Do I Have Your Attention?

Jerry Lucky Commentary May 2017

Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2017 All Rights Reserved


I am steadfastly of the opinion that what we call attention-span is a learned behavior. There are many way in which this manifests itself. Certainly with the advent of social media where everything is done in short, sound bites it’s easy to see how people’s attention span has grown shorter and shorter as everyone “feels” the need to get to some point as quickly as possible. The prevailing sentiment for many today is that they appear to want to linger over words, images or music. If you’ve ever watched older movies, this will become very evident as cameras linger on shots for long periods of time. Today that same scene will be shot with multiple angles and edited shots.


As this relates to Progressive Rock music, let’s face it, with songs way in excess of ten minutes in length there has always been the question of people’s ability or desire to stick with a song. Much like people’s anxiety about sitting and listening to a public speaker, sitting and listening to a song that goes on and on, even though it might be changing along the way, seems to drive them to distraction. They start to ask the question, “How old will be when this song is done?” I tend to think this is one of the reasons listening and enjoying Classical music has also fallen out of favor. In general people no longer want to, or feel they are able to devote the amount of time required to appreciate what’s going on. This is so unfortunate.


Recently I came across an on-line article by a Shaun Tandon with the headline: As Streaming Booms, Songs Getting Faster: Study. Here are some of the points made in the article (in italics) with my own comments interspersed.


New York (AFP) - Streaming is making it quicker not only to play music. A new study finds that pop songs themselves are getting faster as listeners' attention spans diminish. Instrumental openings to songs have shrunk dramatically over the past three decades and, to a lesser extent, the average tempo of hit singles has been speeding up, the research found.

Hubert Leveille Gauvin, a doctoral student in music theory at the Ohio State University, analyzed the year-end top 10 on the US Billboard chart between 1986 and 2015.In 1986, it took roughly 23 seconds before the voice began on the average hit song. In 2015, vocals came in after about five seconds, a drop of 78 percent, he found.


In a study published in Musicae Scientiae, the Journal of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music, Leveille Gauvin linked the trend to the rapid rise of Spotify and other streaming sites that give listeners instant access to millions of songs. "It makes sense that if the environment is so competitive, artists would want to try to grab your attention as quickly as possible," he told AFP. "We know that the voice is one of the most attention-grabbing things that there is," he said, pointing out that people seeking to concentrate often preferred instrumental music.


In regards to song intros getting shorter we saw many television shows jumping on this band-wagon a few years ago. Back in the sixties it was typical, shall we say “normal” for a TV show to have a full sixty second intro, usually with a song and images that introduced you to the show’s characters and content. Today many TV program intros are 15 seconds or less. One of my favorite TV shows, Elementary has two styles, one short and on long – it’s mostly the short one that plays and when I times it last week it was all of five-seconds long!


So it shouldn’t surprise us that song intros have shrunk. And yet from a Progressive Rock stand point long introductions have a classic quality and usually the introduction has little to do with the body of the songs core melody, it is as intended an introduction. Back to the article…


Leveille Gauvin doesn't claim inside knowledge of record industry secrets and he doubts that many pop stars are clamoring in the studio for shorter intros. Instead, he sees a steady evolution in song writing conventions. "I think it's partially voluntary, but I think it's just adapting yourself to your environment whether you're aware of it or not," he said.

He connected the trend to scholar Michael H. Goldhaber's concept of the "attention economy" -- the quest to hold attention in an internet overflowing with information. "You can think of music as this double role. Music has always been a cultural product, but I think that more and more songs are also advertisements for the artists," Leveille Gauvin said.


Despite the overall trends, Leveille Gauvin pointed out that there was still diversity in song structures. Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," the chart's top song for 2012, has an instrumental introduction of 20 seconds. As the study looked only at mega-hits, it did not take into account genres such as indie rock in which market forces function much differently.


I tend to agree on this point as well. I hardly think this is some grand conspiracy but rather I suspect we’re seeing the results of “The Law of Unintended Consequences” at work here. Is music art or is it a commodity? It’s probably a little bit of both, but if your approach is to view it as a commodity then you will do whatever it takes to make that commodity as liked and appreciated by the consumer of that commodity. If however you see music as art, you may focus on other aspects of the music’s creation to make it appreciated by the consumer. In either case there is a “buyer and a seller” involved in the process. That does make it sound rather crass, doesn’t it? But the point still stands: somebody makes the music and somebody consumes the music. We may not like the terms, but the process speaks for itself.


So what of it? Well, I’m one of those guys who thinks having a long attention span is a good thing and having a short attention span is a bad thing. There is far too much in life that requires us to “spend time” on it, learning it, studying it, appreciating it, critiquing it or enjoying it. Whatever “it” is. So growing our attention spans I believe is not only possible but it’s also a good thing. I would go so far as to say there is no downside to having and cultivating a longer attention span while the reverse is not true. Cultivating a short attention span brings with it all kinds of downsides from limited enjoyment opportunities to self-inflicted anxiety over time spent on an activity.


There have been many books written of late that speak to this issue. Telling us to slow down, take time to smell the roses, relax and learn to appreciate the things around. Of course one would have had to spend time reading the books to get these messages and it doesn’t appear that that is the direction society is heading. No. We seem quite content to just become more hurried and spend less time appreciating any particular activity. At least that’s what I think. Now you’ll have to excuse me…I’m going to go and listen to a really, really long Progressive Rock song.


Jerry Lucky