How long should your song be?

This is a deceptively simple question. Will some of you will answer “3:30” without hesitation? Do you even have a standard length that you aim for?

Nothing wrong with having a standard length, by the way. Some genres call for it. Hard to have a club hit that’s 2:30 (unless you have an extended version just for DJs). Hard to have a pop hit that’s ten minutes long (unless it’s the extended video version). Chances are your saga about wizards and dragons won’t fit in less than five minutes (fifteen if you’re wearing a cape).

But even within stylistic constraints, you need to pay attention to length. This is because the length needs to be considered together with the quantity of musical material in the song. This is called coherence. Basically, it’s the trade-off between musical material and time.

  • A song has low coherence when it has a lot of musical material squeezed into a short time.
  • A song has high coherence when it has not much musical material stretched over a long time.

You should aim for a balance between the two.

A song with not enough coherence will have too much material and not enough time to develop it. The song will sound fragmented and unfocussed. Listeners will be confused and disoriented.

Conversely, a song with too much coherence will have too much time and not enough material (or development) to use it effectively. The song will sound boring and undeveloped. Listeners will be bored and will probably not wait to listen through to the end of the song.

What’s the right balance? You have to be the judge. You have to use your experience and judgement to decide what the right balance it. Fortunately, finding that balance isn’t difficult – after a lifetime of listening to music you should have a pretty good sense of what level of coherence to aim for. If you haven’t got it right in the past, it’s probably because you simply haven’t been aware of it.

So what if the song you’re working on isn’t quite there yet?

If your song is sounding fragmented or there isn’t a clear musical language, you probably need to increase coherence. You can either increase the length of the song (to let the material develop a bit further) or you can remove some of the musical material (which in turn gives the remaining material more time for development).

If your song is sounding boring or your musical material is dragging on, you probably need to reduce coherence. You can either reduce the length of the song (to make it tighter) or you can add new musical material (which adds more breadth and variety).

-Kim.

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  1. Fantastic advice as usual Kim.

    One suggestion I might add to the first situation: “If your song is sounding fragmented or there isn’t a clear musical language…”

    You also could look at the transition points in the song to see if there is some way to get from section to section in a musically witty and stylish way – doing the unexpected in a song can keep the listener engaged.

    You also might want to check to see that there is some sort of strong unifying element among the sections – be it an instrument that carries through, a kick-drum pattern, rhythmic element, etc.

  2. @Dave Chick

    All good points. Unexpected transitions can help move the song along and keep the listener interested. A strong unifying element (or multiple elements) are also very important – they give the song its character and identity.

    -Kim.

    • Kronsteen
    • March 7th, 2011

    I often used to be puzzled that a song I was working on wasn’t maintaining my interest even though I piled on several extra instruments and variations. The trick often turned out to be to strip down the song – even taking out what I’d thought was a central element.

    What I eventually realised was that if I had 2 or 3 strong elements (a well EQed drumset, a catchy riff, intelligent lyrics), that was more important than having 9 or 10 weak elements or a dozen momentarily interesting features (a clever film sample, a giant booming kick at transitions).

  3. @Kronsteen
    That’s good advice in general – two or three strong elements are better than nine or ten weak elements!

    Do you find that now you’re starting to build tracks with the strong elements, or do you still assemble a lot of good ideas and later strip them back?

    -Kim.

    • Malcolm
    • March 9th, 2011

    This is an excellent blog. Love the greater focus on arrangement vs. production/engineering advice on other blogs.

    Just what I needed – keep it up.

    Cheers.

  4. @Malcolm
    Cheers! I try to incorporate a balance between composition, production, engineering and attitude.

    -Kim.

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