I checked, and there are no laws in the United States Code dictating how long a song should be. Despite what you may have heard, Robin Pecknold is not going to be apprehended for the Fleet Foxes’s newly released, nine-minute track, “Third of May / Ōdaigahara.” That song is totally legal. However, there also aren’t any laws against responding to text messages with “k.,” which is to say: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something. Settling on the appropriate length for your song can be tricky, with a blinding number of factors playing into the decision-making process. And the rules, unfortunately, are not one size fits all. You may feel an urge — we’ll call it “the spirit of Dave Matthews” — to push your song’s runtime an extra minute or two, but beware! More is not always more. To help navigate this temporal minefield, it might help to ask yourself a few questions.
Do you want your song to be on the radio?
If yes, sorry man — you’re pretty much boxed in to making a three- or four-minute song. Them’s the rules — if you don’t like it, take it up with The Suits.
Are you in a jam band?
It’s cool, you can admit it. It’s important to ask yourself this question and to be honest with yourself about the answer because the target audience is extremely crucial in determining song length. Thanks to pioneers like the Grateful Dead and Phish, and also LSD, fans of jam band music want — nay, expect — overly drawn-out tracks. The musical landscape isn’t a homogeneous playing field; the standards of one genre do not reflect the standards of another. So know yourself, know your audience, and take your finger off the record button when appropriate.
Are you John Cage?
If so, carry on and do whatever you want. Thanks for reading.
Have you written a lot of lyrics?
Yes? OK, keep scrolling.
Are they all essential?
Editing is an important part of the creative process, and a big part of editing is cutting out the stuff that’s less than indispensible. (Example: There used to be a bad line in here about the timelessness of Dispatch’s “The General,” and now there isn’t!) Let’s say you’ve gone through edits and you’re still left with seven verses of poignant, heart-wrenching gold*. Perhaps you’re telling a story in your song, and there’s just no way to capture the utter injustice of it all without including such-and-such anecdote. If this is the case, there is no alternative solution: Your song must be long because we must be witness to your testimony.
*The more verses you claim to be essential, the more the veracity of your claim will be debated.
Are you sure your song is really one song?
Is the song really, really, really, really dope?
Have you concocted a genre-shifting track that also features a perfect verse from Pusha T? Are you quite possibly the most talented guitarist in history? Have you figured out how to capture a certain sense of cathartic euphoria by withholding climax for an elongated amount of time? That’s awesome. I’m really happy for you. Drop that eight-minute song right freakin’ now.
(If your song is decidedly not dope, keep it brief. Don’t be a hero. Sometimes, not-dope short songs end up being pretty dope.)