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The Three-And-A-Half-Minute Song

Caught in a daze, I found myself staring at my computer screen at a large list of music titles from my “Indie Chillout” Spotify playlist when I had a keen observation. Song number one, length = 3:21, song two, length = 3:25, song three, length = 3:43, so on and so forth. A similarity among all the track titles, a majority of them ranging roughly from approximately 3 minutes and 15 seconds to 4 minutes and an average song length of all 100 tracks of 3 minutes and 50 seconds (a minimum length of 2:24 and a maximum length of 6:10). It isn’t just happenstance that this is around the average song length time for almost all major genres of music. In fact, there are several reasons why most songs fall within this time range as explained below.

Fortunately for us knowledge seekers, claiming that most songs last around 3 minutes and 30 seconds because that’s just the way it is, isn’t an acceptable answer. But as we noticed in the example above, the fact that the majority of music resides within this length isn’t a coincidence. As it turns out, there are a lot more factors that play into this average than many of us music listeners truly realize, whether it be in a technical sense, psychologically, or the norm. Additionally, as an avid musician and record producer, it is almost an unwritten rule that the music we make, help create, or put out, should fit within this range, but why?

Previous research has gone on to show that there are several reasons for this common occurrence. In a 2014 article titled, “Why Are Songs on the Radio About the Same Length?”, author Rhett Allain, explains that the reasoning behind a 3-minute song may be more historically-based than anything else.1 Before the day and age of mp3’s and unlimited storage memory, the compact-disc, the tape-cassette, or even the 8-track, the vinyl record was king. This format was extremely popular in the early to mid- 20th century and has even seen a resurgence in popularity for collectors in the past decade. And although this type of medium was extremely common, it did have a major disadvantage; the popular 10”, 78 rpm vinyl record and its 7”, 45 rpm counterpart, could only hold around approximately 3 minutes of music per side. Coincidence?

Sure that explains the length of early 20th century jazz, pop, and rock music, but why has this value remained constant over the past century (albeit but a slight percent increase2)? While other storage mediums have come and gone, each has found a way to better increase the memory capacity it can hold, giving us near endless possibilities of storage and song-length. Yet, most radio stations prefer to do it the old-fashioned way. Radio has continued to straddle the three-and-a-half-minute mark with almost each song it airs in order to maximize airplay and generate as much revenue as possible. Even large, popular, or mainstream artists release albums with songs that last well over the average mark, only to release a radio-edit version at a later date that is stripped down and shortened to be played on air (Think of Justin Timberlake’s 20-20 Experience album for example). Why is this such a standard for public radio?

Perhaps the answer lies within the human brain. Many researchers have determined that the average human attention span may lie around 8 to 12 seconds. That is, we as humans can only spend a concentrated amount of time on one task for only a fraction of a minute. Now what does this mean in terms of music? This means that a successful artist must make a song that can consistently grab our attention in order to stay relevant to the average listener3.

In a 2014 report by streaming giant Spotify, data showed approximately 49% of listeners skip a song before it even finishes and approximately 24% of listeners skip a song within the first 5 seconds.4 This data shows a significant rate of skips within the first few seconds of a song and declines exponentially throughout a songs length. However, the extreme rate of song skipping is still a red flag in terms of song length. If a listener is likely to skip a song before it finishes, how long can an artist and their songs maintain listener interest? Within three to four minutes?

This answer may actually lie within how popular songs are structured and may help us understand why many songs are around three-and-a-half minutes. To date, the most common song structure in popular music is the ABABCB structure5, where the formula is…

Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus

To effectively garner the average listener’s attention, this format typically pairs two similar verses along with three repeated choruses, and a unique bridge. Yet what has remained consistent among these songs within this common structure over the past seventy-five years is the length of each individual part. In this common structure, each part typically lasts around 8 to 16 bars long, and depending on the songs tempo, conveniently positons the songs length to fit between the general length we have come to know.

Is this why the most popular songs people hear are within this time-range? Is this what the human brain accepts as listenable? Perhaps more in-depth research is needed to explore this topic on a psychological level to understand if this is what our brain accepts, as opposed to shorter or longer songs. However, what we do know is that several other factors play or have played some role in the development of the average three-and-a-half-minute song; the past technological limitations of the vinyl 7” and 10” discs; the preference and goals of radio stations to provide as much content over time to stay profitable; the crippling human attention span and the need for artists to garner attention using proven, popular, and memorable song structures to win over listeners.

Yet, with all of the above we must consider that the three to four-minute song is not universal. Age, genre, preference and taste all have a powerful impact on how long a song is and can be. Today’s younger generation and its shorter attention span clearly prefer shorter and more active songs compared to older listeners as we’ve identified. Genre also plays a major part. Today’s popular music, Hip-Hop, Pop, and Rock, all have much shorter song-lengths than genres such as classical, progressive rock, and jazz.6 Lastly, others listening presences also play an important role. People tend to listen to songs, regardless of length, if their attention is focused elsewhere (such as playing in the background). If they are inherently focused on the music, the average listener is more likely to notice the song length, or skip a song before it finishes.

For the most part, we tend not to understand the importance of the average three-and-half-minute song, however we cannot deny that the average listener prefers it. As music listeners we tend not to notice song-lengths, but as musicians we live by them. The music industry has defined a standard that our minds love and enjoy and there seems to be no signs of this changing in the future.

The Three-And-A-Half-Minute Song

References (6)

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