Why are pop songs 3 minutes long?

12 April 2018, 16:03

Classical music can vary in length from under a minute to 15 hours (looking at you, Wagner). So why are all pop songs roughly three minutes?

By Victoria Longdon. Picture: Getty

It turns out the reason most pop songs have wound up at just over three minutes in length is a) really interesting, and b) reveals some important facts about the history of recorded music.

How did this 3 minute length come about?

Around the 1920s shellac records replaced the phonograph cylinder as the technology of choice for recorded music. These 10 inch ‘singles’ stored just over three minutes of music. It wasn’t rocket science – exactly how much music they could store depended on how closely you spaced the grooves on the record. Closer together and you could store more music, but too close together and the sound quality would begin to suffer.

If you were an artist in the 60s or 70s and you wanted your song played on the radio or a jukebox, that song had to be on a single. It was that simple. If it couldn’t fit, it wouldn’t be played, and you’d lose out on your chance for it to become a hit.

But there were a few exceptions

But some crafty producers managed to cheat the system. The legendary hitmaker Phil Spector catapulted the The Righteous Bros’ 1964 hit ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin Feeling’ to stardom by stamping 03:05 on the cover of the single - even though the real running time was 03:45! Many radio presenters played it by accident, and it became the most played song on American radio and television in the 20th century.

New Tech, New Times?

The 80s saw the introduction of the CD, with a vastly improved storage size of 74 minutes (find out why Beethoven is the driving force behind the length of the CD here). You’d think that with all this extra legroom artists could spread out and write what they really wanted to write. Right?

Interestingly, this didn’t happen. What had originally started out as an engineering limitation had now become a commercial advantage. Radio stations were happy to prioritise three minute songs because they meant they could play more advertisements per hour.

Similarly, record producers were equally supportive of the concept of multiple royalties from shorter songs, since most stations paid the artists after three minutes of aired track time.

The artists and the fans didn’t necessarily agree with this, so they started releasing both album length tracks and ‘Radio Edits’ which conformed to the expected length for the airwaves.

The average length of a ‘pop’ song has stayed set at between three and four minutes for the last fifty years or so, but could it all be about to change?

So what now?

Historically three minutes was the minimum amount of time a song played before they paid an artist. Now we’re moving into the streaming age, the average platform will pay artists at around thirty seconds. We can only speculate the effect that this commercial change will have on the pop music of the future, but the era of the three-minute pop song might be spinning to a close.

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