How the Phonograph Created the 3-Minute Pop Song

And how streaming is changing it again

Clive Thompson

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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…

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Clive Thompson

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