[ELI5] Why are most pop songs 3 minutes long?


I’m listening right now to Gojira’s Flying Whales, this song is 07:46. Previously I listened to the Art of Dying which was 09:54. That got me thinking about this discrepancy between some metal songs and the pop available on the radio. Why is everything around 3 minutes long?

In: Other

Pays are per play of a song on a streaming service. Make songs short to get more plays in the same time, to get more pay.

The root of the “three-minute” length is likely derived from the original format of 78 rpm-speed phonograph records. The 78 comes in two sizes: a 10-inch that holds three minutes of music and a 12-inch that holds four. Later, they introduced 45 rpm disks (like the 78, the 45 also holds about three minutes of music) that overtook the 78 ones. For a band to get its songs played on the radio, it needed to have a 45. The songs that came out immediately after the creation of the 45 defined American popular music for decades, including that of Elvis, singles of Beatles, Pink Floyd, etc.

The three-minutes thing was established before Vaudeville. It dates back so far, before the formal definition of “minutes”, it has not yet been tracked.

The principal is that this is the amount of time that it takes to complete the telling of a story. While not being so long that those not interested stop paying attention or, in the 20th Century, tune to another radio station. No science supports this. It is a tradition. One of things that “seems to work”.

Combination of economics, attention span of pop music fans, and technology.

Short songs make sense in a pay per play system. More plays =more money. The same idea applies to movies in the movie theater.

The attention span of kids is small. Pop music is short to accomodate that.

Old records have a limited amount of play time. shorter songs allowed for more songs per record or smaller records.