The 3-Minute Opera

If you recognize this, you are old…. like me.

I was out running in the park this morning, and my iPod was on shuffle.

In mid stride, the music went from Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing (I am old, see above), to Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Now, much as I like Mozart, The Magic Flute is hardly running in the park music.

It is also long. Which got me to thinking about the length of songs.

Most songs run about 3 minutes (which, as it turns out, is also a good length for online video – more on this in a minute).  The Magic Flute or Beethoven’s Ninth run a good deal longer than 3 minutes.  Why? Because they were performed for an audience that paid to go, sat through the performance and expected something of a show.  There would have been a good deal of disappointment (to say the least) had The Magic Flute concluded after 3 minutes.

Up until 100 years ago, or so, if you wanted to hear music, it meant it was live.  And live meant expensive. And once you were going to the expense of hiring an orchestra, you may as well go for an all night performance.

Then, along comes the new technology of records, and the first real recording formats – 78rpm meant that you got about 3 minutes of music to a side of a disc. Hence, it was the technology of the playback format that began to dictate the optimal length of songs.

The same length was embeded into the general consciousness when 45’s took dominance.  As 33 and a third LPs came to sway, you could get a half hour of music per side, but by now the 3 minute song length was already cast in stone, and so there were 9 tracks per side, or more.

We now come to video.

Up until now, we have lived in a world in which video (television) was the stepchild of movies.  And movies, much as Opera or Symphonies, were expensive and complex affairs which had people by the seat of their pants, so to speak.

Television’s earliest design was very much immitative of movies.  Long affairs. Half hours or hours.  Television could have gone in any direction, but the easist course was to simply ape movies, both in length and design. Early TV news is very much the direct child of movie newsreels.

As video moves to the web, the first knee jerk inclination is to imitate television and offer half hour or hour videos.  We can already see that these don’t really work.

What does work is the ’45 model – the 3 minute clip.

The same as music tracks today.

Then why don’t we embrace this design with the same fervor that music took to the 3 minute format, putting all its talents and resources into it.

Why don’t we try and create complete 3-minute programs

A 3-minute news show?

A 3-minute documentary?

A 3-minute soap opera?

A 3-minute sit com?

It works for music. Much of it is so memorable that it sits in our head all the time.

Can you recount all the lyrics for Hotel California? I bet you can….

“such a lovely place….. such a lovely face….”

I bet we can make online video programs as memorable.

If we are willing to play with the format.


6 responses to “The 3-Minute Opera

  1. ummm. The Hotel California is 7 min long… never let the facts get in the way of a story huh?
    Also It’s already here. 3 min sitcom’s/series have been around for a while and then there was Lonelygirl, short films and many other short format stuff. All of which already exist.
    So your point is???

  2. My version of Hotel California runs 6:30, but that’s another story. This is, I suppose, why I can’t find it on my collection of 45s. Hey Ya, however, runs a tad over 3 minutes.
    The point, actually, is that popular music, which it turns out works pretty well, is produced in (for the most part – there are a few tracks for Pink Floyd that come in at over 20:00 but they are best listened to with a hit of windopane). In any event, the point is that the 3-4 minute format for music works very well, (as the lyrics are stuck in your head. how many soundtracks from tv shows are stuck in your head in the same way?). So maybe half hours and hours aren’t the best delivery format for video crafted information.

  3. As a student who came through an institution that pumped out an inordinate amount of short films every semester, I can tell you that there has definitely been a paradigm shift.

    When I started, 14 to 20 minutes was considered the ideal length for a “short”. My seven minute short (viewable here: was considered brief.

    Now, less than three years later, even in the classroom that seven minutes seems like lifetime. Under five minutes is ideal, seven to ten is “indulgent”, and over fifteen is unbearable.

    The medium is the message, even when it’s not the medium.

  4. “how many soundtracks from tv shows are stuck in your head”

  5. As an art form short films can be almost harder to do well than features. You should enter a 48hour film comp.

    Just 48 hours to make a 4-7min short film on a topic with random elements drawn. They are a lot of fun and in amongst some of the worst shorts you have ever seen are a few gems but you get an idea of just how much work it takes to make a good short. .. a lot harder than people think.

  6. Yeah
    I used to run a 48 Hour Film competition out of the DV Dojo in NY, Lots of fun. Some great stuff as well.

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