Why do most songs last 3-5 minutes on average
Music Theory

Why do most songs last 3-5 minutes on average

Peter Baskerville: It’s the result of a technical limitation that has become the standard – the popular music industry has embraced it, supported it, and started commercializing it. An example is the project founded by Mac Powell and Fernando Ortega.

It all started back in the 1920s, when 10-inch (25 cm) 78-rpm records overtook the competition and became the most popular audio medium. Rough methods of marking tracks on a record and a thick needle for reading them limited the length of recording time on each side of the record to about three minutes.

Technical limitations directly affected the creation of music. Composers and performers created their songs, taking into account the parameters of the popular medium. For a long time, the three-minute single was the standard for recording a song , until better mastering techniques were mastered in the 1960s, and narrow-track records appeared, which allowed artists to increase the length of recordings.

However, even before the advent of LPs, the three-minute standard brought huge profits to the pop music industry. Radio stations, whose earnings depended on the number of broadcasts of announcements per hour, gladly supported him. The producers were all in favor of the concept of selling several short songs rather than one long song containing 2-3 parts or built-in tracks.

The stations also aired three-minute rock and roll songs aimed at the post-war generation of the 1960s, which introduced portable transistor radios into pop culture. It can be said that 3 to 5 minute songs have come to define pop music and are now recognized as an archetype.


It turned out that the technical limitation was supported and began to be used for commercial purposes, but this does not mean at all that artists and music lovers approved this standard. For example, in 1965, Bob Dylan performed the song “Like Rolling Stone” for over 6 minutes, and in 1968, The Beatles recorded the seven-minute single “Hey Jude” using the new narrow-track record technology.

They were followed by “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, “American Pie” by Don McLean, “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses, “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd, “Bat Out of Hell by Meat Loaf, The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” are all over 7 minutes long.

Ken Eckert: I agree with the above, but I note that there are several reasons for accepting 3-minute songs, and I don’t think that each of them individually exhausts the issue. Indeed, in the beginning, recording technology required songs to be 3 minutes long.

This standard set the direction in which pop music moved for several decades. However, why didn’t the Victorian engineers just make the cylinders longer? Edison was not a musician. There seems to be some sort of convention that three minutes is enough for most recordings.

I think the reasons lie in human psychology. Perhaps 3-4 minutes is the period of time during which the musical pattern of melodic sounds does not have time to get bored (of course, there are countless exceptions).

I also assume that 3 minutes is a comfortable amount of time for dancing – people don’t get so tired that they need a short break (or a change of partner). It is for these reasons that Western popular dance music has probably fallen into this time range . Again, this is just my guess.

Darren Monson: Technical limitations have definitely affected the production of music, but I don’t agree that this is the only reason.

With the improvement of technology, there should have been a transition to songs of the length that the market requires, but this did not happen – we still adhere to the 3-5 minute standard. But why?

The reason for the song being 5 minutes or less is due to the part of the song known as the “break-in”.

The break usually consists of eight measures and is placed approximately in the middle of the song. The essence of losing is to change the mood of the song so that the listener is not bored.

A person can maintain concentration for a very short time – in most cases, only 8 seconds. In order for a song to be easily remembered, it is necessary that the listener can learn it and sing it without much difficulty.

The Beetles talked about testing different song structures (and lengths) in front of a live audience before finding the perfect fit. The three-minute break-in track is perfect for singing along with fans.

I believe that even despite the technical limitations that were imposed on early recordings, we would still opt for songs that were 3-5 minutes long.

I am the owner of the music business platform Audio Rokit [it was bought by competitor Music Gateway in February 2015 – approx. per.], and less than 1.5% of all uploaded songs are beyond 3-5 minutes!


Marcel Tirado: If you’re talking about current pop/rock songs that you hear on the radio today, there are several reasons why they should be reduced to 3-5 minutes (rather to 3, ideally to 3.5). Let’s start with the fact that the duration of concentration has decreased among the music audience – it is enough to listen to songs that appeared before the beginning of the 80s.

There is a lot more “depth” in the songs of the 60s and 70s. In the 80s, science entered the music industry, which led us to where we are today.

The song length of 3 to 3.5 minutes is related to song structure, which has had a major impact on the music industry and is considered a standard formula. If you don’t know what it is, then it looks like this:

Verse – Chorus – Second verse – Second second chorus – Loss – Third chorus

There are various variations of this structure, but, to one degree or another, they all fall within the 3 to 5 minute range. The music industry won’t admit it, but to get a song on the radio you have to pay – the longer the song, the more money you have to give.

Summarize. So, it’s all to blame: the attention span of the modern audience, the influence of radio on the shortening of songs (the desire not to drag out the track in order to attract new listeners), the cost of playing a song on the radio. The industry seems to think it’s easiest to promote music between 3 and 5 minutes, but there may be other factors that I haven’t listed.

Luigi Cappel: Great answer Marcel. I am currently studying a course in songwriting techniques at Berklee College of Music. We were taught that although the number of lines in a song can vary, the structure “Verse – Chorus – Second Verse – Second Chorus  Break – Third Chorus” is the most popular.

Most songs that go beyond 3-5 minutes become boring, with the exception of extended versions of favorite tracks. This doesn’t mean that long songs like ballads are bad, just that keeping the listener’s interest is key. It is also important that the shorter the song, the easier it is to learn the words. People love to sing.

There are immortal classics like “Thick as a Brick”, which in the 70s a lot of people knew word for word, but this is the exception rather than the rule – I can’t immediately think of anything similar, but from modern music.

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