I can’t think of anything more perfect than 180 seconds. It seems like a pretty short amount of time, but three minutes is my favorite chronological interval. Three minutes can bring about peace, it can save lives or it can do something even more important. It can communicate.
At first, three minutes was an artificial limitation. When we finally accepted that 78 RPM records weren’t just a toy, we also had to streamline our attention span to fit the shortcomings of the medium. A normal 78 has an upward limit of just over three minutes a side. Later, after LPs came out, you could fit ten times as much music on just one record, but the preferred method of consumption, 45s, still couldn’t handle anything longer than four minutes per side.
Nowadays, digital distribution means that we can make songs as long as we want, but almost all songs still conform to the magic number. After a century of music measured in units of three, the length of a single is ingrained in our ear canals. We tend to feel cheated by anything less than two and a half minutes, and we start to tune out after four.
This might seem like discrimination against full-length albums. An hour of music is a force to be reckoned with, at it’s best it’s a great way to investigate and explore deeper questions. But the shuffle setting on iPods and selective downloading have put a stop to this kind of listening in the mainstream. If you can’t say it in three minutes, then you might as well not try.
This isn’t a complaint. The medium changes, our attentions spans expand and contract and music will inevitably cater to its audience. It’s easy to think of this as a limitation, but when you look back at the past hundred years and all of the things that have been done in intervals of 180 seconds, three minutes can be a very long time.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org