Welcome to the newest edition of The Why. “Why are most pop songs 3 minutes long?” you ask? Good question. Timely too. (Besides, it sure beats answering the question: “Why do we enjoy the smell of our own flatulence?”)
For those of you who know nothing beyond the digital format, let’s review. When it comes to pop songs, the majority played on the radio run between three and four minutes. For example, if you check the Billboard Hot 100 chart you will see that the top three pop songs for the week of November 22 are Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” (running time: 3:39 minutes), Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” (running time: 3:08 minutes) and Maroon 5’s “Animal” (running time: 3:49 minutes).
Yeah, we all know attention spans have gotten a lot shorter since the advent of all this new-fangled technology. But this 3 minute long pop song concept actually has its roots in music history rather than shortened attention spans.
The 10” record was the common format for music in the early 1900s. It played at the speed of 78 revolutions per minute (rpm), which focuses on the frequency of a rotation. These records could only contain from three to five minutes per side. (See where this is going?) 12-inch records were also used in some cases but they could only hold between four and five minutes of music.
Yohana Desta of Mashable interviewed Thomas Tierney, director of the Sony Music Archives Library. Tierney explained: “If (a pop song) went longer than that, the grooves became too close together (during the record cutting process so) . . . the sound quality went down.”
Thus, musical acts had to work within the constraints of technology available during the first half of the 20th century. They had to compose and record short pop songs in order were artistically bound by technological constraints.
The limitation meant pop artists had to create quick tracks “that fit the mold if they wanted a song to be released as a single” confirms Desta. History has demonstrated that radio was once—and to some extent still is—focused on short singles. These singles, however, could become hit songs.
Tierney added: “In those days, if you recorded a song that was longer than three minutes and 15 seconds, they just wouldn’t play it.” Pop charts reveal that performers still generally keep to the three- to four-minute mold even though numerous radio stations are no longer so strict.
Tierney concludes: “Young people will always be pop music’s biggest consumers. (They) “want their songs to be three minutes, and on to the next one” because they’ve been conditioned that way despite noteworthy exceptions and new technology. He believes the three-to-four minute song is now “embedded in our DNA.”
Why are most pop songs 3 minutes long? Now you know.
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