The length of a piece of music widely varies. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, depending on the conductor, runs for roughly 30-35 minutes. His Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy,” can last well over an hour for all four movements. As written, most jazz pieces run from five to ten minutes, but can take significantly longer to perform when you factor in solos and improvisation, crucial elements of a jazz number. At the other end of the spectrum, you’re average punk song takes no more than two or three minutes to play. Apparently, if you can’t convey anarchy and “damn the man” in that time, you’re just not trying.
On the whole, your average song nowadays is roughly four to six minutes in length. There are of course stand-outs, but the fact that we remember them as such is just more proof that our attention span has been tuned to the roughly five minute “sweet spot” of song length. We all know Hey Jude by the Beatles, notably for possibly the longest ending of any song. It clocks in at roughly seven minutes total. when bringing up “notoriously long songs,” many people bring up classics like Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven (roughly eight minutes) or Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd, which lasts nine minutes on the album but could run up to fifteen minutes when played live. But these are the outliers. If you were to open a new tab and look at the Billboard charts for this week (the other top 40 list that is nowhere near as much fun as this one), you would be hard pressed to find anything over six minutes.
But what about a ten minute song? That’s a true aberration to our listening habits. We need bite size bits of music, and we don’t have ten minutes to devote to a song. My friend and I used to call this the “Type O Negative Limit.” We believed that Type O Negative (spoiler alert, they’ll show up a little further down the list) was the only band to successfully pull off songs of that length, comfortably breaking through that double digit minute barrier on a regular basis. Songs like Black No. 1 are over eleven minutes, and it isn’t the only song on that album or in their catalogue that hits that mark. I thought they stood alone in that category, then LCD Soundsystem comes along with an eleven minute version of Yeah and the twelve minute Black Screen on their new album. Like Type O Negative, they still have multiple songs in the seven to ten minute range, as well.
Long songs are tricky, though. Because our typical expectation when listening is for something no more than six minutes, to keep our attention past that requires something a little special. Hey Jude does it with the epic finish, Freebird does it with the epic guitar solo. Type O Negative tends to do it by using an old trick stolen from Beethoven and Mozart. They have “movements” within the same song. Their song Christian Woman really has three unique but musically and thematically linked parts, giving it the ability to feel fresh throughout but using the illusion that you’re listening to three songs instead of one long one. Awolnation does something similar with their thirteen minute epic Knights of Shame. The beat and the theme are consistent the whole time, but it feels like a DJ set rather than a song, and using this trick keeps you interested.
What is more rare is a song more than ten minutes that, through no tricks, doesn’t feel like it’s more than ten minutes long. One of the only ones of these that I’ve noticed is Grey Machine by Pinback. The first time I heard it, I was in the car. It came up on my shuffle playlist just after I started driving, and I had to go halfway across town. I was enjoying listening to it, not paying too close of attention to it, when I realized that I was almost to my destination and was still listening to the same song. It was long, but not noticeably long. It was consistent in style and tone all the way through, but it was never off-putting or boring. I was quite amazed. Years later, I was at a Pinback show, and they played it. Same phenomenon, I didn’t notice how long it was. And it’s good, I mean really good, all the way through. They introduce new elements and drop old elements throughout the course of eleven minutes so that you’re never bored, you’re never uninterested and you’re always engaged on an enjoyable level.
I enjoy longer songs, especially from artists I love. I don’t believe that you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to music, so absolutely, sign me up for a seventy-two minute album with only eight tracks on it. But of course, not everyone can get away with it. The Descendants will never have an eight minute power ballad. I can’t see a nine minute Andre 3000 song. I don’t think there will ever be ten minute Katy Perry song. Maybe a club remix, not a studio track, though. If I’m wrong so be it. I’m just glad that bands like Type O Negative, LCD Soundsystem and Pinback are willing to push that time boundary imposed by our attention deficit rattled minds and give us these epic masterpieces.