Piano - Songwriter

Can Songs Be Too Short?

Over the past number of years, I’ve worked with songwriters mostly via email and/or Skype. Every songwriter has their issues, the problems they’re trying to solve. If I were to make a list of every problem songwriters are dealing with, a song that’s too short wouldn’t be on it.

Let me qualify that. There are lots of songwriters who write a chorus hook, but can’t seem to pair it up with a good verse. In other words, lots of songwriters who can’t complete their songs. But for those who have a finished song that they’ve asked me to listen to, there has rarely (if ever) been a time when I felt that a song was good, but just a little short.


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More often, the opposite is the problem. There are many, many times when I’ve felt that a song is otherwise good, it’s just that it’s too long. Brevity in songwriting is often a blessing. The more succinctly you can communicate something through music, the more powerful the effect it will have on a listener.

It’s strange, isn’t it? Why is it that a song, at 4 minutes in length, might sound as though it’s rambling too much, but a song that’s 3-and-a-half minutes feels just right?

I don’t know if I have a good answer to that, except to say this: the components of a typical pop song are usually few in number. I don’t want to say that a pop song doesn’t have a lot going for it, because the good ones are gems.

But really, when you compare them to their classical music cousins, a pop song usually consists mainly of a good hook, and then music that gets built around it, to support that hook. A nice verse, and then a catchy chorus hook.

That’s why, by the way, pop song lyrics often determine how a songwriter is assessed over time. A good lyric needs to say what it’s meant to say, in precious little time.

If pop music is your genre, and you’ve finished a song and you’re trying to figure out why it seems to be missing the mark, take a look at its length. Good song editing usually results in removing music, not so much adding music.

Here’s a short list of how a typical pop song is structured these days. Adhering to this list can save you a lot of time wondering why your song is missing the mark:

  1. Song intros should be 10-15 seconds in length. A longer intro is possible, but it gets tricky.
  2. A song’s verse should be finished by the 0′ 45″ mark. Certainly by the 1 minute mark, your chorus should have started. The slower the song’s tempo, the later a chorus might start.
  3. A pre-chorus should have a purpose. If you feel that your verse is too short or too unadventurous, you might find that a short pre-chorus can help balance out the lengths of your song’s sections.
  4. A bridge should have a purpose. If your song’s lyric isn’t complete by the end of a second (or possibly third) verse, a bridge will serve an important purpose. But remember that most bridges work as brief diversions, with emphasis on brief.
  5. Pop songs that are longer than 4 minutes can work, as long as contrast plays an important role in its structure. Long songs need lots of loud-versus-soft, high-versus-low, full followed by transparent instrumentation, and so on.

If you are sweating over the length of your song, wondering if it’s too long, here’s a simple solution: Keep the full version, and then edit down a shorter “radio-friendly” length of the same song. Then put them both away for a day or two. Then listen to them both objectively.

That allows you to compare a longer and shorter version of the same song. Longer songs can work (as The Beatles learned with “Hey Jude”). But more often than not, the conciseness of something that comes in under 4 minutes is going to work well for you.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Great advice all around !

    This post makes me think of “Stairway to Heaven” and how when it first came out, I absolutely loved it, but when I listened, I was always just tolerating the long initial build up because I knew that pounding crescendo was coming as the payoff !

    And as we wind on down the road
    Our shadows taller than our soul.
    There walks a lady we all know …

    🙂

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