How long is a song?
And why? And since when? And what are they for these days anyway?
If I whip out my old maths skills, I’m able to calculate the average length of the songs on my iTunes library. I have 13,6 days’ worth, and they average out at 4 minutes, four seconds.
Which is pretty much what I thought it would be. Songs are about four minutes, aren’t they?
How long is a song? Songs are ancient. The earliest musical instruments date from 7 000BC in China, and songs predate even that.Chanting is a spiritual practice that forms part of African, Native American and Aboriginal cultures. As a means to entering trance states, chant was also part of the timeless San trance dance, using hyperventilation. In this context, a song might last for hours and was originally a means of achieving an altered state of consciousness.
Some of the centuries-old folk songs listed on contemplator.com have fourteen or more verses. The written lyrics for Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone originally ran to ten pages.
So how long is a song?
Today, it’s four minutes long. But why?
Part of the reason can be traced to the history of recorded music.
The first practical device that recorded sound was the phonograph cylinder, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. The device worked by running a needle across grooves engraved in a wax cylinder roughly the size of your thumb. These were the first mass-produced “records”.
The phonograph cylinders were superior to the gramophone records that appeared ten years later in that they allowed users to record as well as play music, but their main limitation was that they could play only two minutes of music!
The first recorded pop stars were a four-piece (piano, cornet, flute and violin) called Issler’s Orchestra, who had their first hits in the late 1880s with a style of piano-driven dance music. The Unique Quartette were another success story, with their barbershop-style vocal tunes. Two minutes long, these songs were.
The one-sided, circular gramophone discs invented by Emile Berliner in 1887 also provided around two minutes of playing time. But the gramophone eventually displaced phonograph cylinders as the recording medium of choice around 1910, when the first double-sided discs appeared.
These “lateral disc records” were made of fragile shellac material, were usually 10 inches in diameter, and were designed to be played on gramophones at speeds of 78rpm. The 78s had arrived.
These records now offered three minutes of playing time on each side. Someone had the idea of packaging several records by the same artist together. The 78s were grouped in packages of four or five discs in bound containers resembling photograph albums.
They were called “albums”.
The first album release was a version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, released as an album of four 78s in 1909.
But because of the limitations of the 78 record, for forty years, only one three-minute recording could be accommodated per side of a record.
And that became the standard. From 1909 until the Sixties, through the rise of radio and jukeboxes, and the advent of television, anyone who wanted success as a music artist had to conform to the three-minute song structure.
The first vinyl records were introduced in 1949 by RCA records. They were more durable and could produce better sound. But by this time, the three-minute song format was so established, that the record was designed to accommodate a three-minute song, not the other way around.
But as groove-cutting technology improved, it became possible to accommodate longer recordings on a seven-inch vinyl disc. These were called EP’s or extended players.
So only by the late Sixties did it become possible to challenge the three-minute song structure. The Beatles did this, for instance, on their 1968 single Hey Jude, which was seven minutes long. Twelve-inch singles appeared in the Seventies, catering largely to the disco and dance clubs, where DJs began playing longer songs. To this day, dance music tracks are the longest format in popular music..
Albums, by this stage, were sold on 33rpm 12-inch vinyls, which allowed far more latitude in terms of song length. Isaac Hayes, for instance, rocked a 19-and-a half–minute epic called Do Your Thing on his Shaft album. The Velvet Underground felt their two-chord workout Sister Ray deserved 17 minutes of their 1968 album White Light/White Heat.
There were some rare artists like Led Zeppelin who made their fortunes releasing albums and touring. But radio still dominated the commercial imperatives of most pop musicians. Songs had standardized at around three and a half minutes by this stage, designed to slot into the format of music radio. Album tracks that did not fit this format, were frequently re-edited to fit as “radio edits”.
The digital era has seen a slight dip in the popularity of albums, and the rise of singles, driven by the popularity of shuffle mixes of songs by various artists. Songs have become slightly longer, freed from the shackles of radio format. Style now dictates length to some extent. Dance tracks tend to be longer, approaching six minutes. Hip-hop and R&B are around four and punk tends to whizz by in around three minutes.
Unless you want to be played on radio. Then you’re probably going to need a radio edit.
And so, song, which began life as a path to enlightenment, as a limitless, trance-inducing means of communing with the ancestors, a stairway to heaven that lasted hours, has become a standardized commodity that lasts three and a half minutes.
Except for Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin. That one lasts eight minutes. It was never released as a single, it breaks all the rules of radio formatting. And it’s been played on radio more than three million times.