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Pop Hits Are Picking Up the Tempo

A new analysis of top-10 hits finds instrumental introductions have dramatically diminished over the past three decades.
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(Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

As we are bombarded with more and more electronically delivered information, our attention spans continue to shrink. One recent study concluded that they are now shorter than that of the average goldfish.

This dynamic is reflected in our changing listening habits. Online streaming services offer countless choices, so there’s no reason to stick with a song that doesn’t grab you right off the bat. And many people don’t: Research from 2014 found Spotify subscribers skip about one-third of sampled songs after a mere 20 seconds.

But perhaps more interesting is the notion that this new reality is changing the way music is written and recorded. A just-published study provides tentative evidence of just such an effect.

Hubert Leveille Gauvin of Ohio State University analyzed 303 top-10 singles (on the American charts) from 1986 to 2015. He found they are, over time, getting faster; have shorter titles; and spend far less time on instrumental introductions before the singer starts wailing.

“It’s survival of the fittest: Songs that manage to grab and sustain listeners’ attention get played, and others get skipped,” he said in announcing the study. “If people can skip easily and at no cost, you have to do something to get their attention.”

Levaille Gauvin analyzed five elements of the songs, and found a clear pattern for four of them. “The number of words in song titles has decreased,” he writes. “The average tempo has increased. The time elapsed before the initial entry of the voice has shortened, and similarly, the time before the title of a song is heard has also shortened.”

These trends are consistent with the notion that musicians and producers are striving to capture people’s attention before they lose interest — which, today, can be measured in seconds. Levaille Gauvin argues that attention can be seen as “the preeminent currency” online; artists are paid very little when a song streams, so they need to maximize recordings’ marketing and branding potential. Often, that means making a quick and lasting impression.

So are slowly building ballads a thing of the past? Not necessarily. In a second study, Levaille Gauvin compared the components of top-10 hits with less-popular songs by the same artists (120 songs in total). He did not find any relationship between popularity and the previously noted components, which suggests artists are better-off being guided by their gut rather than following a formula.

Still, the trend over time is clear: Consciously or not, creators are shaping songs with the goal of grabbing listeners almost instantly. Levaille Gauvin contends this is “not necessarily a negative thing;” your view may vary. (If you have made it this far into this post, you’re probably the sort of person who is willing to give a piece of music, or journalism, more than 20 seconds before dismissing it.)

Of course, the relationship between technology and music-making can go both ways. By some accounts, the length of the compact disc was configured to accommodate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which tends to clock in at around 70 minutes.

While the legendary composer would surely be grateful for that, he shouldn’t have any trouble holding his own in the streaming era. What piece of music grabs you from the get-go more effectively than his Fifth Symphony?