I get songs sent to me now and again, for me to give my thoughts on improving them. (If you’re having a problem with something you’re writing and would like my input, I’ll direct you to this post. It will let you know how to go about that.)
Here’s an interesting fact about the songs I’m asked to listen to: At least 50% of them — probably more — are simply too long for the genre. A typical pop song, as it approaches the 4-minute mark, should be wrapping up. If you’re still in a verse, or even if you’re starting your final chorus repeats, you really need a good reason for being over 4 minutes in length.
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Some songs are actually “finished” by that 3-and-a-half minute mark, and are into their final chorus repeats, and in that case a 5 minute song doesn’t sound overly long (For an example of this, the “long” version” of the Bee Gee’s ballad “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is 5 minutes in length, but the song has entered those final chorus repeats long before, so it works just fine.)
So let’s say that you’ve written a song, and it’s around 5 minutes in length even before the final chorus. How do you edit that so that it comes in at 3-and-a-half or 4 minutes in length without damaging the song’s structure?
Here are some options for making a long song shorter while leaving you with something you’ll love just as much or more:
- Remove a verse. Let’s say your song has 3 verses. You can simply remove that 3rd verse, but that may leave a hole in the narrative of the lyric. So this option may require you to rework verse 2 so that it does a bit of what verse 3 used to do.
- Remove a pre-chorus. If your song structure includes a pre-chorus, take a good look at why the pre-chorus is there in the first place. If it’s to more smoothly attach the verse to the chorus, try reworking the end of your verse to match the start of the chorus a bit better. If, however, your pre-chorus is there because the verse melody is not very adventurous, create a verse melody that’s more inventive, more of a musical journey. That may eliminate the need for a pre-chorus.
- Remove or shorten an instrumental solo or section. Some songs have really great instrumental solos or sections that add much to the song. I don’t like The Who’s single edit of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” only because the instrumental sections add so much to the feel and structure of the song. (Short version — Long version.) Like any edit, you have to decide what to cut, and why you’re cutting it, and then make decisions that work. (Without the short version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, the song would never have made it to radio, I have no doubt.)
- Remove or shorten a bridge. Most of the time, a bridge needs a reason for existing. You might be surprised that your song could work without a bridge, particularly if you had no good reason for including it in the first place. (If you’re not sure why your song might need a bridge, watch this video.)
- Remove final chorus repeats. Or at least remove some of them. While “Hey Jude” is basically done by the 3 minute mark, the final chorus repeats take it to more than 7 minutes. It was a risky move by The Beatles which, in their case, paid off. That kind of endless repeating, however, is, for all intents and purposes, an effect. For most songs, you can do a couple of choruses and then end it, and you’ve got something tighter and more balanced.
Every song needs to be judged on its own merits. And these days, where radio play is no longer the be all-end all of songwriting success, you might consider a song that’s longer. Like a symphony, long songs work, as long as it represents a coherent musical journey that doesn’t just meander around for 6 minutes.
And if you want some good reasons why the 4-minute pop song is still probably a good idea, read my post on that topic here.