyl single, a format adopted heavily in the dance music genre for its increased playing time. The 1988 re-release of the song was a more modest four minutes or thereabouts.

Other songs at this end of the scale, all edging six minutes plus in their fullest form, include Earth Song by Michael Jackson, Never Ever by All Saints (no, I hadn’t expected that either), and Get Lucky by Daft Punk, though as we’d expect, shorter edits of all three were made for radio-play.

Moving outside the top 100 for a moment, let’s take a look at couple of nonetheless incredibly successful examples, this time from the Led Zeppelin catalogue. Both Stairway to Heaven and Kashmir last 8 minutes, give or take a few seconds, both over twice the length of most “standard” pop songs. Daniel Rachel, in his amazing compendium of songwriting conversations, Isle of Noises explains…

“[Jimmy] Page’s designs would run to unorthodox lengths and were constructed in movements more usual in classical composition than pop music.” (Rachel, 2013, p153).

Jimmy Page himself in the same book recalls the band’s preference for slowly developing musical ideas as a track unfolds…

“I had very much the view that music could set the scene… ” (Ibid, p177)

and recounts how they were not driven by the desire to write songs of radio-friendly duration.

“… we weren’t actually writing music that was designed to go on the AM stations in the States at the time. You had FM, they were called the underground stations, and they would be playing whole sides of albums.” (Ibid, p178)

Finally on the long-song front, if you’ve got some time on your hands, I recommend giving Mother by Goldie a go. It takes a simple musical (arguably song-like) idea, and stretches it across a much longer time-frame. The track develops at such a pace as to feel almost static, and at 1 hour, 11 minutes and 53 second (yep, seriously!) you really have to mean business, but in the right frame of mind and with nothing in the diary, its a rewarding listen.  There are shorter versions, though oddly, this one is labelled the ‘radio edit’ on Spotify! Admittedly, this piece (see… I’m struggling to use the word song), probably pushes the boundaries of what most would consider to be a song in anything like the traditional sense, as would a number of other efforts in this, and related genres where anticipation and transcendence are valued above immediate impact.

Memory and perception

As Terry Pratchett put it…

The important thing is not how long your life is, but how long it seems. (Pratchett, 1992, p6)

So let’s turn now to the perception of time itself (blimey, that escalated quickly). I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that my favourite pieces of music are over too quickly, and that my least favourites go on way too long. Shine On You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd for instance is around 13 minutes, yet to my ears the song and others like it seem to invoke some kind of time-warp whereby time passes by as if I were listening to just another three-minute romper, whereas in fact, even by the three minute point, the drummer’s not even taken his coat off. While the time for me feels like it flies, I’m sure there are plenty of people who will be looking for excuses to leave and get on with their lives even before the first chord change, and of course the old adage “time flies when you’re enjoying yourself” definitely holds just as true for music as it does for everything else. I fear though that there’s more to it than just how much we enjoy a song.

We are all no doubt aware of the somewhat elastic nature of our perception of time. I know that my own perception both on short and long term time-frames can be influenced such things as my mood, the amount of coffee (or beer) I’ve imbibed, my levels of alertness, stress, hunger etc, but it seems there something about the music itself which influences how we perceive it. Everyone’s favourite nihilist progressive rock extravaganza, Bohemian Rhapsody lasts 5 minutes 54 seconds, which is admittedly not short for a contender for “most successful song of all time” by any means, but for reasons I hitherto couldn’t quite fathom, I’d always thought about it as being much longer than it is. In his book on Music and Memory (called… wait for it… Music and Memory), Bob Snyder explains…

“What we perceive in a given amount of time to some extent determines our sense of the length of that time […] A time period filled with novel and unexpected events will be remembered as longer than an identical (in clock time) period filled with redundant or expected events. (Snyder, 2001, p213)

Let’s be honest, Bohemian Rhapsody is nothing if not “a time period filled with novel and unexpected events”. It has very much a through-composed structure, in that it features very little repetition, certainly much less than many a modern song, and lurches from one musical style, key and dynamic to the next with little warning. So, it turns out that I am remembering it as longer than it actually is as I was forced to process more incoming information than a more straight-forward song (including a good few Bis-mi-la’s and Scaramouches). Equally, I might recall a less musically involved song, (even of the same duration) as being shorter, as I don’t have to think about it quite as much.

A musical passage filled with repetitive events can seem, in retrospect, shorter than one filled with unpredictable events. (Ibid, p214)

As there’s just so much going on, its unlikely you’ll find yourself clock-watching at the time of listening. As Snyder says…

Duration as experienced tends to be the opposite of duration remembered. (Ibid, p214)

So while it might have flown by at the time, you might just feel looking back that you were under its spell longer than you actually were. Other research into memory in Snyder’s book would indicate that the first time we do something (say… go on a particular journey, or hear a song, particularly a complex one) it will feel longer than on subsequent repetitions of that thing. Its all rather fascinating.

Outro

Writing a song which feels right in terms of its length is a delicate balance. Good songwriters have always been keenly (if not always consciously) aware that their finely crafted musical ideas need adequate time to reveal and embed themselves in the listener’s consciousness, often through repetition albeit with subtle variation, yet they ought not be too late to the party, or leave too soon before they’ve been properly introduced. At the same time, great musical ideas certainly ought not outstay their welcome (to extend the ‘party’ metaphor), belabouring their point while everyone gets bored and goes home.

There are plenty of songs which do break the conventional pop song mold in terms of duration, and ultimately, as with so much else in life, it transpires that its not so much how long it is, its what you do with it that counts. Three minutes or even less is often all that’s needed to fully express and develop a simple song-worthy concept, if those minutes are put to good use with not a second wasted (a three minute song only has 180 of them after all). Conversely, “going long” can totally work if the content is worthy of the container it is looking to fill. As is the case with many forms of expression, some ideas are just too profound, some stories too twisty-turny to be curtailed.

Just for good measure, elsewhere in the same top 100 list I used to inform much of the above, you’ll find no less than eight Christmas songs, eight double A sides (if you’re not sure what these are, ask an old person), two versions of Mary’s Boy Child, two entries by Engelbert Humperdinck (again, ask an adult), one by Ken Dodd, one Ghostbusters Theme and a Gangnam Style. The UK music buying public’s taste it seems, is nothing if not eclectic.

Bibliography

Ewer, G. The Essential Secrets of Songwriting (Blog) – Online at https://www.secretsofsongwriting.com/

Longdon, V (2018) Why are pop songs 3 minutes long? – Classic FM article. Online at https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/why-are-pop-songs-3-minutes/

McKinney, K (2014). A hit song is usually 3 to 5 minutes long. Here’s why. Vox Magazine. Online at https://www.vox.com/2014/8/18/6003271/why-are-songs-3-minutes-long

Mugan, C (2006) The 12-inch single: When size really matters. Independent article. Online at https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/the-12-inch-single-when-size-really-matters-6096741.html

Myers, J (2018) The best-selling singles of all time on the Official UK Chart. Online at http://www.officialcharts.com/chart-news/the-best-selling-singles-of-all-time-on-the-official-uk-chart__21298/

Pratchett, T (1992) Truckers. London: Ladybird

Rachel, D (2013) Isle of Noises London: Picador

Snyder, B (2001) Music and Memory, An Introduction MA: MIT Press

Stanley, B (2009) You spin me right round – Online at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2009/mar/27/45rpm-vinyl-singles

Stanley, B (2013). Yeah Yeah Yeah. The Story of Modern Pop. London: Bloomsbury

Sturges, F (2010). Pop songs: does size matter? Independent Article. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/pop-songs-does-size-matter-2036779.html 

Van Buskirk, E. (2008) Is 2:42 the perfect song length – Wired magazine article. Online at https://www.wired.com/2008/04/is-242-the-perf/

Weir, W (2014) A Little Bit Softer Now, A Little Bit Softer Now. Slate.com article. Online at https://slate.com/culture/2014/09/the-fade-out-in-pop-music-why-dont-modern-pop-songs-end-by-slowly-reducing-in-volume.html

Winterson, J, Nickol, P & Bricheno, T (2003) Pop Music – The Text Book London: Peters Edition

 

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