Why 10-minute songs are better than TV shows

by Nina Corcoran / Music Columnist • November 20, 2013

During my junior year of high school, a music blog asked what the best closing song on an album is. I thought about it for hours, reflecting on favorite records and what their final tracks did for their overall story. The closer of Canadian indie rock supergroup Broken Social Scenes self-titled album, “It’s All Gonna Break,” was the victor for me. It was something I felt so passionate about that I created an account just to write a paragraph justifying my choice. 

So when I turned to my friends a few days later and had them blow off the song due to “a lack of time to listen,” I was upset. That’s because “It’s All Gonna Break,” all 10 minutes of it, is structured to punch harder than any four minute hit can do.

Our fear of long songs has to end. Almost all music listeners, casual or dedicated, feel a sudden weight when a song is listed as over 10 minutes in the tracklist. The song’s length suggests some grandiose structure or story-like setup that will require detailed listening. Feeling hesitant to sit and listen, really listen, to all 10 minutes is ridiculous. A long song is more fulfilling than any TV episode (which is three times that length). Swap a remote for headphones to see.

 Numerous TV shows have garnered cult followings in the past few years, including Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, and Parks and Recreation. A developed cast of three-dimensional characters allows these shows to succeed; their characters are so strong that they make even a lacking plot entertaining. Viewers come back for more each week, ready to see what happens to these characters, knowing they won’t get an answer until the end of the episode. It’s an addiction in America. If, according to Nielsen numbers, the average American watches 34 hours of TV a week, then they most likely have the time to hear a 10-minute song.

 Exactly like TV shows, double-digit- minute songs are all about the journey. Musicians craft them with the same structure as a mini episode. There’s the introduction, a reminder of the band’s sound, before things take off and a tempo is presented. Soon after, a conflict appears, a rush to fix it ensues, and, at last, tension is relieved after a long, but entertaining, struggle. You could just read a summary of the events, but it’s the overall story that makes it such a pleasure to watch in its entirety. 

Even better than that, their lack of a moving image allows the listener to create one mentally, handing your imagination crayons to draw on the walls of your head. There is no set picture for the songs being heard.

 Before we go further, let’s make it clear that, yes, most TV episodes build upon previous episodes. For any plot-driven show, this is the case. But for most instrumental bands who write long songs, their albums do the same.

 Bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Ros, and Explosions in the Sky challenge themselves to write music that exists for the peak and conclusion. 

They’re the frontrunners of consistently long songs that mirror TV show structures. GY!BE’s iconic 2000 release, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, is regularly ranked on Best Albums of the Decade lists, receiving enormous praise for its 20-minute sprawling songs that use instrumental swelling and pre-recorded man-on-the-street interview sound bites to tell a vivid story. 

If Game of Thrones has you cowering at the strength of its characters and ferocious plot developments, then Lift Your Skinny Fists… will have you hiding under your blanket, eyes pressed shut.

It’s true that shorter songs fit the radio-friendly format that we have grown up on, but longer songs have their time and place. In 1981, experimental performance artist Laurie Anderson released “O Superman,” a lengthy minimalist piece about technology and communication that is soothing yet disturbing. Her single took the number two spot on the UK Singles chart, getting listeners to hear a song progress from silence to a humming synth over the course of almost nine minutes. There were no tricks — there was no master plan — Anderson’s song rocketed up the radio charts based on its’ songwriting alone.

 They’re songs meant to be listened to with full attention  —  the same way you offer up your time to a TV show. 

Anderson’s masterpiece is a prime example of the success of lengthy songs, but it’s no better than the slew of others out there: Danish rock band Mew’s nine minute masterpiece “Comforting Sounds” has been used to close out all of their live shows since they released in 2003; Pink Floyd created instrumental tunnels in 1971’s 23 minute “Echoes”; Bob Dylan put his folk writing to the test in 1965 on “Desolation Row.” Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn,” Rushs “2112,” and Genesis’ “The Musical Box” all get tacked on an endless list of musical works held too high up to ever be forgotten.

Some of our favorite moments in  songs — be it the opening riff in “Voodoo Child” or the break in The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”—are iconic because of how well-crafted they are. They leave us speechless, unable to cut out the rest of the song for that sweet spot since the song’s whole progression provides the needed bedding to shoot that moment as high up as it goes. 

They may be an investment, but songs that exceed the 10-minute mark are well worth your time. TV series may be great in their five-season-long glory, but a single episode can’t come close to the power a double-digit song has. Both the band and your headphones will agree.