I discuss the unintended consequences of the 3 minute song in a Youtube video (transcript below). Click play above to watch.
“If you go back to the earliest history of music, you realize that music wasn’t always about entertainment. It wasn’t always about diversion. But it was often built into rituals, and the purpose of those rituals was often to enter an altered state of mind, a sort of trance.
“Our knowledge of this subject expanded considerably from the early 1960s. A researcher named Andrew Neher discovered that if you listen to music long enough, your brain waves begin to match the rhythms of the music.
“It was exciting, but really Neher was just providing specific, scientific information that had been around for a long time. If you go back to ancient times, Ptolemy recognized that a visual rhythm could create an altered state of mind. Ptolemy was using a rotating wheel with spokes, and behind it was a source of light.He found that when people stared at the rotating wheel – which created a flicker of light at a steady rate – they eventually experienced a state of euphoria.
“So the ancients knew this long before neuroscience confirmed it. In fact, this has been seen in the animal kingdom as well. People have noticed that chimpanzees travel many miles to get to a waterfall, where they would simply sit and watch the reflective rhythms of light moving across the water.
“It’s ingrained in our brains, seeking trance and altered states of mind out of the musical rhythm. But here’s the catch: you can’t do this in just three minutes.
“I’ve studied the use of music in rituals all over the world – shamans in Siberia, or Native American music, or what you see in Australia. And in almost all cases, the musical ritual involving rhythm must last at least ten minutes before obtaining the benefit of the trance.
“The same goes for the physiology of the body. Dr. Barry Bittman made a study a few years ago of people playing drums in a drum circle. He discovered that playing the drums improves health. This changes your blood cell count. It releases antibodies into your bloodstream. But again, Barry Bittman discovered that you need to play the drums for ten minutes to get the physiological benefits of rhythm.
“So that’s the conflict we’ve had for centuries between using music as a source of trance and music as a source of entertainment. And even governments are stepping in to regulate this. There is a famous example in the year 186 AD when the Roman Senate made bacchanalia illegal. The bacchanal was a ritual in which people used music and rhythm to enter altered states. And often they would do crazy things in these altered states, even violent things. So the government felt it had to regulate it.
“There are therefore good reasons to control the duration of a musical performance. But it should be noted that the reason we have 3 minute pop songs has nothing to do with government regulations. It has nothing to do with physiology. It comes from the early history of recordings in which discs could only hold about 3 minutes of music. At that point, you lost storage space or “disk space” as we would call it these days.
“We have now lived for a century with a musical culture that emphasizes 3-minute performances. But the sad thing about it is that it negates the ability to create altered states of mind and a feeling of ecstasy and euphoria from the music.
“I think that’s why you see very creative musicians fighting against the constraints of the three-minute song. If you study, for example, the history of John Coltrane, you see that as he progressed in his career, he wanted his songs to be longer and longer. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that almost all of them, at some point, went over ten minutes.
“There was also a time with the flowering of rock music in the late 1960s, when rock bands were pushing for longer and longer performances. I read an interview with George Harrison, talking about the song” Hey Jude” – the longest Beatles song ever released on record. He said it became a hit single because it had a hypnotic effect.
“We are now well past the stage where we have to worry about disk storage. We no longer have to worry about keeping our songs to three minutes. Is it time for us to explore the benefits of longer song forms, not just to get better songs, but to harness music’s ability to lock itself into our brains and change our perceptions of reality?
“I would say we have to do it. Music should be more than just entertainment. We should use our songs to reach that higher level, rather than constraining our lives and our perceptions.
Post Scriptum : As mentioned at the start of the video, my YouTube chats are not scripted or edited. So let me add a few more points that I probably should have mentioned in the video.
First, listeners are clearly looking for longer songs than the short melodies favored by commercial radio or most curated playlists. This explains why fans will play their favorite song over and over again – they’re just trying to enter a near-trance state, and a hit single that ends after three minutes prevents them from doing so. That’s why they have to listen to the same song several times in a row.
This also explains why bands play songs longer in live concerts. In these intense settings, the performers directly experience the hypnotic impact of the music on the audience (and on themselves). They instinctively feel that the song should continue, even after it has reached the end of its prescribed duration.
DJs grasp the same imperative. Just consider how focused they are on moving seamlessly from track to track while releasing recordings for dancers. They understand that stopping the music every three minutes would disrupt the spellbinding effect of their show. At a very early stage in the development of DJing, they adopted two turntable configurations for this reason.
I should have also discussed how profit maximizing motives keep us locked into short songs. On streaming platforms, payment systems reward albums with shorter songs. I suspect radio stations find it easier to schedule commercials if the songs are shorter. I feel like there are many other non-musical considerations that reinforce the music industry’s clear bias against long commercial tracks. I’d like to see an economist quantify the financial impact of a song’s length for each player in the value chain (songwriters, publishers, record labels, streaming platforms, etc.).
Finally, let me share the story of an overseas concert I once gave, when my band came to the end of the song, but we kept playing for several more minutes. , almost as if a powerful outside source demanded it. All I can say is that it was right to keep playing, and every member of the band intuitively understood that. I suspect every jazz or rock band does it from time to time, almost without thinking about it. But in this case, I asked the drummer after the gig, “Why didn’t we stop the song where we were supposed to.” He wisely replied, “Stopping the song there would have been like trying to stop a freight train.”
In other words, musicians instinctively feel that disrupting the path to euphoria and trance is just plain wrong. And you can’t do it in just three minutes. Maybe it’s time the recording industry started taking advantage of this simple fact.
Ted Gioia is a leading music writer and author of eleven books, including jazz history and Music: a subversive history. This article originally appeared on his Substack column and newsletter The Honest Broker.