Two of the more popular posts featured on this website deal with flash fiction. That is according to Google Analytics, which shows Putting the Flash in Fiction and The Shortest Flashes Ever Written continue to garner clicks years after being posted.
Such interest in ultra-short stories has me pondering their musical equivalents … and contemplating the question What are the shortest songs ever recorded?
With this post, I don’t intend to provide a definitive answer so much as open the discussion and hope some of you will chime in with thoughts and recommendations. Given the number of songs out there, the search for the all-time shortest really is one for the hive mind.
So … to begin, let’s consider what qualifies as a song. Does it need a verse, chorus, bridge, instrumental, refrain? If so, the chart-topper “Stay” (1960) by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs may be considered the shortest pop song ever. Clocking in at a scant 1:34, it topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960 and went on to sell over 8 million copies.
But is it the all-time shortest song?
Although never released as a single, Queen’s “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” from their album A Night at the Opera (1975) has all the requisite components – among them a brilliant guitar solo by lead guitarist Brian May. Be warned. Listen once, and this one will be in your head the rest of the day.
But what about shorter?
Here I think we can move past Barbra Streisand’s so-called “Minute Waltz” (which at 1:59 makes it the “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” of short songs) and consider the true one-minute wonder “Little Boxes” by the Women Folk (which hit #84 on the Hot 100 in 1964) and the shorter still “Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen” by Pikotaro (#77 in 2016). At 45 seconds, Pikotaro’s may be the shortest pop song ever.
But can we go shorter?
Here we might need to modify our definition a bit, but if we can agree to do so, we might give a nod to The Beatles’ “Her Majesty,” which occupies a scant 25 seconds at the end of their penultimate album Abby Road.
No chorus or bridge, and it all ends abruptly one beat short of where it seems to be going – but it’s a sweet little ditty. I’m inclined to give it a nod.
Here we really need to bend things a bit to consider a piece of political satire from John Denver’s album Rhymes and Reasons (1969). Titled “The Ballad of Spiro Agnew” (remember him?), it runs a scant 15 seconds. Written by folk-singer Tom Paxton, the song also appears on the album Politics. Recorded live, this version opens with Paxton introducing the song and concludes with a round of laughter and applause – all of which contribute to a track with a running time of 44 seconds. The song itself, however, clocks in at 11 seconds – short enough to make it a top contender for the shortest song ever recorded. Unless we are willing to amend our definition even more. In which case …
We might return to Queen, this time to the album Made in Heaven and a track titled “Yeah.” Consisting of a single word (can you guess what it is?) and running just a little over a second, it seems to be even shorter than the track that the Guinness Book of World Records lists as “the shortest song ever recorded.” That song, by the British grindcore band Napalm Death, is “You Suffer.” Its official run time is 1.316 seconds. But, with all due respect to Guinness, I think Queen wins this one by a nose, unless we’re willing to bend our definition a little more. In which case we descend (as we did in “The Shortest Flashes Ever Written”) into the realm of zero content.
Believe it or not, there are quite a few of these zero-content tracks – and, although all boast official running times of a few seconds to a few minutes, we might argue that none have any length at all. Consider John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Two Minutes of Silence” (1969) or John Denver’s “The Ballad of Richard Nixon” (1969) – both of which seems to be taking a page from the playbook of John Cage, who gives us silence in three movements in the orchestral piece “4’33” (1952).
So what do you think? Have I missed any good ones? I’m particularly interested in hearing about tunes that fall between “Lazing on a Sunday” and “Her Majesty” – fully realized recordings clocking in somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds.
In the meantime (to return to the topic of flash fiction), I’ve recently updated this website’s stories page to include audio links to some of my flash fiction stories as well as a few longer works – all offered for anyone who might want to “stay just a little bit longer.”
Until next time … scop on!