Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Most popular songs heard on the radio run about three minutes. This convention has roots in the 1920s, when the 10-inch 78 rpm gramophone disc was the industry norm. The crude groove cutting and thick needle limited each side of a disc to roughly three minutes. This engineering constraint forced songwriters and musicians to compress their creative expression into three-minute singles. The habit persisted despite the introduction of microgroove recording (LP, or 33⅓ rpm) in the 1950s and the possibility of longer durations. Even in our boundless world of digital technology, the three-minute song remains the archetype.
To be sure, there are successful exceptions to the three-minute rule, such as Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain,” which run between six and nine minutes. But there is something universally satisfying about the radio standard.
This owes to a mixture of conditioning and natural inclination. From the beginning, three-minute songs proved to be both practical and highly profitable. Radio stations earned money by airing advertisements, and shorter songs meant more space for commercials. Producers also turned a better profit from short songs than long recordings, which were more expensive to press. As a result, listeners were fed a steady diet of time-restricted tunes, and were culturally trained to expect and derive pleasure from them.
It is also thought that the three-minute length caters perfectly to the attention span of young people, the primary consumers of popular music. The duration fits comfortably within their threshold of patience, which averages five minutes or so. And most people’s capacity to concentrate on music does not increase much after youth, save for those accustomed to drawn-out classical works, jazz improvisations and other expanded forms.
Moreover, three minutes seems an optimal timeframe for the delivery of music’s emotional and informational content. Anything more risks dissolving into tedium. Of course, there are short pieces that bore quickly and longer pieces that retain interest. But, as a general rule, our tolerance for musical intake peaks at the radio play limit.
Igor Stravinsky is quoted as saying, “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” The comment was directed at his compositional colleagues and forbearers, and could be applied to a few of his works as well. Yet it is not exclusive to the orchestral realm. Many pieces in many genres could benefit from some trimming. And we do not need Stravinsky’s knowledge or experience to recognize when endings come too late. A combination of musical exposure and musical intuition signals whether a piece has overstepped its temporal maximum. It is the same instinct that attracts us to three-minute songs.
Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.