Jody Victor: How Streaming Music Has Changed Our Listening Habits

Music Theory doctoral student, Hubert Léveillé Gauvin, has found a possible link between changing trends in music, streaming services and listener attention spans. His study found that in the mid-1980’s song intros tended to be about 20 seconds long and have dropped to only about 5 seconds long.

Spending a few months analyzing modern songs he noted not only the shift to shorter introductions, but a marked increase in tempo. Vocals also mentioned the words in the title much sooner along with song titles being shortened dramatically, often to single words.

This evolution is likely driven by what Léveillé Gauvin calls the “attention economy” of modern-day pop. And that means that artists get to the musical point more quickly in the interest of grabbing a fickle listening audience, many of whom tune in on Spotify, Pandora and other skippable services.

Léveillé Gauvin measured the tempo of 303 top-10 singles and found a clear trend toward faster-paced pop music in the last three decades. The average tempo increased roughly 8 percent. He compared the number of words in song titles and found more and more “one-word wonders” as the years passed.

When he analyzed how long it took for the lyrics to start, Léveillé Gauvin found that intros lasting an average of more than 20 seconds in the mid-80s have given way to intros that average 5 seconds today. And once the lyrics started, it took less time (by about 18 percent) for the first “hook,” which he defined as the song’s title.

There was a 78 percent drop in the length of instrumental introductions. While that drop is dramatic, it makes sense, the researcher notes. The voice is one of the most attention-grabbing things there is in music.

The doctoral student noted that musical trends have often been shaped by technology. The “skipability” of songs has changed dramatically has the medium has allowed: from vinyl to cassette, from cassette to CD, from CD to streaming.