The Shorter the Better?

Pop songs are shrinking, literally. Discover the path from 78 rpm records to the streaming life of songs today.

07.23.2019 - Fiduciary Trust Canada

Listening to pop music, you could always count on a few things: a musical intro before the first verse, a catchy chorus to sing, and of course, a song that lasted three to five minutes. That is, until tunes started getting shorter.

Today’s pop songs, averaging three minutes and 30 seconds, are approximately 20 seconds shorter than in 20141. Listen to a song that’s more than four minutes and it’s likely from another genre; likewise, the growing number of fleeting tunes that last less than three minutes. As Bob Dylan wrote, “the times, they are a-changin’.”

Why? It’s all about the evolving nature of the music business: Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming services are changing the game. In 2018, streaming services—with their pay-per-play model—were responsible for 75% of the music industry’s overall revenue2. Artists typically earn less than half a cent each time their song is streamed for 30 seconds or more3. This means songs need to get to the point—the catchy chorus—more quickly than ever and a lengthier song is immaterial to getting paid4.

Musical Revolutions

This can be unsettling to those of us who grew up listening to standard three-minute pop songs. However, that standard was also set by a particular medium. When recorded music first became popular, a 78 rpm record could only hold two to three minutes of content5. When smaller, lighter 45s were introduced in 1949, they also held roughly three minutes of music. As radio stations began using 45s, artists like Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Supremes—anyone who wanted radio play—recorded songs for the 45 rpm format6. Three minutes became the standard length.

Bob Dylan, who became “radio friendly” in the early ’60s, changed the trajectory for rock songs by releasing Like a Rolling Stone, which, at over six minutes long, was a raging success. The song paved the way for other, even lengthier songs, but only for genres beyond pop. Think of rock classics like Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida or Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven7.

Today, as streaming prevails, the standard song length appears poised to change yet again. Innovative artists seem ready to adapt to emerging mediums, such as Instagram, which allows a mere 60-second audio or video clip. One-minute songs aren’t simply on the horizon—they’re already here8.

As Billy Joel once sang in The Entertainer, “If you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit.”

As Bob Dylan wrote, “the times, they are a-changin’.”“






1. Chris Morris, “Songs Are Getting Shorter. Blame the Economics of Streaming Music. Fortune, January 17, 2019,

2. Morris, “Songs Are Getting Shorter.”

3. Morris, “Songs Are Getting Shorter.”

4. Deana Sumanac-Johnson, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus? How streaming is changing songs,” CBC News, February 9, 2019,

5. Records were named for their revolutions per minute (rpm). The first, made of shellac, rotated at a speed of 78 rpm and could only hold two to three minutes of content. More content required more grooves, which put them too close together and the sound was distorted. The 45 rpm record—made of more durable vinyl and holding one song per side—faced similar physical challenges.

6. Yohana Desta, “Why is the average pop song only 3 minutes long?” Mashable, November 23, 2014,

7. Desta, “Why is the average pop song only 3 minutes long?”

8. Doreen St. Félix, “Tierra Whack Stretches the Limits of One-Minute Songs,” The New Yorker, July 1, 2018,


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