In the world of music composition, songs in the popular genres (pop, rock, country, folk, and most of their subgenres) tend to be short, at around 4 minutes or so as a norm. Yes, some subgenres such as progressive rock will feature songs that are much longer, but brevity is a feature of most pop songs.
I call the short duration of songs a feature because — like the melody, choice of chords, and the rhythmic feel of the music — duration is an important characteristic of a song’s design.
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There is psychology involved when we think about a song’s length. When songs are fast, we want each section of the song to be shorter. When songs are slower, it feels right and natural to have the song sections last a little longer.
This means that for a typical uptempo song (120 bpm or faster), you’ll likely want to get to the chorus before the 1-minute mark, and often by the 45-second mark. Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”, at a tempo of 157 bpm, gets to the chorus 30 seconds in, and that seems about right.
Longer sections work better in slower songs. Adele’s “Someone Like You”, which uses a slow tempo of approximately 68 bpm, doesn’t get to the chorus until 1’14”. But it feels right. Getting to the chorus sooner would feel rushed.
So much of this is part of the feel of the song, and so for that reason there is no rule. But I mention it because you can have a song that’s got a good verse and a really great chorus hook, but it’s not making the connection to audiences that you wish it did. It could be that you’re simply spending too long in one of the sections.
The Length of a Good Chorus
You’ll notice that for many songs, the chorus is shorter than the verse. This is also an important feature. Most good choruses are built around a catchy hook, and long choruses will have a negative effect on the impact of that hook.
The verse of “Happy” is 30 seconds in length, and the chorus is slightly shorter (25 seconds), and you’ll notice that a slightly shorter chorus is common in most songs.
If you find that your song sounds like it’s wandering about and sounding a bit boring, check the chorus first. If it’s at all longer than the verse before it, it may be the culprit. Keep your chorus short and concise. “Uptown Funk” uses a verse that’s about 50 seconds long, followed by a chorus that’s half that, about 25 seconds in length.
Why Shorter is Better
Shorter songs (i.e., songs that come in at 3 to 3-and-a-half minutes in length) feel right because most songs will offer two (or a maximum of three) musical ideas: a verse melody, a chorus melody, and an optional bridge melody.
Each of those melodies will differ, and by the time you’ve given them to the audience twice, psychology makes us feel done with them; it’s time to move on.
If you find that your songs are sounding lifeless and you suspect that the length of the song is the reason, you’ll probably find that the majority of the time (90% or more) one or more of the song’s sections is too long.
I’ll say what I’ve said before many times on this blog: the best editing you’ll ever do in a song is to make things shorter, not longer.
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