How the Phonograph Created the 3-Minute Pop Song

And how streaming is changing it again

Clive Thompson
8 min readFeb 26


Photo by alerkiv on Unsplash

Pop songs are getting shorter.

I’ve been reading some interesting stories lately pointing out how, over the last decade or so, songs have dwindled in length: “From 2013 to 2018,” as QZ reported, “the average song on the Billboard Hot 100 fell from 3 minutes and 50 seconds to about 3 minutes and 30 seconds.” Very short songs are much more common — in 2018, fully 6 percent were 2 minutes 30 seconds or shorter, and five years earlier they’d only comprised 1% of all music.

What’s more, artists seem to be chopping out entire features of songs to cut them down to size: When the Guardian analyzed last year’s #1 singles, it found the majority didn’t have a bridge.

Why are songs shrinking? No-one’s totally sure, but it’s likely propelled by technological changes — specifically, streaming. Because streaming services pay the same amount for a song regardless of whether it’s long or short, it’s an incentive for artists to pack an album with lots of shorter tracks. (It may also help them stand out in the remorseless competition online: A short track is a fast listen, and thus possibly more shareable.) The brevity of Tik Tok’s musical windows is another pressure driving artists to keep things tight and focus primarily on writing a hooky chorus.

One could bemoan these changes — damn these kids and their mobile phones, screwing up pop music!

But pop music as we know it today was literally the creation of technological shifts. One in particular: The record player.

When the phonograph — and its precursor, the wax cylinder — first became popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, it dramatically changed the nature of music. It’s a remarkable example of how significantly a new medium can alter the trajectory of art and culture.

Here’s a short (and by no means complete) list of How The Phonograph Changed The World of Music:

1) Performances got shorter — and the 3-minute song was born

Before the phonograph came along, musical performances were often quite lengthy. A folk song might tell a whole epic tale, with a dozen verses. A…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.