How many songs should be on an album?

This is a real question, and if you have any opinions, please chime in. Now that iTunes and, to a lesser extent, Amazon are big players in the music business things have changed. You no longer have the physical limitation providing a cap on the length of the album. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida can be twice as long and they don’t have to worry about it fitting on one side of an LP. Nor is the 80 minute limit of CDs an issue. There’s no longer a cost associated with the physical production of the album, so it’s not like there’s a significant base cost–an album can have one song.

Thing is, what do people really want? If you, the consumer, are going to buy some music from a band that you’re kind of familiar with, but have never bought anything from before, what will make you click on “buy album” rather than just cherry pick the “buy song”? For me this means that at least three song clips have to sound good, but, for the purpose of this blog, let’s assume that you are already fairly confident that this is a solid band and it’s not like there’s one good song with a lot of filler tracks.

iTunes pricing of albums (often) works thusly: if an album has 10 or less songs the album price is $0.99 * (the number of tracks). A six song EP will cost ya $5.94. If it’s more than 10 songs the album will be $9.99, so if you buy a 14 song LP the cost per song will be about $0.71.

So are people more likely to buy a long album and get a good deal on a per song basis, or a short album and spend less than ten dollars?

I’ve noticed some newer bands seem to be leaning towards the short album. Pelican and MGMT come to mind. This works for me. I feel if I’m buying a short album I’m probably not getting filler tracks (WTF with all the skits, M.I.A.?) and if I don’t love it I haven’t spent a lot of Washingtons.

Shorter albums also lend to making a more cohesive recording. We can’t all be Ryan Adams or Billy Sugarfix and pop out a song a day. Writing good songs takes the average songwriter a lot of time; what do two songs written three years apart really have to do with each other? A songwriters style can change; their life events are in flux. The first MGMT album is a good example–it sounds like those kids wrote all those songs Spring semester and recorded them during Summer break. It’s a tight, cohesive album that has a definite feel to it.

Join the Conversation


  1. Naw, I’m just funnin’. Or maybe joshin’.

    I don’t see why albums exist at all. I agree that they made sense a long time ago when music was (relatively) hard to come by and you had to buy it in the format the companies were selling it in. And I get why that carried over into CDs. But now that we can pick an choose the songs we want, why are people even making albums any more?

    I can think of a few possible reasons:

    1. They are douchebags.

    2. It is a concept album. (This is properly a subset of reason No. 1.)

    3. To sell tracks that people wouldn’t buy if the whole enterprise were a la carte.

    As far as this last reason goes, the question I guess is probably not “how many songs justify spending $X”, but “what percent of songs in a collection make me think I’ll like the whole thing enough to just plunk down $X”.

    This is an empirical question and, while I’m sure there are a lot of variables, I have little doubt that the labels have done work on this. I say this based on the assumption that, if record labels didn’t exist and artists were only semi-driven to make money, then each new song (other than those falling under reasons No. 1 or 2 above) would be like “hey, I just finished a new track and put it up in the store, so go check it out. Thanxx – Peace!” The fact that there are even albums at all suggests to me that the labels still see value in bundling.

  2. I agree that bundling = greater $$. It sure is easier to buy one album than to click “buy song” nine times over nine months. Beyond the bottom line rational I think there is still a place for the album (without necessarily having to be a concept album). I know if I were left to my own devices and there were no such thing as albums that my music collection would lean a lot more towards the popular singles. There are some deep-cut (or whatever the term is) tracks for which I wouldn’t have clicked the “buy song” button, but I do own because they were packaged with an album and I’m glad for that.

    There’s also something to be said for the drama of an album release. I think people secretly like the anticipation of albums. Showmanship is a large part of music and piquing people’s interest in something is a big part of showmanship. It’s easier to do this with major releases spaced over a year apart.

    From a creative standpoint there is also a lot of opportunity to refine works if an artist has to delay the release of a song (as they would when compiling songs for an album). There have been some songs that I’ve written that I’ve come back to months, maybe years later and changed them in (what I think are) beneficial ways. There are also opportunities to give songs on an album a consistent feel. Not necessarily going so far as to make a concept album, but rather to give the listener the aural impression that the songs are from a certain creative time.

    I’d like to take a moment to mourn the inevitable passing of fading one track into another (“Back in the USSR” to “Dear Prudence”). While this started to become weird with CDs on random play, it has almost no place in modern playlists. Sorry, Dark Side of the Moon. Though, conversely, applause to They Might Be Giants for their “Fingertips” snippets. That was a visionary stroke.

  3. Im in the process of recording my first album, i am not in a band i do all the instruments myself. (I am not a rap artist who claims to join loops together and calls himself an artist)
    I do experimental rock, most focus is on the lyrical side of it, pumping as much feeling and meaning and emotion as i can into it. Intertwining it and at the same time trying to make it listenable and catchy (think Frank Zappa or Pink Floyd or Primus or Nine Inch Nails.)
    Bottom line is I am constructing this album to draw the listener into another world, not forcibly but invitingly. Just making something that will cause the listener to think rather than just get off on some cool song…maybe trying to do both? The name of the album is Inanimate Objects. Just wondering what a suitible number of tracks might be for such an album?

    1. Hi Josh, it sounds like the crux of your question is “how can my album be the best work of art it can be?” where track count is just one of many decisions you must make with that goal in mind. You mentioned that you are trying to pump “as much feeling and meaning and emotion as [you] can into it.” Rather than track count (which is important), you’d probably fare better considering the emotional journey that your track order conveys. Just as it’s tough to eat Ramen Noodle Soup every day, it’s equally tough to listen to 8 songs in a row that have the same emotional content and still enjoy the last one just as much as the first.

      I’d like to use one of the artist you just mentioned to Illustrate a point: Pink Floyd. In terms of chart longevity, The Dark Side of the Moon is the most successful album of all time yet it has just 10 tracks and only 7 of those have proper song lyrics. The reason for its staying power may not be that it packs as much emotion as it can into those 10 tracks, but more that the track ordering and progression make it emotionally rich without being emotionally exhausting.

      Long story short Josh, every Oreo needs its cookie. Every sandwich needs its bread. It can’t all be filling. If your songs are as intense as you say they are, put in an instrumental here or there to give the listener a chance to catch their breath. You’ve gotta give them some clack clack clack clack clack clack clack time where the roller coaster is pulled up that hill before you shove ’em down the loop-de-loops.

  4. Hey,I am writing songs for my album which is called “The begining”. I am not yet famous but I was just wondering how many songs I should write,to me writing songs is easy.I am in Zambia where hope for me becoming a singer is little. I am 13 years old. I have written 11 songs so far and I am working on 2 now.

    1. Luputa, if you’re 13 years old and you’ll soon have 13 songs, that seems perfect, doesn’t it? Really an album is about being a cohesive body of songs so that the whole package could be considered a work of art. How, if I may ask, are you getting the word out about your songs? Do you have MySpace or ReverbNation page?

  5. No I don’t, the internet at home is being upgraged so I cannot use it. I am actually using my Mom’s phone right now, I cannot join MySpace or ReverbNation on the phone because JavaScript is not enabled so I cannot sign up. I am thinking of other ways to get my songs out there,like posting videos on the internet but the upgrading has taken a long time.

  6. No, I don’t, I did want to sign up but the computer is being upgraded so I can’t use the internet. I am actually using my Mom’s phone right now, I can’t sign up on the phone because JavaScript is not enabled but I just downloaded it so I’ll try to sign up. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR WRITING BACK. I’ll get back to you. THANKS AGAIN ūüôā

  7. Ok so i am b female battle mc who has recently began the writing process and am grabbing all the knowledge from the great MC’s around me. I wanted to do a mixtape aka easy way out..but these guys say no break away from battling and freestyling you have a wealth of original music commposed just to fit your voice and personality…i just have no idea where to start. I am a poet so yes i can write. I am wiriting songs but i keep getting like 4 a day so where do I as a newcomer say hey here’s my debut! i don’t want a small debut bc i feel like they will be like oh one trick pony but i seriously havent explored enough to understand how to write cohesively…my brain still writes on a one track on thought basis i can make them all with the same concept. i have 21 tracks. thats too much im not the flaming lips….HELP. btw that was long but your pretty well versed so i thought i would hit you HARD.

  8. I’m a fourteen-year-old girl who has been writing songs for about a half year now, and I now have enough to put together an album. My songs are all (alternative) rock, besides one piano instrumental. I’ve made sure to keep my styles varied (but not so much that you can’t tell it’s the same group when you listen to a different song), to include some instrumentals (not too many of those; just two), and also that my lyrics were clear and understandable. I’m currently in the process of getting a band together.

    What I’d like to ask is would it be better to get my music signed with a music company, or self produce my first album? How would I go about recording it, if I should self produce it? What stage would be most appropriate to start a fansite or keep a blog for the band? Should I copyright my music before putting it on the internet?(I’m pretty sure I should).

    And if I should sign to a company (if any of them want me, of course), how would I go about being certain that they won’t turn me into something I’m not? How would I be able to make sure that I can put what *I* want into my videos, and that I get a say in what I do?

    Should I or should I not get a manager? I seriously don’t think I need to even think about this until I get further along in the process, but still: It’s prudent to think ahead, just in case the future comes sooner than you think.

  9. Ana,

    What fourteen-year-old includes both a colon and “prudent” in the same paragraph? ¬†You have a lot of questions, and they are all questions you should be asking. ¬†I’ll touch on a couple of them.

    I find it helps to think of music labels as venture capitalists who just specializing in backing musical ventures. ¬† So imagine you had money that you were going to spend on a band. ¬†What would you look for? ¬†Yes, I’m sure you’d go for music you liked that was both original and exciting. ¬†But what if two bands came to you: ¬†one just got together and the other had been together a year and had sold 10,000 records. ¬†Remember, you’re in the business of selling records so just by the numbers you probably have a better chance of making your money back on the band that has already proven that they can sell records.

    Anyhow Ana, where I’m going with this is that is a very good reason to put something out there yourself. ¬†If you self-release something and it does moderately well then that will make you and your music more appealing as an investment to a music label. ¬†Plus with a proven track record you then have more leverage to negotiate a more favorable contract.

    Record companies, managers, promoters, agents, etc… they all can potentially help your career, but they all will expect a share of what you make. ¬†Again, the less proven your selling track record the higher the risk for them therefore they will probably ask for higher commission.

    Okay, so what’s the first thing you should do? ¬†Before you think of labels or managers or whatnot, you should try to self produce an EP. An EP is around 5 songs and it will do a lot of things for you. You’ll learn a lot about recording; you’ll have something you can sell to people for a reasonable price (like $5), you’ll have a quality recording you can send to labels if you decide to go that route and you’ll have a good amount of songs left over for your next album. ¬†And you know, you can always include those songs again on a later full length album.

    As for copyright, I’m not a lawyer, but from what I have read written by lawyers it’s no sweat. ¬†Just put “copyright 2010 Ana ____” on your album. ¬†Done. ¬†That legally copyrights your things. ¬†Getting a registered copyright makes your copyright slightly more enforceable, but really, in this digital age, it should be pretty easy to prove who wrote something first if things ever come to that.

  10. Thank you. I’ll be sure to keep this in mind in the future (and hopefully near future, at that).

    As for what you said about the colon and ‘prudent’: I read a lot.

  11. Re: Copyright registration. Your copyright is ONLY enforceable in court if you’ve registered the works with the Library of Congress. If someone infringes upon your copyrighted material, and you have not registered your works, no court will hear your case. Spend the 35 bucks and do it right before someone else beats you to the finish line, and then you really have an (expensive litigation) issue. Also, read Donald Passman’s book, and if you’re going to sign any contract at all in this business, have an entertainment lawyer advise you on it. I’ve seen too many great musicians get ripped off because they didn’t look at music as a business. Once your music’s out there in the world and people want to buy it, it’s a business, and artists have to protect ourselves and our art. Hope this helps.

  12. Also have an entertainment lawyer advise you before you take Jen’s advice. Your copyright is enforceable without registration or notice. (thnx, Berne Convention!) But there are at least a couple of different ways that registration with the Copyright Office can increase your chances (and your lawyer’s chances) of getting real paid when you sue some infringer’s infringing ass.

  13. Man if it’s all true than I’ve gotta cut a no. of songs from my first album. They’re more than fifteen. Can’t it be false//? If all of your songs are good enough than people would recognize it definitely. Not what’s the total time it takes to discover the whole album….aya

  14. I agree with Brian’s comments about letting the music carry you through an album, and I don’t agree with the person who’s idea that albums are old fashioned, especially since over 75% of music sales last year were still in the form of CD’s and also vinyl as people are re-discovering the quality of LP’s..Mp3’s are crunched poorer quality versions of songs that may sound ok on your iPod but pale in comparison on a real sound system.

    I started reading this thread because I wondered if there had been any research on how many songs were as Brian puts it “emotionally exhausting” to be on a CD, my first CD had 12 that averaged 3-4 minutes each..which seemed to be ideal, my second CD had 17 because I figured it would be an added selling point “less than a buck a song”. .but I now think the added length of the second CD in this attention deficit culture was detrimental to folks listening all the way through…one of my personal criteria for a great album is that you can put it in your car’s CD player and drive to it…each song flows into the next and you dont get the urge to hit eject and throw it into the back seat.. I figured with years of major label marketing research someone might have come to an “ideal” number of average length songs.. I agree there are exceptions like Floyd..but I’m leaning towards the 10 to 14 mark for a CD.

    The other reason people still like to buy albums is that we are collectors by nature and tactile, we want to hold it, check out the artwork (often lacking in downloads) and add it to our unique collection…its also hard to get your favorite artist to autograph an mp3 :o)

  15. and also vinyl as people are re-discovering the quality of LP’s

    Srsly? I won’t dispute that a brand new LP on a high quality system produces better fidelity than a CD or MP3. But if you think LPs are coming back, you’re cuckoo. LPs only exist now in hipster haunts and museums (and we won’t have to worry about hipsters when I finish building my device). LPs make about as much sense in today’s world as music that starts playing automatically when you load a webpage.

  16. This is a really great post/discussion. It helped me out a lot!

    I didn’t read all the comments, but in my case I was trying to think about the psychology behind song order also, and decided that the BPM for each song was probably a factor in a good order. So for instance, you could start the album slow and slowly get into faster BPM songs. But that doesn’t always work by BPM alone… in fact one song sounded faster to me even though it was actually a slower BPM, and didn’t necessarily flow to well from one song to the next.

    So, now what I do is order my songs at first by BPM as a starting point. Then I will adjust from there.

  17. Same question brought me here “how many tracks suitable 4 a rap album” im a guy of 21 and im in d proces, writin 11 tracks for an album titled “Cee KWENCE Da fREaK I” tryin to make sum sence into it, 2ru wat i cn cee above me think dat numba is kool…igh? 4rm 9jiria

  18. Tons of reasons to have an album. 1) Some songs have various mixes (DJ club mix, Radio mix, Clean mix, instrumental, a capella). 2) Some songs and themes go together well. 3) Gives opportunity for fan to save money and buy all 18 songs (for example) rather than per song (costs more). But they also have option of only buying the songs they want. 4) Graphics can be consistent and easily used on various songs (with slight text/name adjustments if desired by the songwriter/producer and/or graphic designer).

  19. Brian (you have a great name by the way), I completely agree with you on the points you brought up here. I have discovered so many beautiful, personal, intimate little songs that feel like they were written just for me to relate to by purchasing an entire album instead of just track by track. My general rule is that if I really love the band like let’s say Smashing Pumpkins or The Shins, I’ll buy the whole album, where if it is a band I don’t really like but I care for one of there songs, I’ll buy track by track.

    One of the richest experiences I live for is driving down to my local Rasputin (record store) and going to the indie clearance isle (where they sell CD’s for $.25 each) and just pick up about 20 CD’s, listen to them and discover all kinds of new music. So in conclusion, I think there is still a place for albums and I also apreciate the ability to purchase one track at a time. I couldn’t agree with you more on the idea of an album being an emotional journey and Dark Side Of The Moon is a perfect example.

  20. Hello Brian. I am trying to record an album of traditional Irish Music, but I have a few problems. Traditional Irish songs are usually short, and two or three parts that area repeated, but variation of chording and bass gives it more tolerable to listen to for longer. I can make them longer but it can be difficult to stand listening to a repeating song. I could play in medleys, of two or three songs together, but then people don’t know which song they are listening to on the track. I have read here and there that 45 minute total is best for an album. Having an about 45 minute album boils down to having about 22 songs. That is far from the average 10 to 13 song per album that has been recommended here and there. So far I have written a few Irish songs, but not enough to fill an album yet. I have only played Irish music for about a year, and have only written music for a few months, and progress is slow. so some songs people are familiar with and maybe one of my songs is best, but 22 is too long. Another problem is the Irish music I play is mostly Instrumental. Only one of my song choices have lyrics. I can sing, but I am a bass of limited range, which is not fair when I am only 13. I have the songs set up so that there are a few more songs in Major mode than in Minor or Dorian keys to keep the emotion balanced, like you said. This is most of the issues, thanks for you help

  21. Tate, yes, you bring up a good point. So far the assumption has been that each song follows basic western-radio standards of being about 3 to 4 minutes long. I did a little iTunes browsing and found that many traditional Irish music albums have greater than 20 songs, but I understand that you are new to songwriting and an album of this length is probably not feasible. Honestly, I’d take a cue from punk rock albums. Many punk songs are in the 1.5 to 2 minute range and they maintain a fairly high energy level for all songs. Punk albums tend to ignore the 40-minute album and keep the song limit under 16 songs. As a basic principle, you, as an artist, need to create what you think is a cohesive work of art. An album with one 30 minute song might be a masterpiece. Do what feels right.

  22. Thanks. I was planning to have mostely song that are well know, and having only a few that I have written, maybe my polka and the jig I am working on. The rest will be popular tunes, and I think doing 16 (which was my plan) of these tunes I have picked will suffice. Thanks!

  23. Hey Brian, I am in the business of writing, recording, and producing a rock album by myself, and its coming along very well. Its inspired by progressive rock and art rock experimentation, and by the likes of Alternative and Indie rock bands. Its my first record, so seeing as how you only have one shot at a debut, I’d like to do this right.

    In my limited knowledge of record mechanics I’ve come to the idea that fewer tracks and more substance is what makes for a better record. I more often find that its albums like Dark Side of the Moon that are concise with 10 tracks and full of quality music that are the albums I am more drawn to as a whole. That being said, Coldplay’s album “Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends” actually takes this a step further. Beyond the 10 tracks, 3 more are found either mentioned subtly or hidden entirely. Furthermore, all 10 tracks were designed very differently from each other, so that although from start to finish it functions well as a whole, I never felt like the tracks got monotonous, and never treaded previous ground. That being said, I feel it is a risky concept. Someone falls in love with the hidden track after a track they dont like, and the album could be difficult to operate. Furthermore, if there are 13 songs in a 10 track album, why not just include all in the tracklisting giving the listener more freedom to go where they want to go? Beyond this, I am also convinced shorter albums are much easier to focus and control from start to finish. I would rather have 50 minuts of music packed into 40 minutes rather than 60 minutes packed into 50. The attention span of a listener willing to check out a whole album seems to hover around 40 to 45 minutes. Albums that stretch out longer for me seem to lose focus and increase the likelyhood that I’ll skip tracks halfway through to save time.

    Anyways, beside the rambling, my apologies for the shotgun questions. In your opinion, is it better for an album to have fewer tracks and a more densly packed quality (be it heavy or sparse content depending on the song), and better to contain unmentioned and/or bridged material(like double song tracks and hidden tracks) lending to more music for your buck? And what in your opinion is the best amount of time for a record to have assuming there are no filler songs and it retains concise structure, that the listener would be more likely to listen to it all the way through without stopping?

    1. Hi, Michael. I feel many would agree that Dark Side of the Moon is the ultimate album’s album, if you get what I mean. Songs stand up on their own, but in the greater context the emotional journey is simply excellent. This is can be done with your album as well, and I’m sure you’re already paying attention to very important factors such as: track order; song spacing and transitions. There’s so much to “track order”, that I should be a bit more specific for it to have any meaning at all. By track order, I mean pay attention to the ebb and flow of energy dynamics and themes between songs. Sometimes contrast between adjacent songs is ideal; sometimes a certain degree of homogeneity can lend to the feeling that two separate songs are extensions of each other. Of course there are no hard rules. This is art, after all. Listen to your album over and over. Listen to it on “shuffle”. A good album will hold up time and again.

      As for album length, again, there are no hard rules. I do feel 40 minutes is just about ideal, though. It is long enough to convey several, multi-texutured ideas while its brevity avoids monotony.

  24. Thanks for the input! I’ve never thought of trying shuffle as a way to test individual tracks.

    But furthermore, as recording and writing are still in the process (while recording my computer hard drive decided to take a vacation from functionality) having all the tracks so far along, I’m at a loss as whether or not to finish the songs dynamically and theme wise according to track order and flow as they stand FOR the record, or to try to chase them down individually first, then let the tracklisting define itself and lend to changes later, and therefore, in my opinion, risk the flow. It doesn’t seem like they can be done at once, because once a good idea for a song clashes with its place in the album, either the idea or the flow will win out. To me, focusing on one song at a time helps find the idividual life of the song, its own sort of essence. However, occasionally, the changes can disagree with the album altogether, and although they make the song better, they can even kick some of my good songs out because they no longer seem to be capable of coexisting amicably. I’ll tell myself, “well thats what EPs are for”, but then again, why wouldn’t I put my best songs out there? Its a shame, getting just 10 songs to agree with each other often times seems like trying to walk 10 hungry rambunctious German Shepherds through a meatpacking factory.

    So in todays day and age, is it?

    Song substance > Album flow
    Album flow > Song substance

  25. 2nd comment by AQUARIUMDRINKER is the biggest load of horseshit I’ve so far read, written by one of those so-called “music lovers” who clearly can’t comprehend the real meaning of an album. Obviously because he/she is so accustomed to hearing shit albums with “fillers” that he/she has to cherry pick songs and reject the idea that an artist might actually write an album because it is a collection of songs, like a photo album is a collection of photos – from a time in someone’s life or whatever.. To call artists “douchebags” for having the temerity to want to create an album or even a “concept album” is not only pig ignorant, it is totally against really knowing what it is to truly love music. When you really love music, you want to get to know it – you don’t just “listen to what your guess is ‘good'” – that’s the “concept” of broadening your horizons and yeah – maybe taking the time to listen to the “whole” album – if the artist in question is worth anything they won’t be a one hit wonder. But I guess you wouldn’t know that, since albums so clearly are beyond your domain of understanding. Buying songs separately certainly has its positives – this kind of “music lover” is not one of them.

  26. Okay, Pandora, you’ve convinced me. Would you mind sharing the names of a few albums that will help me get over my belief that albums are either relics of a bygone era or symptoms of pretentious overindulgence?

  27. i was wondering is there a limit to the tracks you can upload for ONE ALBUM like i was planning on doing a LP of 50 tracks is this possible?

  28. Ok, Dark Side of the Moon is pretty awesome and beautiful. But I’m sorry, it’s not a perfect album. there are only 7 real songs and 2 of them are basically the same song. the last song is total filler. I mean, I know it’s the standard thing to be totally impressed by pink floyd, but it’s misleading to say it’s a perfect album. Maybe in that genre it would be perfect. But there are many types of albums. As far as pop albums or r&b albums, it would be awful. The number of songs you have should depend on how long you want the album to be. simple as that. if you have 10 good songs and 7 shitty songs that total 17, put ten on there. or, if you don’t mind having filler because most people do it, put 14 on there and discard the 3 worst tracks. but if you want to make a great classic pop album that flows track to track with all good songs, make 12 or 14, make them all 3 minutes and 20 seconds, and try to get it between 41 and 47 minutes. there. problem solved:
    here are some actual excellent examples of perfect pop albums

    Fleetwood mac: Self-titled
    The Beatles: Rubber Soul
    No Doubt: Tragic Kingdom

    All albums have 3 or more hits.
    most of the songs are 3 1/2 to 4 minutes
    All of the songs are catchy
    there is an obvious theme without too much repetition.

    1. At some point the conversation transformed to what makes a good album rather than simply what is a good album length. I referenced DSotM because it’s the record holder for longest time on the charts (741 weeks). That kind of staying power means good repeat-listening.

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