Why Sticking to the 3-4 Minute Song Length Still Makes Sense

There’s an interesting history behind why pop songs tend to be 3-to-4 minutes in length, and it has to do with the nature of the medium: typically, a 10-inch record spinning 78 times per minute, as you would have had when rock & roll was in its infancy.

That usually meant that it was not possible to have a song much longer than 4 minutes or so. Longer than that, the grooves of the record were too close together, compromising sound quality. And back in the day, a 2-and-a-half minute song was typical.

Hooks and RiffsHooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” explains why hooks can be a vital part of a song’s success. It shows you how to write them, and even more importantly, how to layer hooks for maximum effect. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.

These days, of course, there’s no such limitation. A song can be as long as it needs to be. But I would maintain that for the typical pop song — or songs in any of the related pop genres of country, rock, and maybe even jazz — it’s still best to stick to the 3-4 minute song.

Developing Musical Ideas

If you think of musical genres that produce longer works — like an 18th-19th century symphony, let’s say, which could be anywhere up to an hour long or more — those are pieces that engage with the audience by developing musical ideas in a way that pop music usually doesn’t.

Developing a musical idea means presenting an idea — a melody, a rhythm, a harmony, even a key — and then changing that idea over time in such a way that the listener hears that modification happening. They hear different themes being presented, and then they hear the composer contrasting and mixing those ideas in interesting and thought-provoking ways. That’s what you hear when you listen to any symphony by any of the Classical masters. And that kind of development takes time.

Pop music doesn’t usually engage in the developing of musical ideas, at least not so much. They’re more about a catchy hook than they are about developing ideas over time.

A hook, being short, catchy and memorable, is what short music needs. Because pop songs started off their life decades ago with the need to be short, it meant that the hook was the only good way to be sure you were providing something interesting for the audience.

You’ll notice that progressive rock masterpieces in the late 60s and into the 70s were much longer than typical pop songs. But that’s because prog rock was the one sub-genre of pop that did present musical ideas that were developed and modified over time. So like a Classical symphony, they could keep listeners engaged by how the music developed, not by catchy hooks.

Why You Should Keep It Short

If you’re using the standard pop format of verse-chorus, with any of the other optional sections such as pre-chorus and bridge, you’d do well to limit your song to 4 minutes or less. Longer than that? It’s hard for a song that’s hook-based to maintain interest. It becomes too repetitive or too rambling.

A hook is a little jewel that waves a flag and gets immediate attention. Long after most of a song has faded from someone’s memory, they can usually still hum the hook. You’ll notice this when people sing out the iconic guitar hook of “Smoke On the Water”… they often can’t sing much of the rest of the song, but they love that hook.

Don’t consider a short 3-4 minute song some kind of musical failure, where you’d otherwise love to be able to sing 6 verses and choruses, and have your song approach 10 minutes. It’s usually not necessary, and you’ll lose listeners.

Consider it a musical challenge: How do you present a coherent musical journey for your audience, one that sounds interesting and musically fulfilling, but limits itself to 4 minutes? It’s often not easy, but you’ll reap stronger benefits from doing a short song well, than struggling to keep audiences listening for 6 minutes or more.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.


“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages explore 11 principles of songwriting, and will take your own music to a new level of excellence. Right now, download a FREE COPY of “Creative Chord Progressions”, when you get the 10-ebook Bundle.Creative Chord Progressions

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  1. Pingback: 5 Options for Shortening a Song That’s Too Long - The Hit Songwriting Formula | The Hit Songwriting Formula

  2. Pingback: 5 Options for Shortening a Song That’s Too Long | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting

  3. Excellent summary as ever, Gary. I love that factoid about how pop song lengths are burnt into our consciousness due to the physical limitations of the “side”. One wonders if 78s being 1:30 in length could have led to the invention of punk music decades earlier!

    I know you were speaking musically above but I think it’s also fair to say the sorts of short stories good songwriters write are also suited/shoehorned to the length restriction. So many incredible stories have been shared in two verses and a chorus (or twelve verses in the case of Dylan). Prog rock had its stories too, with obvious examples like Thick As A Brick or The Wall, but just like you said above those stories had ample time to develop and morph. Pop lyrics don’t get that luxury, to the detriment of some of the uninspiring stuff we hear. But others are encapsulating the breadth of a life or a love or a loss in this most restricting of lyrical templates. Just a thought.

    • Thanks for sharing these very interesting thoughts, Stephen. Regarding lyrics, it’s why I didn’t have the same difficulty that others had accepting the fact that Dylan won the Nobel. I believe that the building of a powerful but compact lyric- one that truly says something inspiring – is a talent we should all appreciate.

      Thanks again, Stephen.

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