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Pop Music Shows That Our Attention Spans Are Getting Shorter

Shorter pop music intros may reflect shrinking attention spans since the 1980s.

Source: LesPalenik/Shutterstock

Technological advances of the digital era have forever changed how we listen to music. The ability to quickly shuffle or fast forward to the next song while listening to Spotify, Pandora, or other skippable music services has resulted in chart-topping songs that have instrumental intros that are four times shorter today than they were in 1986, according to a new study from the Ohio State University (OSU).

This new study by Hubert Léveillé Gauvin, who is a doctoral student in music theory at OSU, was published today in Musicae Scientiae.

Reading about this study gave me flashbacks to 1983 when I bought my first Sony Walkman. For anyone who grew up with an AA battery-powered Walkman, you know that crafting perfect mixed tapes was of huge importance because fast forwarding the cassette drained the battery quickly. And batteries were expensive. But, if you made a perfect 90-minute mixtape, you could listen straight through Side A and B without getting bored or needing to fast forward, which conserved the "juice" in your costly Duracells. This cost-benefit also forced you to listen to every song from beginning to end. Which is something I rarely do these days.

When I got my first iPod in 2001, I noticed immediately that I became more fickle and impatient while listening to music. Because I could recharge the iPod for free at any time, skipping to the next song wasn't costing me anything in terms of needing to buy more batteries. I found myself getting bored with songs quickly and compulsively looking for something more engaging. Oftentimes on a run, I could easily skip through the beginning of 10 songs in rapid succession if the intro didn't grab me.

After reading this new study by Léveillé Gauvin this afternoon, I realize that I am not alone in suffering from a shorter attention span while listening to music on a digital platform. In fact, he found that in the mid-1980s the average top 10 hit had an intro that lasted 20 seconds, today the average intro is just 5 seconds long.

He also noticed that in the '80s once the lyrics started, it took much longer for the first "hook" to occur in which the singer mentioned the song's title. After analyzing over 303 U.S. top-10 singles from 1986 to 2015, he found that in today's competitive "attention economy" most successful songs plant the title early as a way to market the song. In a statement to OSU, Léveillé Gauvin said,

"If you look back historically, technological changes have likely shaped the way people compose and listen to music for a long time . . . the compact disc brought along an ease of skipping that was leaps and bounds ahead of vinyl or cassette tapes. We're operating in an 'attention economy,' and attention is scarce and valuable."

Technological changes in how we consume news, literature, movies, and TV have also led to shorter attention spans. Blogger Andrew Sullivan described our distractibility and the increasing "attention economy" in his New York Magazine article, "I Used to Be a Human Being," in which he chronicles and deconstructs 'my distraction sickness—and yours.' Sullivan writes:

"We absorb this 'content' (as writing or video or photography is now called) no longer primarily by buying a magazine or paper, by bookmarking our favorite website, or by actively choosing to read or watch. We are instead guided to these info-nuggets by myriad little interruptions on social media, all cascading at us with individually tailored relevance and accuracy. Do not flatter yourself in thinking that you have much control over which temptations you click on. Silicon Valley’s technologists and their ever-perfecting algorithms have discovered the form of bait that will have you jumping like a witless minnow. No information technology ever had this depth of knowledge of its consumers—or greater capacity to tweak their synapses to keep them engaged."

Léveillé Gauvin echoed some aspects of this conundrum when he said, "It's survival-of-the-fittest: Songs that manage to grab and sustain listeners' attention get played and others get skipped. There's always another song . . . If people can skip so easily and at no cost, you have to do something to grab their attention."

On the bright side, music is continually evolving and these changes are driven by a wide range of factors. When asked, "Do you think this attention-driven shift is a bad thing for pop music?" Léveillé Gauvin responded, "It's very easy to see this in a cynical way. It's not necessarily a negative thing; it's just the nature of the beast."

While writing this blog post, I got nostalgic and played some '80s music trivia by making a mental list of some big hits from that era with especially long instrumental introductions:

  1. "Money for Nothing" (Dire Straights) 2:04 until first verse begins.
  2. "Where the Streets Have No Name" (U2) 1:46 until first verse begins.
  3. "Just Like Heaven" (The Cure) :50 until first verse begins.
  4. "When I Think of You" (Janet Jackson) :50 until first verse begins.
  5. "Holiday" (Madonna) :49 until first verse begins.

What songs do you love from the 1980s with an exceptionally long intro before the lyrics begin? Please share in the comments if you have time.


Hubert Léveillé Gauvin. Drawing listener attention in popular music: Testing five musical features arising from the theory of attention economy. Musicae Scientiae, 2017; 102986491769801 DOI: 10.1177/1029864917698010

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