In a recent article, Mashable took a look at why all pop songs clock in around the three-minute mark. Author Yahana Desta points out the top three songs currently on the Billboard 200—Taylor Swift's “Shake It Off” (3:39 minutes), Meghan Trainor's “All About that Bass” (3:08 minutes) and Maroon 5's “Animal” (3:49 minutes).
First, there’s a historical reason behind why most hit songs are just three minutes long. In the early 1900s, music was mostly released on 10-inch records, which played at a speed of 78 rpm and could only hold three to five minutes of audio per side.
“If it went longer than that, the grooves became too close together… The sound quality went down,” Thomas Tierney, director of the Sony Music Archives Library, told Mashable.
So artists in the early 20th century were constrained by the limitations of technology. They had to create quick songs if they wanted to be played on the radio. “In those days, if you recorded a song that was longer than three minutes and 15 seconds, they just wouldn’t play it,” added Tierney.
While a “hit song” is valuable today; 50 years ago, it was the only option for artists. Mashable writes, “A short single could be played on the radio and become a hit song, wholly unlike the DIY aesthetic that allows modern artists to get famous via social media, blogs or music sites like Bandcampor Soundcloud.”
The article points out the 1964 hit, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin',” by the Righteous Brothers. The track—3:45 minutes long—was falsely stamped at 3:05 minutes to get DJs to play it.
So why are hit songs still three minutes long?
“Well, with the onslaught of good music comes the erosion of the public's attention span. Unlike the heyday of Zeppelin, fans won't just buy the album — they wait for the single, judge, then move on to the next. Today's top chart is a little more cutthroat, because some music fans won't listen beyond what they hear on the radio.”
A good example is Taylor Swift, the biggest hit maker in the world. Her new album, 1989, only has two tracks that break the four-minute mark.
Over time, we’ve been conditioned to like short radio hits, and it’s a deep-rooted habit of the music industry that’s not likely to change. Besides, we don’t really have the attention span for much more, anyway. “Young people will always be pop music’s biggest consumers,” Tierney said. “[They] are always going to want their songs to be three minutes, and on to the next one.”