Music Monday: Shorter Attention Spans Affect Length of Popular Songs

Once again, I’m just the messenger, interpreting what I read. So feel free to take the following study with a grain of salt.

Researchers at Ohio State University looked into the song structure of 303 top 10 hits, both modern and dating back to the 80s, hoping to discover how pop music has changed in recent years.

One immediate finding was that song intros have shortened in length; what were once 20 second lead-ins have shrunk to about five seconds in length.

Lead researcher Hubert Léveillé Gauvin noted that “there was a 78 percent drop. That’s insane, but it makes sense. The voice is one of the most attention-grabbing things there is in music.”

Tempo has also increased by about eight percent, while song names have often been reduced to a short word or phrase.

Léveillé Gauvin attributes these shifts to what he calls the “attention economy” of modern-day pop.

“It’s survival-of-the-fittest: Songs that manage to grab and sustain listeners’ attention get played and others get skipped. There’s always another song,” he says. “If people can skip so easily and at no cost, you have to do something to grab their attention.”

So out with the long intros, and get to the “hook” as soon as possible.

I am more familiar with music from the 70s, and I seem to recall several songs that had some long instrumental beginnings, and to me such songs built up the excitement.

But I really don’t know a lot of the newer music, so I’ll have to take the researchers word that such intros are a thing of the past. If people do prefer to hear a voice as soon as possible, then today’s technology certainly makes it easy to keep skipping songs until the listener finds the one they want – one with a shorter intro.

If it’s true, then that seems a shame, since I think a song is not just the voice, but the instruments as well…

I’ll leave it up to others to mention a few classic songs with long intros, and whether or not they think such intros have faded away in recent years…


64 thoughts on “Music Monday: Shorter Attention Spans Affect Length of Popular Songs

  1. I can’t name songs offhand, but I know Brad doesn’t like when they make intro’s shorter on the radio or a remix on a CD. But we are a society of quick, quick, quick, we get impatient waiting a minute for the microwave, so this study doesn’t surprise me.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. You mean waiting for the smoking marshmallow to cool off, before biting into it? Come to think of it, I do have some vague memories of marshmallow lava destroying the insides of my mouth.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Given that I burned the inside of my mouth with a smoldering marshmallow, I’d probably fail this marshmallow test, also. This explains why I was such a dunce, in school.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. That’s kind of what I was thinking when I watched that little girl in the video pop the marshmallow into her mouth. I think that’s what any normal 4-year-old would be expected to do.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was a deejay, we called the intro a ramp. I always liked long ramps, because there was less danger I’d “step” on the singer while introducing the tune. It’s embarrassing when that happens. That said, I can’t remember anymore, the tunes with the long ramps. It’s been about 35 years since the last time I rode gain on records.

    Liked by 5 people

      1. “Riding gain” means keeping the audio adjusted so the needle of the audio gauge stays out of the red.

        Now that you know all these terms, it’s time to apply for a job at your local radio station, where you can blather on for hours and hours.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s what I did. I hate talking incessantly. You have to love to talk, and never be able to run out of witty things to say, to be a successful deejay. I hate to talk, and I’m a slow wit. Why I chose that as my initial career field, I don’t know.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. everything is so rushed, with such quick changeups, and yes, it something doesn’t grab us right away, we, the fickle audience often quickly move on. short attention spans rule the day, a sad loss for letting something roll out slowly and growing on us. i’m still a fan of the longer intros.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I would agree that intros have shortened tremendously in recent years. In fact some pop songs hit you with the “hook” of the chorus melody as part of the short intro. Throw in the standard three to three and a half minute song length and you arrive at the definition of “pop” music. Much of this is driven by the need for air play, especially in a time where touring to support an album’s sales is much harder. The only examples I can think of for a long intro would be songs from the ’70s and ’80s. Say, “The Alan Parson’s Project” song “Eye in the Sky” with an intro over two minutes. But the song was worth the wait. Great post, Jim!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. wasn’t sure if I knew Eye in the Sky, but as soon as I heard that intro, it came back to me. great example. I also found a version on YouTube that does not include the intro; that’s too bad…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t listen to current pop music but if the research is right this seems a shame to me. I’d put it down to modern consumerism, where everything is wanted now, and patience is relegated to history. Two examples of songs with long intros which just wouldn’t be the same without them: Wish You Were Here, by Pink Floyd, and Led Zep’s Stairway To Heaven. I’d take those, and countless others from those days, over the current pop rubbish any day. I’ve just played Albatross, and I’m still waiting for the lyrics to kick in…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. two great songs; we need more music like that, but if the research is correct, it seems people don’t have the patience to listen to music like that today…

      The article that I read mentioned Gotye’s 2012 song “Somebody That I Used to Know,” as a counter example, since it not only has a long song title, but has a long instrumental introduction. And that’s how I discovered WOTE…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s really sad, think how much they’re missing out on. I timed the two I mentioned: Led Zep was 52 seconds, Floyd 1 min 25 seconds if you discount the static noise and muffled speech at the beginning. I’ve just tried the Gotye one: 20 seconds, so even their example is much shorter than the oldies! And that’s how I discovered WOTE too…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples too, but also others to show that short – or non-existent – intros have been around a while. The Beatles often went straight into their songs, for one. The research was easy – just play the song in Apple Music, bring up its screen and the timer is there for you. 😉

        20 seconds oughtn’t to be too long – the Gotye song just wouldn’t be the same without it.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This seems very true!! Also the voice overs between songs of singers talking… Off the top of my mind I can only think of Boys ll Men lol.. Also, notice that shows have totally gone away with the long song intro.. Compare friends in the 90s with Grey’s in the 2000s… Even Grey’s itself started with a longer song intro but then cut that away with just a 2 sec clip of the intro… Very interesting indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Your post reminds me of a detail on that Sylvester Stallone/Sandra Bollock movie, “Demolition Man”. When they turn the radio on, it’s all old product jingles – no songs! I think we’re well on our way to that reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m very interested in knowing if shorter attention spans are a scientifically proven thing, and if they’re affecting every other form of art. Very interesting find. Thanks for sharing, Jim!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Jim, I went back to the source article and I was unconvinced. While the data may be changing, the cause is assumed instead of proven. A long intro doesn’t necessarily add to a song, it just makes it longer. I’ve had plenty of writing instructors tell me to stop beating around the bush at the start of an essay and launch into the main story. The shortened intros may be an effort to produce better more concise music with fewer stereotypical flourishes. When I play a Madonna song for one of my kids, 3 minutes in, they start complaining about the repetitiveness of the song. Short might just equal better. With all that said, I can think of quite a few live music jams I like far better than the heavily edited studio cut. Am I making a point here at all?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lots of good points, Jeff. I agree that there is no proof that shorter music intros have anything to do with attention spans, or if indeed attention spans are getting shorter. And as you point out, just because a song is long does not make it good. Lots of flaws, but that’s what makes it fun to write about 🙂


  10. Other my wife’s frequent sharing of country music, I am pretty much out of touch with much of today’s music. Based on this study, I shouldn’t expect any modern songs to come along and displace Don MacLean singing “American Pie.”

    Liked by 1 person

  11. People will always have time to listen to good music. The better the song, the longer I wish it was. A formula makes it easier for those without talent to decide what to play. One longer recent popular song is Gangnam Style.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess we all want a good thing to last as long as possible. And you wonder how much the popularity of a song these days is driven by how good the video is that goes with it…


  12. I have a different take than most people about music. Many people identify with the music that they grew up with. I have been around long enough to hear many say that some decade had the best music, but since music tastes are so diverse, that doesn’t mean anyone’s opinion is more valid than someone else’s. For example, much of old country-western music never appealed to me, but it was a staple for others. Does that make me right? Of course not.

    As much as many people like to take shots at the music of today, I always find music that I like in any era, including current songs. Knowing that people like different styles and eras of music is no different than other forms of art. It might be fun to debate, but how can you quantify something that is opinion-based?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like the opening to Dust in the Wind, and while it is only 20 seconds long, it’s wonderful to listen to.

      I also like the closing to Take a Walk on the Wild Side; the sax ending is about 30 seconds long…

      Liked by 1 person

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