The study was penned by Hubert Leveille Gauvin, a doctoral student in music theory at the Ohio State University who looked at the year-end top 10 on the US Billboard chart between 1986 and 2015.
He found that 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.
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.
His study was published in Musicae Scientiae, the Journal of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music. He 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 and the voice is one of the most attention-grabbing things that there is.”
Apparently if you like to concentrate, you like instrumental music.
As an example of the shift, Leveille Gauvin pointed to Starship’s 1987 hit “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” which takes 22 seconds for the vocals to begin and more than a minute for the chorus.
On the 2015 hit “Sugar” by Maroon 5, Adam Levine gets to the point within seven seconds with the lines: “I’m hurting baby / I’m broken down.”
Leveille Gauvin doubts that many pop stars are clamouring in the studio for shorter intros, he just thinks it is a steady evolution in songwriting conventions.
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.