work the mic

What is the Perfect Song Length?

January 2nd, 2015

The year was 2005. I tentatively handed my demo CD to a new friend who was a well-known local musician. He had released several albums, and a few of his songs had made it onto regional radio. I had seen him play, and his performances motivated me to write and perform my own music. I was terrified of what he would think and say, despite the fact that he was an incredibly nice guy who would have said something positive about my work no matter how bad it was.

He listened on headphones while I stared off into space, diving head-first into a shame spiral. "Why did I ever think I should put myself out there? Why didn't I just keep my music to myself?" I anxiously chewed on a finger and tried to work through my cold sweat.

When the song ended almost six minutes later, my friend took off his headphones and nodded. "Good song," he said. "Catchy. Instrumentation is good." I realized that I hadn't really been breathing, so I forced a breath in and out. "One thing though..." Wup, there went the breathing again. "It's a bit long. You want to play this song for other people?" I said yes. "Then you want to get in, and get out. Don't let the song get too long."

I got a bit defensive. I tried to convince him of the merits of the 1 minute, 30 second intro, the 3rd and 4th verses, the solo, the breakdown, the effects-laden extended outro. He smiled politely and handed me the CD. "Get in, get their attention, get out."

Most mainstream songs reach their chorus in under a minute.

I was a bit disappointed. It took me a few days to process what he said, and more than a year to put it into real practice in my songwriting. However, as I played my music for more people, I could see their attention waning as the songs dragged on. I studied the structures of mainstream music. Most songs reached their choruses in under 1 minute. My mentor was right.

I started taking a heavy knife to my work. 2nd bridges were cut out, intros were sliced down from 1:30 to just 15 seconds. It stung. I barely recognized my precious creations, pale skeletons compared to their once plump and hearty selves.

I felt like I would never be happy with my music again, but the funny thing is... people started paying more attention. They stopped tuning out halfway through a track. They started saying things like, "hey, can you get me a copy of that song you played me?" or "wow, I kind of expected to be disappointed, but this was actually pretty good." At the time, that was a startling shift from the complete lack of response I was used to receiving.

When I would play shows with other bands, I would take note of their song lengths. It was kind of a fun game to see just how long some songs would wear on. "Oh wow, another solo?" "Does this mid-section repetitive vamp really add anything to the song?"

Many people have probably stopped reading and left the site already. Some of you who have stuck around are subconsciously arguing with me, perhaps because you're in the same phase I was once in, where I didn't want to hurt my precious babies. You're coming up with all kinds of counter-arguments, just like I used to. Let me identify and respond to a few:

Sure, at a live performance, sometimes the band needs a cool-down period. That's not what we're discussing here. What I'm talking about are bands who have entire sets of 6-7 minute songs that just repeat themselves and refuse to end.

True, certain genres lend themselves to longer work, for example, Blues, Prog, or Jam bands. The audiences are usually aware of these things, so it's all good. No one who is going to see Phish is going to be annoyed by a song's third instrumental section.

Yes, there are a few songs on the radio that are over 6 minutes. But, those 6 minute masterworks are by bands that already had the world's attention. You likely don't have the kind of credit with an audience that is required to pull that off.

If you want to be heard, give your songs the best shot at sticking in people's memory.

As I've said in so many of my posts, if you're trying to get your songs heard by a wider audience, you want to give your songs the best possible shot at sticking in people's memory. One of the best tools you have available to you is brevity. If you have too many parts, and you just can't let them go because they're that good, then throw them into another song. Just because your song is short doesn't mean it has to be dumbed down. Muse, Queen, Radiohead, and many other artists have radio hits that are musically intricate.

This advice isn't just about appealing to the average listener. If you're sending music to people in the industry, say placement agencies, radio DJ's, or bar owners, they're likely to be even less interested in your experimental 7-section opus. I've had more than one industry person tell me that the first thing they do when they get a demo is check the song lengths. If they get something where the average length is over 3:30, the demo goes in the waste bin without ever being heard.

I'm not telling you to keep all of your songs under a specific time, though perhaps I should. I'm saying you need to keep your songs as lean as possible. What is each part contributing to the music and lyrics? How is each part affecting the audience? Can the song survive without the part?

"Get in and get out" is one of the simplest pieces of advice any musician can get or give, but for some reason, it's one of the hardest for most people to put into practice. Try it, and see if your audience responds. Save your work, and you can always put the extra stuff back in if you want.

Get in, get people's attention, get out.