49

One of our definition questions. This intrigued me because there are a lot of possible answers and I don't know if it's been investigated.

Is it simply convention? Is there some sort of psychological appeal/affect of this length and has it been studied, or does it just sort of seem to work? Has it been impacted by technology like radio, DJing, etc.?

  • 2
    I think evidence should be provided that most modern music is between 3-4 minutes long. Perhaps, as mentioned in some of the answers, radio edits are 3-4 minutes long, but I'm not sure most songs in general are. – pacoverflow Feb 24 '15 at 18:07
  • 1
    @pacoverflow I don't think there is any argument that "much" modern music is approximately that length, which is why I worded it that way rather than saying "most songs in general". This isn't Skeptics, I don't think I need to provide proof of a claim in order to ask a question. – Matthew Read Feb 24 '15 at 18:12
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    I agree with Matthew; but regardless, the Vox article linked in my answer does provide that evidence; though it does not provide exact methodology (and I, for one, have some questions about it) I imagine it's good enough for this purpose. – Lin Feb 24 '15 at 18:27
  • Because it is bound to the over-the-years optimized price of radio broadcast similar to Moore's law. They call it a head-to-head calculation. Per second time was pretty expensive on the radio. Then internet killed that economy but habit stayed. – percusse Mar 2 '15 at 22:13
  • I used to work at a radio station that played songs from the '50s onwards. Many of the older songs were only 1-2 minutes long! The average length increased as the music became more recent. – CJ Dennis May 26 '15 at 16:13
32

In addition to the other answers provided here, many point to the development of the medium for popular songs. Early recordings were made primarily on 78s, with the two most common sizes being 10" and 12"; the former having a maximum lengh of ~3 minutes, while the latter having a length of ~4-5 minutes. (Source.) The 78s were popularly replaced by 45s (created in 1949), which had similar limitations.

This Vox article has a good overview, containing this (unsourced) assertion:

For a band to get its songs played on the radio, it needed to have a 45. Artists complied. This invented what was known as the "single," for a record containing a single song. The 45 record was cheaper for Americans to buy than a full album and easier for radios to share, making the single in many ways the bedrock of American music.

  • 5
    When someone pointed out to the Beatles that radio stations were unlikely to play Hey Jude due to its length, they apparently said something like "they'll play it because it's us." – Kyle Strand Feb 24 '15 at 17:53
  • Limitations? Simple Minds' "Belfast Child" and "This Is Your Land" were both 6+ minutes long 45" records. – BCdotWEB Mar 3 '15 at 13:40
  • The vox article also mentions what I said in my answer about getting more songs in a given period of time on radio to attract a larger audience. From the article: "Top 40 station that offers "twice the music," which really means it cuts hit songs in half to make them shorter." – Rockin Cowboy Mar 11 '15 at 5:54
22

I think of it from a more technical approach. Let's take the most common structure of a modern song:

  • Intro (4 or 8 bars)
  • Verse (8 or 12 bars)
  • Chorus (8 or 12 bars)
  • Verse (8 or 12 bars)
  • Chorus (8 or 12 bars)
  • Solo / Bridge (8 or 12 bars)
  • Verse or Chorus and Outro (ad libitum)

This would make your average song about 70-80 bars long. Given that most modern music is 4/4 this amounts to 280-320 beats. In a Moderato (80 bpm) this would take exactly 4 minutes and with Allegro Moderato (100 bpm) around 3 minutes.

Well, this is not a "full" explanation, meaning that, you can't know if the form was dictated by duration requirements or vice versa. But still 3 repetitions of everything sounds like "normal" in Western Music since a long time ago. Plus, nobody ever decided that a musical phrase's length in bars must be divided by 4. Which makes a 3-4 minute length a bit "natural".

16

There's a few reasons for it, but one of the most notable is related to how most of us start listening to music which is the radio. Think about it from a radio station's perspective. They can only play so many songs in a given time and they want to make sure that they cover as many songs as possible. Assuming no ads (which is very rare) and that all songs played are 5 minutes long, they could only play a total of 12 songs an hour. If instead they were to play songs that were only 4 minutes long they would be able to play 15 songs instead which allows 3 more songs to be played an hour which makes quite a difference in the long run.

Another notable reason is that songs themselves typically follow the same pattern (form) of verse,chorus, ect. Artists and bands that follow this patter when writing tend to write songs that are only 3-4 minutes long as at typical tempos, that is where the length of the song falls.

11

This is mainly due to the popularity of radio edits. Radio edits often shorten a long song in order to make it more commercially viable for radio stations. This gives radio stations greater flexibility in terms of playing advertisements and creating content "segments".

Making your music "more accessible" for radio stations makes it more likely to be played.

10

I think this could be from a few possible reasons, possibly;

  1. Radio stations, perhaps people are more likely to tune in and stay listening when their favourite 3 minute song is being played, and aren't necessarily interested in starting to listen 10 minutes into an Emerson, Lake, & Palmer piano solo.
  2. There is probably something about how long our attention span can last. Notice movies these days are edited to be much quicker like music videos.
9

When it comes to singles, one commercial reason is that for a single to be successful, it has to strike a balance between repeating the musical ideas enough times that the listener becomes 'hooked', and stopping before the listener gets bored.

You have to give them something, but leave them wanting more, so that they'll go out and buy the song (or at least watch it again on YouTube and and give someone some ad revenue...)

8

Part of the reason is that the hardware in the 1900s was limited to 3-4 minutes like Lin suggests. However, I think the more important reason is the culture at the time.

Back in the classical period, in the more developed nations that our western history studies, the culture was one of grandeur. Having long and intricate pieces was yet another way to make the upper class distinct from the lower class.

In a similar way, our current culture is one full of tons of content and entertainment. People get bored faster, which means that songs are generally shorter in order to retain the listener's attention. People also enjoy familiar structure songs because of the mere-exposure effect, which is a big reason why most popular music more formulaic. The current structure of a couple verses and chorus followed by a bridge makes for songs around 3-4 minutes in length.

7

The songs that become most popular are the ones played on broadcast commercial radio. There is a new trend towards other delivery mediums such as sirius xm and YouTube but for decades broadcast radio was where "hits" were born.

The reason for the existence of broadcast commercial radio (like television) is not to provide a public service or play music or bring you news, but to sell advertising! The more listeners a station can retain at a given point in time, the more money they can charge for their ads and the more profitable the radio station as a business becomes.

In order to attract the most possible listeners, program directors recognize that they need a wide variety of content. If they only play 5 songs in an hour, the station is less likely to play something a particular listener likes than if they can play 12 songs in an hour.

If the songs are 3 minutes long, the station can play 5 songs in 15 minutes and then have 5 minutes of commercials and then do it again. By playing 5 songs in a 15 minute span instead of two, a given listener is more likely to hear something they like and stay tuned for the next set in case they might hear something else they like. And if they don't like a particular song, they know they only have to listen for 3 minutes and anyone can wait 3 minutes. If they did not like the song and it was a 7 minute song, they are more likely to turn the dial (change the channel).

So the 3 minute rule became an accepted formula among radio station program directors. The "radio cut" of longer songs, shortened them into this radio friendly length.

Bottom line, if you write a song in hopes that it may get airplay on commercial radio, try to keep it in the 3 minute mark.

protected by Donald.McLean Aug 28 '17 at 11:20

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