The conventions of music and formats of music reproduction have lived hand in hand since the wax cylinder. These first systems of reproduction could produce recording in first two minute cylinders and then four. Like almost every commercial technology, from the VHS/BetaMax wars to the Blue Ray/HD DVD battles, a combination of technical superiority and business luck would decide the winning format.

Early on, dozens of phonograph formats competed with a dizzy array of sizes, core materials, speeds. But music both drove the formats and was limited by them. If the first formats where restricted to two minutes, the type of music that could be recorded was also restricted. Pop songs could be expressly written for the two minute format, but an aria or a longer classical piece would need to be excerpted in some way.

Most innovations in the first half of the last century resulted in refinements to recordings of the standard three minute pop “single”. The 7″ 78 rpm disc was replaced by the 7″ 45 rpm disc, both of which contain roughly the same amount of music, but with higher fidelity in the newer 45 record. This format also suited radio stations, who preferred shorter songs that would allow for more frequent commercial messages. This concept of the “single”, has carried into this century as the digital download, and remains the most popular recording format.

The desire for a format that would hold more than “Jeepers Creepers” showed up first in the 12″ 78 rpm disc for classical music or operatic selections, with up to four to five minutes of music per side. These larger discs would sometimes be packaged in cardboard record “albums” that might contain multiple discs, for example, the “Nutcracker Suite” by Tchaikovsky was bundled on 4 double-sided discs in an album sleeve.

The 1950’s brought the “long playing” “micro-grove” 33 RPM 12 disc. This format was slow to be adopted, despite the higher fidelity and the potential of 45 minutes of content. It was initially popular for broadway musicals and classical music, but was slowly adopted for popular music, again creating a creative format as defined by the prevailing technology. While Keith Richards said, perhaps apocryphally, that an album was “A hit and ten tracks of crap,” it has also been a format that has allowed artist to expand beyond the boundaries of the single and link materially thematically.

The length of the digital CD extended the length significantly with content of up to 80 minutes. According the the Philips corporate website, the “Sony vice-president Norio Ōga suggested extending the capacity to 74 minutes to accommodate Wilhelm Furtwängler’s recording of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony Number Nine from the 1951 Bayreuth Festiva” when working with Philips on the CD design, stating definitively, “Let us take the music as the basis”.

Today, with the CD fading into the technology sunset, we return to the 1880’s where, like the phonograph cylinder, the single song download from iTunes is the predominate form. When the iTunes store opened, it sold a million tracks in it’s first five days. To date, it has sold over 10 billion songs, with Louie Sulcer of Woodstock, Georgia downloading the 10 billionth with “Guess Things Happen That Way” by Johnny Cash.

It’s all a matter of how you want to spend your 99 cents. You can buy the shortest song on record: “You Suffer” by the band Napalm Death, from their debut album, “Scum”. The song has earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the shortest recorded song ever clocking in at precisely 1.316 seconds.

“You Suffer” live!