The Danger Duration

Composer Nic Collins was here the other day. He had an interesting insight that had never occurred to me. He tells his students that between five and ten minutes is the most dangerous length for a piece of music. A piece under five minutes can bore no one. A piece 15 minutes or more seems profound simply by virtue of its length, and generally receives the benefit of the doubt. But in between, a piece flirts with a certain attention threshhold, and can easily seem too long, or not serious enough in content to have gone past that five-minute mark.


  1. Tom Hamilton says

    Personally, I don’t agree that it speaks well for the integrity of the work to make decisions about duration (or any other compositional element) based on assumptions about a hypothetical listener. If the composer presents a piece that attempts in some way to “get over” with an audience, they’ve already exceeded my “attention threshold.”

  2. vinny says

    Honestly, the way you phrased that sentiment makes it sounds like a part of the reason I didn’t enjoy that latest Carter piece that Levine premiered last month. But also, I’ve always struggled with Carter…

  3. says

    I usually put this danger boundary at eight to twelve minutes. For me, it works a little differently though – and I’d disagree with Tom Hamilton above: for me, the length of a piece can be part of what it has to say, late Feldman and Kurtag providing obvious examples, and 8-12 is simply the durational standard for contemporary music. I try to avoid this 8-12 minute range. However, for some reason, most of my pieces are 8-12 minutes…

  4. J. Cropp says

    I don’t think duration has much to do with appeal. For a rock band an 8 minute song would be a grand opus, anything over 10 might seem pretentious. It says more about the listener than the composer I think.

    To Vinny: Don’t struggle for someone else’s music! If you have to it’s simply not enjoyable. I think often we tough it out to the point of appreciation or understanding but it’s never true enjoyment. Just because others “get it” from the beginning doesn’t mean you must or even should. I don’t and it doesn’t bother me. They probably don’t “get” what I like either!

  5. Rob Stephenson says

    Maybe it’s time for someone to teach a class on How Music Makes Time Pass in Different Ways.
    I just heard/saw/felt the St. Louis Orchestra perform Feldman’s Coptic Light at Carnagie Hall and it was amazing how the live experience of it differed for me from the recordings of it that I have. Live, the piece seemed to be only half the length of the actual piece. And several other listeners I spoke to afterwards thought the same thing. BTW, the conductor gave a warning before the piece, that some listeners wouldn’t like it and therefore should be quiet anyway for those who would like it. Although I thought this was odd and in some way an apology for performing the piece, people were quiet during the piece and the audience showed great enthusiasm after its conclusion. The conductor seemed truly surprised by the response.
    I’m getting off track though. I think the way time can be perceived in Bob Ashley operas is quite amazing.
    Can this be taught? Has anybody tried to put together a collection of methods in music that specifically alter time perception and that could be considered as basic tools for composers?
    Celestial Excursions obliterates time completely in many places, which is particularly brilliant considering the opera’s elderly cast of characters and Ashley’s comment about how old people don’t live with time spreading out in front of them in the way that young people do (maybe another kind of time is spreads out in front of/or around old people.)

  6. says

    I understand what Nic is saying — lengths of pieces are particularly an issue with art students, or so it seems to me. However, I’ve been bored with plenty of three minute pieces and felt cheated with many over 15. For the most part our students are weaned on music in the 3 – 5 minute range to begin with. I find myself suggesting that a piece ought to be longer (especially in those that espouse an economy of materials) much more than I plead for cuts. There’s that basic fear that we all went through about how long we think the listener can bear it. Whatever dangers there are hardly seem limited to the five to ten-minute range.