Why Western songs today are getting shorter

Post Malone at the American Music Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. File

Post Malone at the American Music Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. File   | Photo Credit: AP


A look at year-end lists show that popular music is getting more compact, shedding those 'seconds' to suit a world that is strapped for time and has an attention-deficit disorder

Western songs are now much reduced in girth, with their average "BMI" hovering somewhere around three minutes.

Take the top five on the Billboard year-end Hot 100 Singles of 2019, and they resemble models "chiselled" to carry off size-zero outfits.

Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" clocks in 1:53 minutes; Post Malone's "Sunflower", 2:38; Halsey's "Without Me", 3:21; Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy", 3:14; and Post Malone's "Wow", 2:29 minutes.

Running a fine-tooth comb through the rest of the Hot 100 will trap many more two-minute-plus and barely-three-minute songs. However, I am sticking to just this five-song sample, for the sake of brevity.

The point is songs have become leaner, and this is hardly the result of a crash diet. "Shorter songs" isn't a recent phenomenon; over the last couple of decades, they have been shedding seconds as steadily as frogs shed their uneasy skins.

For contrast, study King-of-Pop Michael Jackson's songs from the eighties and nineties, with their average length pegged somewhere around a portly five minutes.

Back to the '50s?

By shedding their flab, today's songs may actually come across as a spitting image of those back in the 1950s. In fact, those oldies were further pared down, with two-minute-plus songs dominating most lists.

Here is a sample from 60 years ago. The top five on the Billboard Year-end Hot 100 Singles of 1959 look like they were in a tearing hurry to catch the last train out of town: Johnny Horton's jingoistic "The Battle of New Orleans" is done and dusted in 2:33 minutes; "Mack The Knife" (Bobby Darin) is the longest, at 3:25; "Personality" (Lloyd Price), 2:35; "Venus" (Frankie Avalon), just 2:20; and "Lonely Boy" (Paul Anka) 2:31 minutes.


Between then and now, there are two very different reasons at work for shaving off those inconvenient seconds. The 1950s was an analog world, and music was stored in gramaphone records with their highly-limited holding capacities. To pack one with enough, each song that went into it had to be pencil-thin.

Today, songs have to squeezed into a mindspace almost always constricted, being already filled with a multiplicity of entertainment choices, available at a languid swipe of the index finger.

"Musicians tend to crystallise their songs, keeping streaming platforms in mind. When you play one song, Spotify will suggest 100 other songs. So, the temptation to explore readily available options is extremely high for a listener today," says Omkar Potdar, singer-songwriter, Flying Shoe.

On streaming platforms such as Spotify, royalty-payments for musicians don't factor in the length of the songs. At its basic level, the payment is calculated on the number of times a song is streamed. Of course, the calculation is also partly dictated by the terms laid down by the record label.

Crisper intros

"If a song is catchy and short to boot, a listener may stream it more number of times," says Omkar.

He explains: "The effort is aimed at making crisper intros. Instrumental solos are the sad casualty in this attempt to quickly capture the listener's attention and keep it. They have become sparse. When they are present, they are usually very short," says Omkar.

Illustrating the same point, Edison Prithiviraj, director of Unwind Center, presents a vignette of a past. It is an example that has to do with what is today revered as a rock classic not just for all-time, but eternity, suffered on account of instrumental solos that stretched the clock.


"Many radio stations would refuse to play 'Bohemian Rhapsody' because it was considered too long to sustain people's attention. If this can happen in the 1980s, when there were far fewer entertainment-related distractions, you can imagine how it is now. Pink Floyd's intros and instrumental solos are mesmerising, but in this fast-paced world when people consume music on the go, all it may take to capture a listener's attention is a catchy tune, that most importantly, should kick in early on," says Edison.

Faced with this predicament, musicians differentiate between the song they would present on streaming platforms and the same song they would perform for a live audience, points out Omkar.

"Invariably, musicians add instrumental riffs to the same song, while performing before a live audience. This trend is not restricted to the world of western music. Sometime ago, on YouTube, I stumbled upon a video of a live performance of the song 'Suno' by Punjabi rapper, Prabh Deep. In its middle, it offered a captivating saxaphone solo.

"Later, during a drive, I played this song on Spotify, and the saxaphone solo was not there. Obviously, Prabh Deep was including it only in live performances of the song. On a streaming platform, the target group is an unknown listener who is probably just trying out many songs in the palm of his hand. In contrast, a live audience has taken the time out for a particular performance, and so it makes sense to go the distance," says Omkar.

This situation is akin what prevails today in cricket. T20 may pack huge stadia, but Test cricket can't be evicted from its altar.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 7:20:25 PM |

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