Music History

Why Are Almost All Songs on the Radio Roughly the Same Length? (Part 2)

This is a question I posed after reading an article that wondered the same thing.  Frankly, I’d never really thought about it.  But why is it so many songs on the radio–and songs in general are around 3 minutes and 30 seconds long?

I had a spirited discussion with Jenn Traplin during our weekly call on Live 88.5 in Ottawa.  She linked my story to the station’s Facebook page, which resulted in many comments and theories.  This also prompted Jessica Madott to raise some questions of her own.

I live in Ottawa, Canada and the good folks at my preferred radio station here (Live 88.5) have a post on their Facebook wall asking people to write in to you with their thoughts on ‘why songs are all roughly the same length (3.5 minutes)’.  I don’t necessarily have any thoughts on the specific reason(s) as much as I have questions about the whole concept, so here it goes…Over the years (in the popular music age, at least) there actually seemed to be a rather steady INCREASE in the song lengths for quite a while.  Songs from, say, the 50’s & 60’s are arguably shorter than their counterparts from the 80’s or 90’s (generally speaking at least).  For example, I’ll use the following:

If I refer to this list, then only 2/10 of the top 10 songs from this list are over 3 minutes long, and not one is longer than 3:30.   Most hover around 2-2.5 minutes in length which is super short by today’s standard.

If I refer to THIS list, then not one song is LESS than 3:30 minutes with most of them averaging out to be around 5+ minutes – the longest is over 7 minutes long!

Somewhere in the timeline between these two lists we have things happening like the whole brouhaha of “Hey Jude” becoming the longest song played on the radio (at the time) and then the flip side being something like “November Rain” clocking in at an epic 9:16, but no one really seeming to care about the song length (… and that’s the video time – there’s also the album time of ‘only’ 8:57 or the Piano Version lasting 9:45!)

What I find curious is the more contemporary music ‘trend’ (at least one I’m seeing) where songs are generally beginning to shorten in length again.  AWOLNATION, a band I *adore*, only have one song on Megalithic Symphony that plays longer than 4:30.  Granted, it’s a 14:58 marathon, but the rest of them hover between 3-4 minutes.  Imagine Dragons (another personal favourite) has one 8:59 song on Night Visions, but all others are around 3-4 minutes.  I’ll venture into the land of Lady Gaga and cite her debut The Fame as yet another example of the diminishing contemporary song lengths with most songs being back to the 2+ to 3.5 minute average.

So, to conclude my little diatribe here … what’s going on with the general song length of aboooooout 3.5 minutes is a good question – granted – but, what I want to know is WHY was there a temporary rise in the average song length?  What caused it?  Why didn’t songs continue to lengthen and, instead, return back down to what the current song length average is?  Will songs revert BACK to longer formats in the future, like some sort of ebbing and flowing of the tides?

With Classical pieces and movements (for example) ranging from a few minutes to a few HOURS, I propose that attention span isn’t the issue.  Or, perhaps it isn’t the issue for instrumental music?  Are vocals *that* much of a game-changer in our ability to connect and engage with a particular song?  I’ll leave you to decide if that’s something worth exploring … I wager it is, though.  Do the presence of vocals largely influence the listener’s ability to appreciate and pay attention to any given song?  If so, is it the lyrical content that’s the critical element here?  The octave?  The pitch?  The tempo?  – what???  What is the magical ingredient responsible for maintaining a captive audience through music?

Anyway, more than a little food for thought.  I’m sorry I don’t have more definitive ‘answers’ to offer you for the proposed question (which is a great one, I might add!), but I often find that some of the best discussions stem from some really good questions being thrown about and seeing what comes of them.  I hope some of mine have planted a seed or started a wheel to turn and I’d be more than happy to correspond or further comment on any remarks I’ve made here.  Please feel free to reply is you wish, though I have no expectations.

So thanks for reading!  I hope this finds you well, I hope you’re happy, healthy, and listening to music that makes your heart sing!

Anyone else have any theories?


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38550 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

2 thoughts on “Why Are Almost All Songs on the Radio Roughly the Same Length? (Part 2)

  • I would be willing to bet it is an evolution based on advertising. It’s the same reason 98% of television shows are 22 or 44 minutes long. If all songs are about the same length or sets of songs run about te same length, it is easier to schedule advertising. Bands would find that songs not in the 3-3.5 minute range don’t get played and would therefore limit their music to this time limit.

  • I figured it was just a byproduct of the verse-chorus-verse structure. Most lengthy tunes from the last fifty years are prog-rock or some other style that eschews the pop formula altogether.

    Then again, even pop songs are getting shorter, including my own which seldom break the two minute mark. I can’t speak for all songwriters, but personally I think that stems from this looming feeling that everything’s been done and your audience will bore easily, however cynical that may be, and that drives me to get the darn thing over with and not spend nine minutes on a dirge about my relationships.

    Critics have been kvetching for decades that X genre is dead and fans are sick of Y, but now that we’re armed with magical rectangles in our pocket that can stream all of recorded history at whim, the audience’s time really does seem more valuable than ever.


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