How long, how long must we sing this song?


In my academic research I’ve been investigating the ‘constraints of song’ – that is, what defines a song, and what creative decisions are likely to make it more (or less) successful. The simplest of these is track duration, not least because it’s easily measurable.

I couldn’t find any statistical study of track length over time, so did a quick analysis myself, finding the top 10 best-selling singles of each decade 1960s-2000s (from everyhit.com) and comparing them to the track runtime from the relevant iTunes download. The full spreadsheet of my data can be found here (rough paste below).

Findings:

  • The mean average length of track rose from 2:43 in the 1960s to 4:03 in the 1970s but then (from the 1970s) fluctuated by no more than 0:18 per decade, maintaining an average length of around 4:00 over 40 years.
  • The median song length, from the 1970s, is even more conservative, with only 0:12 change (3:47 to 3:59) between the 1970s and 2000s.

Conclusions

  • Best-selling hit songs were shorter in duration during the 1960s (although this may have been dramatically affected by some very short early Beatles’ singles, five of these appearing in the decade’s top 10, all with a duration of less than 2:30).
  • The mean average duration of best-selling hit songs has not varied significantly by decade since the 1970s.
Length Mean Median St.Dev
1960s The Beatles She Loves You 02:22
The Beatles I Want To Hold Your Hand 02:26
Ken Dodd Tears 02:52
The Beatles Can’t Buy Me Love 02:13
The Beatles I Feel Fine 02:20
Seekers The Carnival Is Over 03:09
The Beatles Day Tripper / We Can Work It Out 02:16
Englebert Humperdinck Release Me 03:18
Elvis Presley It’s Now Or Never 03:14
Tom Jones Green Green Grass Of Home 03:04
02:43 02:39 00:26
1970s Wings Mull Of Kintyre 04:44
Boney M Rivers Of Babylon / Brown Girl In The Ring 04:00
John Travolta & Olivia Newton John You’re The One That I Want 02:49
Boney M Mary’s Boy Child – Oh My Lord 04:31
John Travolta & Olivia Newton John Summer Nights 03:36
Village People Y.M.C.A 03:22
Queen Bohemian Rhapsody 05:55
Blondie Heart Of Glass 04:35
David Soul Don’t Give Up On 03:38
Slade Merry Xmas Everybody 03:26
04:03 03:49 00:53
1980s Band Aid Do They Know It’s Christmas 03:41
Frankie Goes To Hollywood Relax 03:53
Stevie Wonder I Just Called To Say I Love You 04:21
Fankie Goes To Hollywood Two Tribes 03:28
Human League Don’t You Want Me 03:56
Wham! Last Christmas 04:26
Culture Club Karma Chameleon 04:02
George Michael Careless Whisper 05:02
Jennifer Rush The Power Of Love 04:27
Dexy’s Midnight Runners Come On Eileen 03:24
04:04 03:59 00:30
1990s Elton John Candle in the Wind 1997 04:10
Robson & Jerome Unchained Melody 03:19
Wet Wet Wet Love Is All Around 03:57
Aqua Barbie Girl 03:15
Cher Believe 04:01
Bryan Adams (Everything I Do) I Do It For You 06:33
Various Artists Perfect Day 03:45
Britney Spears Baby One More Time 03:30
Puff Daddy & Faith Evans I’ll Be Missing You 04:24
Whitney Houston I Will Always Love You 04:23
04:07 03:59 00:56
2000s Will Young Evergreen / Anything Is Possible 04:11
Gareth Gates Unchained Melody 03:54
Tony Christie featuring Peter Kay (Is This The Way To) Amirillo 03:12
Shaggy featuring Ricardo ‘Rikrok’ Ducent It Wasn’t Me 03:47
Alexandra Burke Hallelujah 03:36
Band Aid 20 Do They Know It’s Christmas? 05:06
Kyle Minogue Can’t Get You Out Of My Head 03:52
Hear’Say Pure And Simple 03:48
Shayne Ward That’s My Goal 03:38
Bob The Builder Can We Fix It? 03:09
03:49 03:47 00:32

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