Length of movements

Hi All,

I'm working with another composer to try to come up with a formula that might work best for the length of our contemporary classical music compositions.

We are basing this on what popular music is doing because if we hope to compete with popular music forms, we have to be similar.

I know this is going to be controversial for some, but if composers do not look at areas that could improve our listenership, then contemporary classical music might just disappear altogether, at least on the radio and streaming services.

BBC 3, classical music station has the lowest listenership of any music radio station in the UK. It’s the same for ABC Classic, here in Australia, and I’d guess it’s the same for classical music radio stations and streaming services across the world.

It is very possible that stations like BBC 3 will not exist in the next 10 years. As funding and listenership dry up, governments and private sponsors will not see the worth of investing in something that so few are listening to.

While movement length is just one aspect of trying to make contemporary classical music more popular, it is perhaps the most important one.

For years, all my duos, trios, quartets, sonatas and such, have short movements only. They average out at the same length as Pop and Rap songs, 3.5 to 4.5 minutes. I specifically write them this length because I subscribe to the theory that attention spans are shorter today than they used to be since the internet.

I believe that movements for concertos and symphonies can be much longer, but not the length of most post-classical music movements.

Rap is the most popular form of music today in Western countries. It’s estimated that around 40% of all music aired is Rap. The average Rap song is around 4 minutes.

If people’s attentions spans are adjusted to the length of a Rap or Pop song, why would they think about listening to something that is three times that length and that’s just for one movement?

Having shorter length movements does not mean that people are all of a sudden going to start listening to contemporary classical music, but if the length is right for people, that’s one aspect they might find alluring.

I’d be interested to know what the average length of your movements are and if you think this idea has any merit.


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  • Hi Rob, 

    This echoes my own approach. I am mostly writing in what I call a pop-classical style, limiting length of single pieces to 3-5 minutes, and keeping the format to ABA.


    • Yes, Gav.

      I know I can be just as inventive and create music just as complex or simple no matter what the form or length. Still, getting people to listen to it, and then like it and request it, that's equally as important.

  • my main movements tend to be 10-15 minutes and a typical composition length is half an hour (the vast majority of my serious works are 20-45 minutes). This corresponds to most of the greatest instrumental works in musical history and I'm not aware that people have suddenly stopped wanting to listen to Beethoven string quartets or Bruckner symphonies.So no, your idea is of questionable merit in my view and comparison to the utter banalities of most contemporary pop music isn't really appropriate although I do understand your point.

    • People have not suddenly stopped listening to classical music, David, but its audience is getting smaller all the time. It's getting so small, that even BBC 3 is under threat, especially with the conservatives in power. We need to address the slipping audience numbers for classical music. The music industry is doing very little to help it. Every year, governmnets and private enterprise offer less support to classical music. 

      Making classical music fit popular forms might be a way to revive interest in this form, becase little else is working.

  • I tend to agree somewhat with Owen above. The 'class' of people attracted to classical / art music aren't those who'd instincitvely tune in to fashion and rap; and will have more staying power. Some may be attracted to both (such as myself, an aficiando of UK punk and lounge jazz) but I reckon they're exceptions. 

    When we had our community orchestra going - and the county orchestra and orchestras in my past, the conductors were often happy to bill local composers' works at the end of a programme - did depend on one's association with the outfit - and would give 5 minutes or so for fillers. (I wrote some appalling carp (typo) back then.)

    Hence my stuff is compressed into 4 - 6 minutes. This also fits in with local appreciation groups who play recorded music - a couple of mine have been aired thus. It doesn't allow room for much development. There are times when I'd love to go up to 8 - 10 minutes (and I might for my own purposes but wouldn't expect public performances), but the aim is 5 minutes but usually ends up 6 minutes.

    I submit scores to the BBC but have yet to have anything accepted. I obviously don't know the right people!


    • there's no doubt that to actually get a work performed, a role as a concert filler of around 5-10 minutes is certainly more palatable than something longer. The problem is that serious works tend to have a serious length so for many of us, even if we were able to get something short performed, it's unlikely to represent our most important work (except for those who are miniaturists by nature).

    • It's the same here in Australia, Dane. A few composers will get most of their music aired, but that's only becuse they are known, or know someone. Unknowns, are never given the chance because they are unknown, the old catch 22.

  • This is insightful, as it pertains to a topic I had not thought of before; i.e., making "serious" music marketable in the modern era where most people don't have the personal context with traditional symphony-length, long form works. I'm not yet ambitious enough in my thinking to be concerning myself with publishing related considerations, but in time I'd like to get to that point and this consideration will be worth being mindful of.

    • BTW "short" does not mean "unserious."

      • Yes, just ask Bach and Satie.

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