Guitar and Notepad - Songwriting schedule

The Long Song, When It Shouldn’t Be

When you’ve got a song that has potential but sounds like it’s got problems, your instincts are to start looking at the separate elements that go together to make that song. You’ll put the magnifying glass on the lyrics, on the chord progressions, the melodies, trying to find out which bit is causing the problem.

Sometimes you’ll do that, yet you still can’t find the reason why it’s not sounding right. When that happens — when you see no problems, but you can still hear problems — you’re almost always looking at a song that’s too long.

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When I work with songwriters on a problem song, it’s very common to find that the song is simply too long. Songs in the popular genres rely on hooks, and hook-based song construction demands shorter song forms; longer than 4 minutes starts to push it.

The thing about a song that’s too long is that it’s a problem you wouldn’t necessarily notice when you’re pulling the song apart trying to find problems.

When a song is too long, it usually doesn’t require a lot of fixing. Sometimes simply shortening one section will do it. The common culprits are:

  1. a song intro that’s too long;
  2. an instrumental solo that goes on… and on… and on;
  3. a verse that’s too long, such that it takes more than 1 minute to get to the chorus.
  4. an instrumental section that ties the chorus back to the verse is too long.

There are other ways that songs can get too long. Perhaps you’ve written too many verses and your audience is losing interest. A chorus that features key changes or complex vocal rhythms — the kinds of things you might typically find in a verse — can make a chorus sound too long.

Scrutinizing your song to identify problems that relate to song length takes patience. It requires you to really hone your abilities to listen objectively. But if you find that everything else seems fine, I’m certain that the solution will involve finding ways to shorten your song.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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  1. I like long songs that don’t require a lot of concentration. Songs that carry you along with minimal effort. “Trapeze Swinger” by Sam Beam (Iron & Wine) and “One Sunday Morning” by Wilco are to me, examples of extra long songs that are still very listenable. With “One Sunday Morning” it’s definitely the unique instrumental hook repeated in many slightly different ways. With “Trapeze Swinger”, it seems to be the one line … “Please remember me” that is repeated and ties things together. These songs are both about 10 minutes, but I wouldn’t want to shorten them.

    • Hi Judson – I’m with you in that I do like long songs that work well. I hope I wasn’t conveying that all long songs are bad. It’s more a case where when a song sounds like it has problems, particularly in the aspect of musical energy that it conveys, it’s more often the case that the song is simply “too long for itself”, if you know what I mean.

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