Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Photos via Getty Images

Pop Songs Really Are Shorter Than Ever Now

From shorter verses to frontloading the chorus, chart toppers sound dramatically different these days.

Lil Yachty’s “Poland” – in which he brags about bringing lean to the land of pierogi and Europe's most ancient old-growth forest – was everywhere in 2022. It had millions of plays, inspired countless memes, and became a viral sensation with people reacting to the cut’s memorable hook: “I took the Wock to Poland.” And that’s despite – or should I say because of – the fact the song is only 83 seconds long.


If it feels like songs are getting lean (yes, that’s a pun), that’s because they are. Of course, this isn’t a new trend. Songs have been getting shorter for years, but this has rapidly accelerated of late – just think of some big recent hits: “As It Was” by Harry Styles is two minutes and 48 seconds. “Old Town Road” is just 1:53. After the success of the likes of Armani White’s 99-second breakout hit, “BILLIE EILISH”, and Ice Spice’s viral 1:45 song “Munch (Feelin’ U)”, “Poland” feels like part of a trend.

Why is this happening, you ask? You need look no further than TikTok and streaming. The cultural dominance of music streaming and TikTok has had a dramatic and profound impact. It’s not hyperbole to say that those twin forces have changed the way hits are made, how music is promoted and how the world discovers that music. 

“TikTok has had a substantial impact on the way that musicians write songs. The platform is one of the most significant forces for discovering and amplifying music both new and old,” explains Charlie Harding, one of the hosts of the Switched On Pop podcast, which breaks down pop songs to figure out what makes a hit.

Not everyone is a fan of these changes. Mark Ronson didn’t sound particularly enamoured in 2019 when he said: "All your songs have to be under 3:15 because if people don’t listen to them all the way to the end they go into this ratio of ‘non-complete heard’, which sends your Spotify rating down." Tove Styrke complained to the BBC in 2022 that she’s “sick of everything being the exact same formula” because “everything is 2:30”. Others have claimed “TikTok’s impact could literally halve the length of a pop record in the next 10 years.”


Of course, brevity isn’t a new thing: Radio edits have always cut down song lengths, and Adam Faith’s 1959 No. 1 hit “What Do You Want?” remains the shortest chart-topper in UK Singles Chart history, taking up just 1:35 of your time. Still, streaming playlists and social platforms seem to be pushing us even further towards shorter and shorter songs. Ten years ago, the average length of a UK No. 1 single was three minutes 42 seconds – today it’s down to 3:16. UCLA have tracked the reduction in song length back even further to 1990, when the average length of a song was 4:19. By 2020, this was down to 3:17. 

It’s easy to explain why this might be the case: Streaming services incentivise listening to an entire song, because that's how they determine who gets paid. If you listen to the whole song, it increases the chance of it getting on to the playlists, and playlists are where your songs will be found. Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal pay artists per play, irrespective of how long a song lasts. By making a song short, acts expect people will play it more than once. In five minutes you can listen to a long song once or to a short song twice. I’m no mathematician, but that’s double the streams. It also explains why, alongside the brevity of songs, artists seem to be expected to come up with ever longer albums with a larger number of tracks, and dropping these albums in a much shorter time span. Even huge acts are getting in on it – just see Taylor Swift's rollout of Midnights, with the additional 3AM Edition tracks dropping almost immediately.


Which is all fairly straightforward, but what does the shrinking of songs mean for the craft of songwriting? Research shows that 25 percent of listeners will reach for the skip button in the first five seconds. For songwriting teams, whose job is to maximise their playlisting and streaming, that means erasing the “boring” bits from their songs with “topliners” (AKA the people who create the vocal melodies, harmonies and lyrics over a beat) being drafted in to write killer hooks. Gone are fade outs and intros; now hooks come right in at the start of the song (“Poland” is basically all hook) and choruses arrive earlier and earlier. 

It’s something Harding and his co-host Nate Sloan analyse in this New York Times piece as the traditional verse, pre-chorus and chorus of songwriting is usurped. “It’s increasingly common for songs to begin in medias res,” they write, “with a hook, followed by a hook and ending with another hook.” Bad Bunny is a great example of this, particularly “Si Veo a Tu Mamá”. The release and tension of classic pop is essentially being rejected; everything is condensed.


There's even a streaming sound – something music critic Jon Caramanica has dismissed as "Spotifycore" – a homogenous mid-tempo somewhere between rap, pop and EDM (in her article “Streambait Pop,” Liz Pelly describes it as “chill-pop-sad-vibe” citing songwriters Charlotte Lawrence, Sasha Sloan and Nina Nesbitt – who ended up collaborating on a track together called “Psychopath” – as well as other acts like EXES and Ella Vos) that boosts your chances of appealing to Spotify's all-powerful algorithm. The idea is for all the songs on a playlist to blend seamlessly so you never feel that urge to press skip. 

But the impact of TikTok is changing things even further. Harding tells me the pressures that were brought about by streaming have been “intensified by TikTok, which must capture someone's attention instantaneously”. That means even shorter songs, with shorter intros. 

“There have been at least four important changes stemming from TikTok: shorter songs, hooks up-front, vibe snatching and lo-fi aesthetics,” Harding explains. “Songs that ‘vibe snatch’ from older songs through interpolations and samples are more likely to capture attention as well, because listeners are already familiar with the material.” 


It also brings up the wider point that TikTok is also changing the way we consume and engage with music, with the platform’s success largely a result of its tools for both creation and recreation with the platform allowing artists to engage directly with fans' content whether through stitching or duetting video. 

There has been a lot of debate about what this means for music and people decrying dwindling attention spans. But really, haven’t songs and songwriting always been governed and shaped, in many ways, by the latest technology? A quick history lesson: Early phonographs could only hold about two to three minutes of music, so that was the length of the typical song from the 20s to 50s. Then, in 1949, RCA Victor launched the seven-inch 45 RPM single, allowing for song durations of roughly five minutes. The introduction of the LP record, the tape and then CDs made it possible to have longer songs and meant that artists could break the 44-minute vinyl time limit – with mixed, and some terrible, results (by that I mean the entire prog genre and the 5:55 monstrosity that is “Bohemian Rhapsody”).

But while David Mogendorff, TikTok’s head of UK music operations, agrees that technology has been at the forefront of the boldest innovations in music, to him, “where TikTok is different is that instead of a passive listening or watching experience, it's a new form of engagement, with fans using their favourite sounds and songs to create – investing their time and creative energy in making something new”.


“TikTok has ushered in a new way for fans to communicate and express themselves, allowing people to use music in a creative way to inspire their own content,” he adds. Musicians are leaning into that: The norm is now to upload several different versions of tracks on TikTok, like a “Sped Up” version and a “Slowed Down” one (though Matty Healy once said “if I wanted music ‘slowed down + reverb’ I’d just take some ket”). As I write this, “Miss You” by South Star is in at both #80 and #174 on the Spotify charts – the official sped-up version created in response to TikTok consumption of the original song. 

It’s undeniable this TikTok sound-to-streaming hit pipeline has made songs blow up, but it’s also ignited a debate around the attention span of music fans. This was brought to light recently when Steve Lacy played “Bad Habit” live – a track that has been included in over 470,000 videos on TikTok. A viral clip showed that many fans knew the words to the hook but went silent straight after. As one Twitter user put it: “Steve Lacy goes out there every night just to hear a thousand white kids sing to only 0.73% of his setlist”.

Anecdotal evidence like this doesn’t tell the whole story, of course. After all, Swift had a 10-minute No. 1 hit in 2021 with “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)”. Mogendorff says it’s too simple to say that shorter is better: “There's no magic formula or certain length/speed for songs gaining success, which is why there is such a diverse pool of emerging talent constantly breaking through on TikTok.” He cites Eliza Rose's recent No. 1 “B.O.T.A”, which was driven to success by virality on TikTok, but is nearly six minutes long, to show that TikTok is driving the success of songs with “varying lengths, formats and structures”.

Sure, there’ll always be acts who remain wildly successful without playing these games and there will always be room for experimentation – but it’s clear that younger generations now expect different things from songs, and the changing dynamics of music consumption reflect that. 

The big question is: Does this matter? Probably not. Pop music will always react to the latest technology and trends and artists will always find ways to innovate within these restrictions. Anyway, it’s long been held that three minutes is the perfect song length – the Beastie Boys even wrote a song about it in 1989. Ironically, that track is three minutes and 39 seconds long.