In today’s pop music world, songs are getting shorter. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, most songs were under three minutes in length. “Lonely Boy“, recorded by Paul Anka in 1959, was 2’30”, and that was typical. Starting in the later ’60s and into the ’70s there was a slow increase in the length of a pop song. “Come and Get Your Love“, recorded by Redbone in 1974, is 3’30”.
By the 90s it wasn’t unusual for hit songs to be closer to four minutes in length, and often longer. Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to You” from 1990, is a little over 5’00”, and Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”, released in 1993, is 4’34”.
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But today, the length of a song is retreating back to what you’d typically find in the early 60s: often less than three minutes in length. The reason probably has more to do with money than with art; getting to the chorus quickly means making a shorter song, which means they can click on to the next song more quickly, increasing streaming revenue.
If you want to read more about this, there’s a good, concise article here from October 2019 on the InsideHook website: “Yes, Pop Songs Are Getting a Lot Shorter. Here’s Why.”
The extra length of longer pop songs in the 70s to 90s often came down to a at least two factors:
- Longer intros and/or outros.
- Inclusion of more optional sections. (You didn’t see a lot of pop songs from the 1950s with pre-chorus sections, and bridges were literally a middle-8… rarely longer than eight bars, and often shorter.)
Most of the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 this week (week of January 16, 2021) are between 2’30” and 3’30”. The longest song is “Laugh Now Cry Later” (Drake Featuring Lil Durk), but while it’s 4’22”, the last minute of it is a long outro fade.
Taking Streaming Revenue and Other Similar Issues Out of the Picture
Let’s assume for the moment that you’re more interested in writing a song that shows you as an artist, and ot overly concerned about streaming revenue. How long can a good pop song be?
My belief is that songs in the pop genres are still going to be too long if they go much over 4 minutes in length, if you assume that you’re going to use standard pop forms. In other words, if your songs use a typical verse-chorus-bridge structure, there’s not much opportunity to make the song longer.
There are longer pop songs, but there are reasons for the extra length that are easily noticeable. “Hotel California” is six-and-a-half minutes in length, but the final more than two minutes is the excellent guitar duet outro.
Experimenting Beyond Five Minutes
If you stick with standard pop song formats, going beyond five minutes in length (or even four minutes) brings you face to face with several problems, all relating to the fact that you need too many verses and choruses, and the song becomes boring to the listener.
If you want to experiment with songs that go longer, the best way to do that is to modify the form of your song. Simply repeating verses and choruses is too risky.
Modifying the form means bringing in optional sections that do any or all of the following:
- change key;
- change tempo;
- communicate a more elaborate story through a more involved lyric;
- change instrumentation.
The key to a longer song is the use of contrast and variation. As with shorter songs, you need to keep changing things for the listener. Listen to some progressive rock from the 70s if you want to hear good examples of what this might ultimately sound like. “And You And I” by Yes (10’07”) is a great example. It has many sections, all related by musical motifs, but very sectional, full of contrasts all meant to keep people listening.
All that really remains to be discussed is why. What will a longer song achieve for you? Throughout music history, going back to the beginnings of orchestral music in the early 1600s, there was really only one good reason for writing a longer musical work, and that is: to more fully develop your musical ideas.
Since any good song is a musical journey, the longer song needs to be the achievement of a more interesting musical journey. And as always, you’ll know you’ve achieved that goal if your audience stays with you.
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I don’t know of a single songwriter who doesn’t want to improve on what they’re doing. But how do you do that? And in the songwriting field, what does improvement actually mean?
It doesn’t often take much; sometimes improving just one aspect of your songwriting — the lyrics, let’s say — will take an entire song to a new level.
And so it follows that there are probably dozens of ways songwriters can improve their songwriting skills. Here’s a list of five things you can try:
- Make time for active listening every day. Active listening is a bit different from the casual kind of listening we do when we’re just sitting back and enjoying what we’re hearing. Active listening means thinking about what makes a song sounds great, what you might have done differently if the song you’re listening to happened to be yours, and even taking notes. It means really paying attention to the song you’re listening to.
- Schedule your songwriting activities. Some people write songs when the feeling hits, but you’re going to vastly improve your skills and benefit from the discipline that comes from setting a daily time to write. This kind of consistency may take some getting used to, but you will love the results.
- Analyze your songs. Keep a booklet that examines the nuts & bolts of every song you’ve written. You might, for example, write down the form of each one (intro-verse-chorus…), the key (verse = Am, chorus = C major, etc.), the tempo in beats-per-minute, song topic, and so on. This will give you a good idea if there is too much similarity in what you’re writing, and where you need to look to become a more diverse songwriter.
- Think up songwriting exercises that will improve your abilities. In other words, don’t feel that every songwriting session needs to be something that results in a finished song. Some ideas? Try coming up with a list of ten potential song titles, or try writing a line of lyric, and then find five different ways to rewrite that line. These little “games” have a way of polishing your songwriting abilities, and they remove the stress that comes from always trying to write an actual song.
- Play your songs for another (very good) songwriter. There’s a tendency for a lot of songwriters to stream their songs online, and then ask anyone and everyone for comments.
The thing is, what you really want are comments from people who are seasoned songwriters, who know what it’s like to solve songwriting problems. They’re the kind who will treat you and your song with respect, and will give you good ideas for finishing or modifying what you’ve written.
There are lots of other ways you can improve what you’re doing, and certainly step 3 above will give you heads up for where you need to be looking to make yourself better.
Do all this with as much positivity as possible… don’t get down on yourself or your songs. Think of every little things you can do as part of the process of becoming a better songwriter every day!
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It used to be that “repeat-and-fade” was the most common way to end a pop song. There was something nice about it — a sense of “riding off into the sunset” that had the effect of making you feel that the song was still out there somewhere.
These days, repeat-and-fade is a lot less common. It’s hard to know why that is, but repeat-and-fade is a kind of stylistic production-level decision, and styles come and go. Perhaps decisions that make live performance easier has had something to do with it: you can’t easily do a repeat-and-fade live.
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This week on the Billboard Hot 100, only two of the top ten songs use a repeat-and-fade ending. That means for the others, an actual ending needed to be created. I say “created”, but in fact most songs end by simply stopping, with no particular ending necessary.
In “Levitating” (Dua Lipa, et al), the repeating chord progression that ends on the tonic chord — Bm-F#m-Em-Bm (i-v-iv-i) — gives it a convenient and satisfying spot to do an abrupt stop. But as you likely know, these days it’s fine to simply stop anywhere, no matter what chord is being played. Bieber’s “Holy” ends mid-phrase on an implied IV-chord.
So if it seems that you can end a song in pretty much any way you like, how important should creating an ending be to your songwriting process?
The honest answer is: probably not very.
Comparing the thought that should go into how you start a song to how you finish it, there can be no doubt that starting a song is far more vital to grabbing and keeping an audience. For most songs, you only get a very few seconds before a listener might make the decision to click away from your song to someone else’s.
But ending it? You’ve really got just a few options:
- Repeat-and-fade (might make your song sound a bit dated, so be careful).
- End right at the last word of the chorus, regardless of the chord. (There’s no need to feel you have to end on a tonic chord.)
- Create a true coda — an ending that is different from everything else in the song, the sole purpose of which is to give the listeners something satisfyingly final.
If you really want to research this to come up with good endings for your songs, one of the best ways is to look back a few decades ago, especially in the 70s, which was arguably repeat-and-fade’s heyday, and then look for a live rendition by that performer on YouTube. No doubt the band will have created an ending to replace the repeat-and-fade that was on the studio recording.
The live version of Eagles’ “Hotel California” does a little rhythmic pattern on the final chord to bring it to a quick and satisfying close. America does something similar for their live version of “Ventura Highway” — simply stopping on the final tonic chord.
Sometimes the band comes up with an entirely new ending for the repeat-and-fade of the studio version, like Chicago’s “Beginnings” live version.
So as you can see, though there may not be all that many ways to end a song, the good news is that it isn’t usually going to make or break your tune. There’s no ending I can think of where I’ve felt that it damaged a song.
But having said that, it may be like most other musical effects you might use for your songs: making the same choice for every song is probably not the way to do. Use your imagination!
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A bass pedal point refers to a situation where you keep the same note in the bass (or left hand of a keyboard instrument) regardless of the chords that are playing above it. Pedal point can make an otherwise boring progression sound much more interesting because when the bass stays the same it will clash (in musically interesting ways, we hope!) with some of the chords.
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Here’s a typical example from the key of C major: let’s say that you’re starting your songwriting process by using this progression:
C F Dm G7 C
That’s a well-worn standard progression. One way to make it sound more interesting is to try playing those chords keeping the note ‘C’ as your lowest sounding note. You’ll wind up with this (the letter in front of the slash is the chord, and the letter after the slash is the bass note):
C F/C Dm/C G7/C C
or you might see that notated like this:
C F Dm G7 C _______________ C
Click on the play icon below to hear what that sounds like.
Without pedal point (as normal chords):
With pedal point:
As I think you can hear, the chords that use the same bass note through the progression have an interesting sound that makes that often-used progression sound a bit more innovative, and that’s why songwriters often like to use them.
Which Notes Work Best As a Bass Pedal Point?
Theoretically, you can use any note you want as a bass pedal, but the two most common kinds of pedal point you see are:
- Tonic bass pedal point. (The tonic note — the one representing your song’s key — is kept.)
- Dominant bass pedal point. (The dominant note — the fifth note of your song’s key — is kept.)
In the example I described above, since the note that is played throughout the bass is the tonic note (C), that’s a tonic bass pedal point. It has a very stable sound. You can also try that progression while holding the note G (the dominant note) in the bass, creating a dominant bass pedal point. Click below to hear what that would sound like:
How to Use a Bass Pedal Point
If you’re accompanying your song at the piano or guitar, you’ll simply want to keep the bass pedal note as the lowest sounding note. If you’re a bass player in the band, you actually have a bit more freedom to move about to different notes, but you should always make sure that the strong beats (particularly beat 1 of every bar) should land on the pedal note that you’ve chosen.
That means that as a bass player, you will have some freedom to have a very melodic or active bass line, as long as you keep that pedal note on your strong beats.
A great classic example that old Chicago fans who love their music from the 70s will know is the song “Hollywood” (Robert Lamm), which features a dominant bass pedal. From the 2’06” mark of the song through to the end, the chord progression is:
Eb/F – F
Peter Cetera plays a masterfully melodic bass line that is supportive of the other instruments and strongly locked in to the rhythm and tempo of the music. It’s a great example of how a bass pedal point doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to sit on one note while the chords are changing. No matter what the chord of the moment is, he usually lands on ‘F’ for beat 1.
You should listen to the entire song, because you’ll hear another important aspect of chord creativity: slash chords (inversions). There’s a really interesting sense of musical instability — in the best sense of that term — that comes from a progression that’s made up almost entirely of slash chords. But that’s a subject for another blog post!
If you’ve not tried bass pedal point in your progressions before, I hope you give them a try. As with any interesting musical effect, use your discretion to decide if it belongs in your song. You might try pedal point in your verse but not in your chorus, or vice versa.
As a final tip, try using bass pedal point (particularly tonic pedals) for chord progressions that are a bit complex. The constant bass note has a way of gluing chords together and making them make more sense to an audience.
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I’m a trumpet player, though these days I do more writing and conducting than trumpet playing. Back when I was starting out, I was in final rehearsals for a one-off orchestra I had been hired to play in.
I noticed that the principal trumpeter had a small ring of brass — sort of doughnut-shaped –that he had slid onto his trumpet’s lead pipe, just beyond the mouthpiece. I asked him what its purpose was, and he told me that it helped to focus soundwaves down the lead pipe, and also helped to make his trumpet sound richer and fuller.
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He had a few of them for various trumpets he owned, and so he gave me one to try out for a couple of weeks. I slipped it on my own trumpet and played a few notes. I noticed nothing. I took it home and practiced for a couple of weeks, sometimes with the device, and sometimes without. Again, I noticed nothing.
Next time I saw him I returned it, and when he asked me what I thought, I told him, “You know, there may come a point where I’m playing so well that I’ll notice what a little ring of brass does for my sound. I just think I need to be a better player in the first place before I’d notice anything.”
This experience has been something that’s stayed with me for my entire music career. There is a tendency, and I believe this applies to songwriters, to focus on tiny, minute issues, while ignoring the bigger ones that might be plaguing our songwriting.
A good example? When writing lyrics, you’ll want your verse to keep things emotionally subdued, so that when the more emotional content of the chorus arrives, it packs a more effective punch.
So if you’re spending a lot of time fine-tuning and finessing your choice of words in the verse, but not notice the larger problem that your entire verse is simply far too emotional, you’ve skipped an important principle, and the fine-tuning you’re doing is not really going to get noticed.
When writing melodies, you may be fine-tuning your choice of notes, not noticing that you’ve ignored an important principle of keeping the melody lower than the chorus, so as to keep the verse from upstaging the chorus.
Do you get the point I’m making? That trumpet player may have been seeing a benefit to his trumpet sound because everything else he was doing was being done very well. He was a polished professional, ready for what that little brass ring could do for his sound.
And as a songwriter, finessing and fine-tuning is an important thing to do, but don’t let it distract you from the more important task of understanding the fundamentals of songwriting.
How you’ll know if you’ve got a problem with the basics is simple: all the fine-tuning in the world will do little or nothing for your song, if there’s a more fundamental principle that you’re missing.
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I’m Gary Ewer. For years I’ve been helping songwriters understand the basic fundamentals of good songwriting. I do that mainly through the free articles on this blog, and also through my 10-eBook bundle. If you lack consistency in your songwriting, and you want to take your abilities to the next level, everything you need to know is in that bundle package, so please take a look at those ebooks. And if you want to browse through the more than 2300 posts in the blog archive, scroll to the bottom of this page.
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