How Long Should a Song Be? (Radio and Streaming) (2023)
The average length of a song can change over time, but the most recent Billboard Hot 100 data suggests that popular songs are, on average, 3 minutes and 30 seconds long. The average length of a song increased by more than 100 seconds between 1950 and 1990 but has decreased by 20 seconds since 2014.
It’s virtually impossible to calculate the exact average length of a song at a given time as countless new songs are released every day. However, popular songs (i.e., songs that play on the radio) tend to be around 3 minutes long.
What’s the Average Length of a Song? – At a Glance
- The average length of a popular song, according to the most recent Billboard Hot 100, is about 3 minutes and 30 seconds.
- Songs have been getting shorter over the last 50 years, but 3 minutes is still the sweet spot for the music industry.
- Different music genres have different average lengths, e.g., punk rock tends to have songs less than 3 minutes long.
- Features such as the 45 rpm record, radio station monetization, and streaming platform fees have all influenced the average length of a song.
- Duration should not be a metric for evaluating the quality of a song.
Even though songs under 2 minutes are more common now than they’ve been since the late 60s, 3 minutes and 30 seconds is still the average length of a Billboard hit.
Nonetheless, music industry habits seem to be changing at a rapid pace. Between 2018 and 2019, for example, Billboard Hot 100 songs got, on average, a whopping 30 seconds shorter.
In this article, Vice used data from the open music encyclopedia MusicBrainz to analyze how the average length of a song has evolved since 1950. The data seems to show that, while hit songs have been getting shorter in recent years, they were once up to 100 seconds longer than in the early 60s.
Many factors influence the average length of a song, from technology (everything from the 45 rpm record to streaming platforms) to the radio.
Why are hit songs about 3 minutes long?
Hit songs are about 3 minutes long because of two major factors: the historic popularity of the 45 rpm record and the monetization methods applied by radio stations and record producers throughout the 20th century.
Most of humanity’s ideas are rooted in tradition, and the notion of how long a song should be is no exception. For one, we’re accustomed to listening to songs that are about 3 minutes long because that was the duration that the popular 45 rpm record could hold.
The 45 rpm record came into the scene in 1949 and replaced the 78 rpm record. This fact alone isn’t very relevant to the average length of a song, as both formats could hold “around” 3 minutes of music. However, the continuing popularity of the 45 rpm record may help to explain why hits under 4 minutes are still the norm today.
The 45 rpm record ruled the industry until the early 80s, back when the CD was introduced and replaced vinyl (not forever, though). CDs could hold around 80 minutes of music, and they did have an impact on the average length of a song. The duration of a hit song peaked around 1990, going over 250 seconds.
However, old habits die hard. The fact that the CD could support songs way longer than 3 minutes didn’t mean radio stations and record producers were interested in longer songs. After all, the 3-minute mark seems to hit the sweet spot when it comes to the music industry.
For one, short 3-minute songs are perfect for radio stations, which can increase their revenue by airing more ads in-between songs. The same goes for record producers: why make one long song that will not get airplay when you can make many short songs that have a higher chance of playing on the radio?
Music royalties are paid per song, not per duration, meaning record producers have always been incentivized to make more songs, not just more music. As streaming platforms take control of the music industry, this tendency has been aggravated, and pop songs are getting shorter and shorter in recent years.
Why are songs getting shorter?
From 2014 onwards, the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 have been getting shorter because of the rise of streaming platforms and the shorter attention span of music listeners.
Pretty much like radio royalties, streaming-platform payments are song-based, not duration-based. This means that an artist who uploads 100 minutes of music to Spotify divided by 500 songs has a much higher chance of getting paid than an artist who uploads 100 minutes of music to Spotify divided by 10 songs.
Ideally, financial interest shouldn’t influence the creative decisions of artists. But when there’s a billion-dollar music-streaming market to tackle, it’s only natural that the vast majority of artists will comply with whatever guidelines help them earn the most.
But streaming platforms aren’t the only ones to blame. Songs are also getting shorter because the attention span of music listeners has been getting shorter. As one of the consequences of modern life and technology, everything is flowing very fast in this era, decreasing the concentration and attention span of new generations. From TV series to YouTube videos, from music to games, everything is getting shorter not to lose the interest of the audience.
One could even say this is one of the reasons why modern music sucks: the information overload of the Internet age has convinced casual music listeners that long songs are automatically boring. Lacking the patience required to listen to a longer, more immersive piece of music, most people tend to discard songs that are over 4 to 5 minutes long.
Naturally, record producers will do their best to meet the needs of the public. If the vast majority of music listeners seem to be into short songs, short songs are what the world’s largest record labels will deliver.
What about other genres?
While the average length of hit songs is relatively well documented, there aren’t many sources available regarding other genres of music. Billboard reported that the average length of a hip-hop song was 3 minutes and 39 seconds in 2018, but this number only took into account popular hip-hop songs (i.e., hip-hop songs that made it to the top of the charts).
Despite the lack of reliable data, however, it’s possible to assume the approximate average length of a song in many genres simply by taking into account their characteristics. What I mean is that song duration is often a trait that allows us to distinguish one music genre from another.
Unsurprisingly, most song-based music genres (i.e., music genres that feature vocals and a traditional pop-song structure) have tracks with a duration of around 3 to 4 minutes. These include pop-rock, folk, radio-friendly EDM, indie, New Wave, and so forth.
There’s at least one notable exception, though: punk rock! While punk bands rely on traditional song structures, punk songs tend to be shorter than 3 minutes. This has been true since the early days of the genre: the longest song in the Ramones’ self-titled debut, for example, is 2 minutes and 35 seconds long, while the shortest is a mere 1 minute and 30 seconds long.
The average length of a song per genre (an estimation)
|Grindcore||Under 2 minutes|
|Punk rock||Under 3 minutes|
|Progressive rock||Around 5 to 7 minutes|
|Techno and House||Around 6 to 8 minutes|
|Jazz||Around 8 minutes|
|Drone||Over 10 minutes|
|Classical music||Over 20 minutes|
|Free Improvisation and EAI||Around 30 to 60 minutes|
What’s the perfect duration of a song? Whatever it takes for the song to feel like a complete but not boring experience.
Duration shouldn’t be a standard for evaluating the quality of music, but rather a mere sidenote. It’s just like the number of pages in a book: it doesn’t matter as long as the book tells a compelling story!