Pop Songwriting: Perfecting the Miniature Musical Form

Songs are short. Most of them, anyway. And by short, I mean usually less than four minutes.

That may seem like an insignificant detail that’s hardly worth mentioning, but the shortness of songs is a kind of musical challenge: in a very short period of time, you need to offer the audience a complete musical journey.

That can be difficult to do.

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You could argue that writing something long, like a movement from a symphony, or a long progressive rock work, is hard as well. Writing long songs has its own challenges, of course, but I would argue that coming up with a song that sounds satisfyingly complete in four minutes or less is every bit as challenging.

If your song is 3-and-a-half minutes in length, you need to be able to do the following:

  1. Start your song with a musical idea that’s captivating enough that a listener won’t click away to something else.
  2. Write a verse melody that is interesting enough to keep the audience, but not upstage the chorus.
  3. Write a chorus melody that is hooky and contains some sort of musically climactic moment.
  4. Write a lyric that is relatively short but also connects with an audience.
  5. Pull everything together so that listeners feel that they’ve been taken on a complete musical journey.

No one is telling a symphonic composer how long their symphony needs to be. If they get the job done in twenty minutes, that’s great. If they need thirty, forty or more minutes, that’s fine as well.

But in pop songwriting, it’s different. The longer the song, the more you risk losing listeners. It’s why pop songs in the 50s were so very short. If it reached three minutes, that was long, and you needed to have a pretty good reason for that length.

Songs got longer from the 60s to the 2000s, but not a lot longer. Interestingly, songs have been becoming shorter in the world of digital music offered mainly on streaming services. Shorter songs usually means more tracks, and more streaming revenue. From an article on the Quartz website:

Listeners will more likely listen through an entire album because short songs mean that the next new track is never too long away, which works even if the album as a whole is long in length. (Cycling through a whole record ups streaming revenue too.)

If you’re hoping to keep an audience from clicking away from your songs, each one needs to be doing these things:

  1. Sound interesting in the first very few seconds.
  2. Get to the point right away.
  3. Offer a verse melody and lyric that connects (i.e., is relevant) to the average listener.
  4. Offer a chorus long before the 1-minute mark.
  5. Start the chorus with a great, catchy hook.

There’s another aspect of all this that’s a bit harder to define, and it’s this: Write a song in such a way that it sounds like something even better is about to happen, and then… make that happen. But do it quickly.

In pop music, the miniature musical form means that you’re acquiescing to a typical audience’s need for instant online gratification. You either accept that or you don’t. In pop songwriting, if you want to be up there with the likes of Kanye West, Ed Sheeran, and other masters of streaming, there’s something formulaic (one might say unpleasantly formulaic) about that world.

And just to put it out there, you don’t need to play that game. There are still great songwriters writing excellent songs that are a little longer, a little deeper, and require the listener to really listen.

For me, that’s where I still am; I love the longer form song, and I love listening to good singer-songwriters who insist that I, the listener, invest a little time in listening.

But even if you’re still writing songs that are a good four minutes in length, you are still within the realm of the miniature musical form. Use your four minutes wisely.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes“Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.

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  2. When I read “miniature” I thought you were to write about really short songs like Neil Young’s “What happened yesterday” and “Fallen angel” on “Mirrorball” or the 6 tiny pieces by Tori Amos found on “American Doll Posse”. For me they work great in an album context. Too bad they will not work as single. I wish I knew if any of these songs I mentioned have been performed live on stage.

    Do you think such miniatures are worth writing on their own? or are they just a nice way to salvage an idea that you cannot make into a ful song for some reason?

    • Hi Martin:

      Yes, I think writing these very short pieces can be wonderful. In this post I was simply dealing with the fact that 3-4 minutes, in the larger music world, is a short piece of music, and then the challenges that entails. But clearly there are songwriters who relish that notion of creating something great out of something even smaller. That might be worth a blog post… how to get something really short — less than a minute, say — to work well.

      Related to that, I always liked the start of Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” The way his voice lands on the 7th of the chord on the lyric “She’s *not*”. I always felt that adding the rest, where it goes into the “Happiness is a warm gun” bit, diminished that stunning opening. I wish Lennon had simply written a very short 1-minute-or-less song that highlights that powerful line “She’s not a girl who misses much.”


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