Study: Weaker attention spans to blame for pop music hits being shorter in length

COLUMBUS, Ohio — While many meteorologists point to climate change reducing the chances of cold November rains in recent years, other scientists are working to figure out why the music world is less likely to hear power ballads like Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain” on the radio these days.

A new study finds that short attention spans may be to blame for songs not being as long as they were years ago, with long-winded introductions specifically being chopped down, if not entirely a thing of the past.

Vintage cassette tape collection
Miss those complex, long rock ballads from the ’80s? A new study finds shorter attention spans play a role in pop hits also being shorter in length.

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.

“The really striking thing was the disappearance of the intro,” says lead researcher Lead researcher Hubert Léveillé Gauvin in a university news release. “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.”

With many music listeners eschewing purchasing songs in favor of streaming on services like Spotify and Pandora, artists have begun to seek revenue streams outside of their recorded material— e.g. concert tickets and merchandise sales.

“Your product isn’t necessarily your song, it’s your personal brand,” Léveillé Gauvin argues.

With this being said, not all hits follow the newfound pop formula. Gotye’s 2012 song “Somebody That I Used to Know,” for example, not only has a long song title, but has a long instrumental introduction.

It’s also an example of a song that refrains from providing an immediate hook— its chorus doesn’t start until nearly two minutes in.

“If you look back historically, technological changes have likely shaped the way people compose and listen to music for a long time,” says Léveillé Gauvin, adding that when songs were longer, people were didn’t have the ability to breeze through songs or skip them entirely like they can now on a compact disc or digital music player.

The study’s findings were published in the journal Musicae Scientiae.


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