Tag Archives: Radio


Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In The Barring-gaffner of Bagnialto, or This Year’s Masterpiece—one of several story synopses in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Breakfast of Champions—a government official spins a wheel to assign cash value to works of art submitted by the citizenry. The wheel lands on a painting of a house cat by Gooz, a humble cobbler who had never painted before. The simplistic portrait is appraised at eighteen thousand lambos, or one billion earth dollars. Crowds flock to see it at the National Gallery. Meanwhile, a bonfire consumes all the statues, paintings, and books the wheel has deemed worthless.

This satirical vignette highlights the disproportionate and arbitrary role of industry officials (governmental and corporate) in determining aesthetic values and tastes. The top-down model lampooned in the parable is not distant from commercial radio stations that weed out music before it ever reaches our ears. Cultural critics contend that decisions to promote or bury certain songs too often rely on extra-musical factors: image, celebrity, markets, studio backing, etc. This results in a homogenized soundscape, where listeners have limited volition over the music they hear. In Vonnegut’s hyper-cynical scenario, a completely random process shapes the masses’ artistic sensibilities. They flock to see an amateur painting of someone’s pet, and think nothing of other works—no doubt many of high quality—going up in flames.

To an extent, Vonnegut’s bleak parable was more applicable in 1973, when Breakfast of Champions hit the shelves, than it is today. The online availability of music, access to independent radio stations, and platforms for compiling digital playlists provide unprecedented opportunities to short circuit the music industry’s control. Democratization has dented the industry’s historic role in pre-selecting sounds. Individuals more directly determine what they hear and what becomes popular. Adrian C. North and David J. Hargreaves are optimistic in their essay, “Music and Marketing”: “the digitization of music means that psychological factors will become more important than economic factors in explaining the music that people listen to on a day-to-day level. In decades to come we…suspect that the importance of economic explanations [for listening preferences] will diminish” (from Oxford’s Handbook of Music and Emotion, 2010).

We are not there yet; the old tastemakers still operate. As the digital age has broadened listening options, corporate interests have narrowed their palettes. In a high-stakes industry faced with escalating costs, intense competition, and a perpetually volatile youth demographic, safe bets overwhelm the airwaves. The complaint that “everything sounds the same on the radio” seems truer now than ever before. Listeners who do not explore digital or other options, either by choice or by circumstance, are left wading in an undifferentiated pool of cookie-cutter consumerism. They are stuck gazing at the cat.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Solitary Listening

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music consumption has become increasingly individualized since the tail end of the nineteenth century. The commercialization of the gramophone in the late 1800s made it possible to experience music alone and without the aid of musicians. Solitary listening expanded with the arrival of radio in the 1920s, and went mobile when the car radio debuted a decade later. By the 1970s music could be played from portable boom boxes, and by the 1980s cassette players could be worn on the waist and heard through headphones. When the iPod came out in 2001, music as an isolated experience took another giant leap.

As accustomed as we are to these technological advances, they represent a dramatic shift in human history. What originated as a social practice with social functions has progressively become a private affair. Evolutionary theories of music point to human relations. Music either arose to facilitate group bonding, advertise to potential mates, communicate information, provide comfort, or some combination of the above. Until very recently, music remained a live, communal activity involving performers and audiences. In societies with access to recorded sound, this is no longer a requirement.

Even so, evolutionary roots are not easily discarded. While the physical presence of multiple actors may not be needed, secluded listening can be likened to a simulated group experience. Those impulses that gave rise to music in the prehistoric past are still present in the unaccompanied context of an individual with headphones.

Person-to-person connections exist even in the most isolated listening modalities. Hearing a band, orchestra or a solo performer through ear buds or a car stereo retains the essence of a group context. Although removed from the action, the listener—by virtue of listening—is part of a collective happening: the auditor is connecting with music produced by someone other than oneself. The obvious difference is that the interaction is one way. Unlike live performances, where musicians interface with audience members in a shared space, there is a distance of time and place between a listener and a recording, which is by definition an archive of sounds that have already occurred.

To be sure, something is lost in the transition from the live venue to solitary after-the-event listening. But our evolved appetite for music is still fed (though perhaps in a more limited way). Listeners can still bond with the musicians they hear, still become sexually stimulated, still receive information, still find comfort. In a strict sense, music’s interpersonal foundation is absent. But in a simulated sense, it has never gone away.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions. 

The Three-Minute Rule

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.