You’ve got a great verse and a great chorus.. but the song’s not long enough? Here are some ideas to gain a little mileage.
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The average length of most hit songs these days is between 3’30” and 4’00”. During the week of March 21, 2012, the top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 averaged out to a length of 3’46”. The length of a hit pop song hasn’t really changed all that much in the past few decades. The average length of top hits from the 1970s is 3’30”. That’s not counting “American Pie”, which is 8’33” in its full version. But back when it was a hit, radio stations would rarely play the song in its entirety, opting instead for the cut-down 4’11” single version.
Regarding how long a song should be, there’s a kind of “sweet spot” that producers aim for. In a sense, it’s a reflection of the perceived attention span of the target audience. When songs are too short, they come across as not having enough substance. When they’re too long, there’s a fear that boredom will set in.
The perceived length of a song by listeners is also a cultural thing, and it’s an area of concern to book publishers as well. It’s interesting to note that when famous English writer James Herriot first had his books published, they were successful in England, but they flopped in the U.S. market. It’s because his first series of animal books, “If Only They Could Talk”, were perceived by American readers as “too short.” The publishers combined the first two books of that series into one large book, the notable “All Creatures Great and Small”, and they were an instant hit.
Like books, the length of a song is important to get right. Audiences may tolerate, even love, extended versions of songs performed by their favourite groups in a live setting, but listening on the computer, or on the radio, is rather different.
So what do you do when you’ve got what feels like a great song, but it’s just not long enough? What if, in its final version, your song is coming in at 2’45” or 3’00”? What kinds of things can you do to extend the length of a song to get closer to that preferred current ideal of 3:46″? Here are some ideas:
- Add a bridge. Most of the time, a bridge will be 8 bars, and can gain you an average of an extra 20 to 30 seconds of music.
- Repeat the song intro before the final choruses. This can happen in many ways. Either insert the song intro between final repeats of a chorus, or stick it in directly after a bridge or solo section (like Van Halen’s “Jump“)
- Add an instrumental solo. An instrumental solo placed almost anywhere in a song will work. It’s typical to use one as a bridge section after the second chorus, but you can also try a solo between the first chorus and second verse, or as an extended song intro (“Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses would be a good example: a solo to begin, with solos added throughout.)
- Insert a pause. Sometimes, all you need is a short moment that allows the audience to collect their breath before launching back into the song. Short pauses don’t really add much time to a song, but they make a song seem longer, and may be all you need. (Example: John Mayer’s “My Stupid Mouth“)
- Insert a key change. This works especially in the final repeats of the chorus, or for a 3rd verse. Be careful, though. Simply bumping the key up a semitone can sound trite. You may need to be more creative. For examples, try “Invisible Touch” by Genesis, or The Beatles’ “Penny Lane“. This kind of key change near the end makes one more repeat of the chorus sound fresh.
- Try an a cappella or quiet version of a chorus. Like a key change, it allows you to do more repeats of your final chorus without it sounding like a cheap way of extending the length of the song. A good example is Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me“, or Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know-It-All“.
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