The answer may seem obvious. Songs, especially songs destined for radio, typically fall in the “3-ish minute” range. That’s because back in the days of vinyl records and 45 rpm singles, that was the maximum capacity. And even on the longer LPs, you still had to fit a certain number of songs in a limited amount of space, so the standard just naturally fit.
Problem solved. Shortest article ever.
Except… As much as vinyl is coming back among a certain set of music lovers, we don’t rely on it anymore as a standard format for wide distribution of music. In fact, we have gone through several iterations of music formats since vinyl, CDs, cassettes, digital files, and now online streaming. Wouldn’t the lack of restriction allow musicians to create much longer songs?
In fact, the push towards longer songs existed even in the past. Some of the most famous song-centric stories in music centered around artists pushing songs that were way too long. In 1975, Queen was told that “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which clocked in at 5 minutes and 55 seconds, was too long. In 1959, Ray Charles was told the same thing about his studio recording of “What’d I Say”, which clocked in a 5 minutes and 4 seconds (and was significantly shorter than Charles’ typical live performance of the song).
In each case though, the song made it to the public mostly in its full form, driven by the initial popularity of performances of the song. It’s clear the appetite for longer songs is there.
Rhett Allain of Wired actually plotted out average song length throughout the 20th century, as technology was changing, and it looked like this:
Turns out songs are getting longer. Slightly. Back through the 1960s, you can see that artists were very conscious of the 3 minute mark. From there, there was a period of rapid lengthening as new technologies took over and allowed artists to break the original format. However, it seems to have stabilized at around 3 1/2-4 minutes in the 1990s, which is about where we are today.
There are still the strictures of radio. This one is definitely a self-fulfilling prophecy. Radio, even as the tendency leaned towards longer songs, never went hog-wild with the 10 minute and 20 minute songs when technology opened up the format. Radio stations did things a certain way and stuck to it.
However, today with streaming, the internet has somewhat eroded radio’s power as a hit maker. So what else is it?
Perhaps that’s the natural equilibrium. Maybe people just naturally expect songs to be a certain length. This one may or may not be self-fulfilling. People now expect songs to be a certain length because that’s how they’ve always been. Would people like their songs clocking in at 8 minutes if that’s what vinyl always supported? Uncertain.
As I mentioned before, some songs in the past have broken this. And with more freedom of format, more songs are breaking it. But they’re mostly seeking of a certain type of groundbreaking artistry much like the songs mentioned above, whether achieved or not. Fleet Foxes recently were on the wrong end of some (albeit funny) internet buzz after their single “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” clocked in at nine (mostly unnecessary) minutes.
So songs are 3-4 minutes long. And they’re probably going to stay that way for the most part.