Monday, July 14, 2014

How Long is a Song?

Courtesy of the informative Arts Journal site, comes this story about why songs tend to be about the same length. Here is the basic idea:
This was actually a question from one of my children.
“Why are all these songs about the same length? How come there aren’t any super short or really long songs?”
Songs seem to be around three minutes – but of course not all songs are that long. I know there are some very long songs by both Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Though this seems mostly correct. Three minutes is a very common time length for a song.
I asked a knowledgeable friend and he suggested that the time length of popular songs was based on the phonograph. You know, the original medium for recording sound. At first, these phonographs were cylinder shaped. Later, they came in the form of a 10 inch disk. These disks rotated at 78 rpm and could hold about 3 minutes worth of music. This format was popular until the 1960s when the 45 came out. The 45 was a smaller disk that rotated at 45 rpm (thus the name). However, they could still only hold “about 3 minutes”.
Points to the author for occasionally mentioning that perhaps humans just like pieces of music ("songs") that are around three or four minutes long. But for the most part he gets caught up in trying to find a technological answer to the question. I wonder if this is characteristic of our time: everything is about technology or about how humans use technology.

But isn't the question really an aesthetic one, not a technological one? Because, frankly, I think he gets a lot of the technology wrong. For example, I am pretty darn sure that "Hey Jude" came out as a 45 rpm single, and that song is over seven minutes long, so it certainly cannot be the case that primitive 45 rpm vinyl technology restricted songs to three minutes, approximately! Follow the link for the proof as there is a photo of the original 45 issue.

Second, I think the approximate three or four minute duration is a long-standing one for a great deal of music. Now, of course, there are very long pieces and some of them, like the symphonies of Allan Pettersson, are in one uninterrupted section, but I think I could show fairly easily that the most common length for pieces of music, going way, way, back, is about three or four minutes.

Take, for example, the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. They range between a bit less than two minutes to about six minutes, but the vast majority of the over 500 sonatas, are around 4 minutes in length. Chansons from the early middle ages up to, well, now, are very often around three or four minutes long. Some examples? From the 14th century, Machaut:

From the 15th century, Dufay:

From the 16th century, Dowland:

From the 17th century, Caccini:

From the 18th century, Mozart:

From the 19th century, Schubert:

I could go on and on and on. True, there are a lot of genres that tend to have longer durations for individual movements. The symphony in particular went from the four or five minute long movements of the early symphonies by Haydn and Mozart to much longer durations. In the later symphonies of both of those composers it is more common to have seven, eight or even ten minute movements. With Beethoven we can have movements of fifteen minutes and the last movement of the Symphony No. 9 is half an hour, which must have astonished the listeners at the first performance.

But the examples of the most serious late-18th century and later works for piano and orchestra aside, for most of music history, three to four minutes has been a very usable length. It is long enough to present an idea or ideas and to do some development or, in the case of a lot of songs, to sing three or four verses.

So the fact that most pop songs of today range between three and four minutes would seem to be a simple reflection of an aesthetic principle, viz, that most listeners are comfortable with songs or pieces about three or four minutes long. And have been for centuries.

What the writer forgets is that successful technology is always adapted to human needs. If there was a recording technology developed that could only record songs of less than a minute, it would not be successful. In fact, that might well have been the case in the early days--I'm not familiar enough with that history.

Now, let's listen to that counter-example, "Hey Jude", at 7:11 the longest single to ever have risen to number one--not just on the Billboard Hot 100, by the way, but in eleven different countries:


Rickard Dahl said...

Yes, it does seem to be the most common length in most music periods. Of course, one of the great things about classical music is that it often doesn't rely on song which I think is one of the reason it's freer than pop music (of course, pop music in general lacks the outside the box (or rather genre) thinking that is common in classical music).

Anyways, I'm curious about a slightly different thing. After reading the Oxford History of Western Music I got the understanding that most (i.e. pretty much all) medieval (and even most reneissance) music that was written down didn't include any musical instruments. Or at least that's the impression I got from what Taruskin wrote. This clearly seems to be false as the examples above show. Of course, there was probably a lot of music that was played using instruments during that time but was never written down. So, if you could maybe help get rid of my misunderstanding as to the division between pure song, song plus instruments and instruments only during medieval and reneissance times it would be nice.

Also, to me medieval music that uses instruments in some sort of way sounds very different to music afterwards, it's almost like a completely different musical world. It's very refreshing to hear such medieval music and I find it quite mysterious.

Finally, I might be wrong but the "Dame a vous" song seems to be in lydian.

Bryan Townsend said...

There is a slow evolution in instrumental music. In the early days of notated music, say, from 1000 AD to 1200, the only thing written down was a vocal melody. We know that instruments were used from various kinds of evidence: carvings of musicians in cathedrals, pictures in manuscripts and written down accounts and descriptions of musical events. But we see nothing in the notation. A chanson from this time was notated as a single melodic line, just like Gregorian chant. The rhythms were pretty iffy too. So modern performing groups try to recreate how they think the music was performed by using instruments: perhaps a vielle or recorder doubling the melodic line, some bare fifths accompanying on the lute and some percussion. We should all remember that these are just guesses!

Later on, as multi-voice secular music developed, there was the possibility of assigning the main melody to the voice and the others to instruments. This is probably the case with the Machaut and Dufay examples. But a percussion part is still pure speculation. The next development is the development of instrumental notation known as tablature. Instead of showing the pitch of the note, this shows you where to put your finger to obtain that note. There are examples of tablature for both keyboards and lute. By the end of the 16th century we see the development of the modern score, with written out parts for both voices and instruments. And example would be the music to Monteverdi's opera Orfeo.

About the mode of the Machaut song? I can't find the score online, so hard to be sure, but those incongruous leading tones you hear might be just musica ficta, i.e. notes raised by the performers according to the various rules about accidentals. It would be very odd for a piece to be in Lydian mode in that century.

Rickard Dahl said...

Alright, thanks for the explanation!

Yes, you're probably right, musica ficta probably. Speaking of lydian, I find it to be the most tricky mode except for maybe locrian (haven't improvised much locrian stuff). It's quite tricky melodically.

Bryan Townsend said...

Funny you should mention that. I just finished the first movement of my second symphony and it uses two modes mostly. The A section is in dorian mode, though not obviously so, and the B section is in Lydian on A flat. This makes for a D natural and I use this D natural as a pivot between the sections.

Rickard Dahl said...

Sounds interesting.

My symphony idea (just a concept rather than solid musical ideas so far) I mentioned before will have four movements. The first movement will be allegro or so in a mixolydian key, maybe with a slow introduction. The 2nd movement will be a dance movement in a lydian key. It will have three dances ranging from slow to quick, maybe something like sarabande, gavotte & gigue. The 3rd movement will be in a dorian key, not sure about the tempo but probably ranging from moderato to vivace. The 4th will be slow and in a phrygian key to begin with but eventually accelerating and finally modulating to the mixolydian key it started with, possibly closing it with the same material the symphony began with.

It will of course be a while before I can seriously start working with it. I need a lot more practice, especially in structure and handling more instruments at the same time.

Bryan Townsend said...

Is this how the germ of a musical composition starts for you? Mine begin in one of two ways: either through some extra-musical inspiration, like an image or an experience (usually of the natural world) but more concretely, there is some motif or rhythmic idea that comes to me. And that's where I start...

Nathan Shirley said...

This is a great post, you've really hit the nail on the head here. It is odd that the subject of "song" length doesn't come up more often.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Nathan! High compliment. I suspect that the relationship between how a movement is structured and its duration is one of the most interesting aspects of composition--and one that theorists don't talk about too much.