The 30 second rule

August 2, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

My dear friend, conductor Lowell Graham has what he calls his 30-second rule.

“If something does not grab me in in the first 30 seconds of listening, I do not continue.  That can be of compositional value, recording, performance and is certainly the combination of all those attributes.”

Now that’s pretty sound advice though at first I thought it more of a snap judgment.

Then I thought it through.

30 seconds sounds like a short time but sit down sometimes and try it. Half a minute of boring or poorly recorded music should be more than ample time to figure out if it’s worth your time to continue.

It certainly works for me.

Life’s too short for uninteresting music.

Especially when there’s a world of wonderful music to be enjoyed.

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41 comments on “The 30 second rule”

  1. In my early hifi days it also took me only some 30 seconds of listening to a new loudspeaker or amp to decide to exchange my existing gear for getting the “better” sound (better PRaT factor) at home too. Today it has become rather difficult to find “better” gear. The differences in sound quality are most marginal or barely audible when testing a “new” DAC or “new” amp. Even loudspeakers rather sound different than better or worse. Having an acoustically optimized listening room only different setting for my equalizer result in audible sound improvements.

    1. In the last 6 months I’ve twice had the experience of putting an audio system into a bare room (hardwood floors and bare walls), listening to it, and then damping the room with some furnishings. It’s actually quite terrifying how appallingly bad a room can sound with no damping at all. It does put into perspective the marginal differences of most components, save for speakers which, besides their tonal qualities, have to be made to work with the room. Everything else is pretty much independent of the room, except for DSP devices to “correct” the room.

  2. In the main I would agree Paul.
    However with some of those tracks there may be a saving grace
    such as a sh!t-hot guitar solo around the 3-4 minute mark 🙂
    And then there are some songs that take a while to ‘grow’ on you.
    How many times have you listened to a track in the last 50 years that
    didn’t really appeal to you initially, but after a few listens started to
    ‘make sense’ to you musically?

  3. I doubt Mr Graham has conducted Mahler 1 or Shostakovich 2, and the likes of Arvo Part and Johan Johansson must give him nightmares.

    1. I’m with Steven, the rule works, it often takes even shorter….except for very quiet or nonuniform music which needs time to develop its tension or charm.

      And I bet, not every 30 seconds of a work your friend conducted, would make it through his own positive 30 seconds judgement 😉

  4. Boring music. – music that one doesn’t like

    Poor recordings- technically not good sounding

    Now take technically good recordings but boring music to the listener. What is done then? Same 30 second rule?

    What about music you really enjoy that’s recorded not so well?

    ‘The rule’ Seems like almost a pretentious attitude, but may reflect reality.

    1. I don’t care how well boring music is recorded, it’s still boring, and it’s gets nixed. Nor, enticing performances that are poorly recorded are a different story. I have numerous recordings from as early as the 1910s that are very noisy, as they are transcribed from either acetates or cylinders. If the noise doesn’t cover up the performance, I tend to tune out the noise. There’s a threshold of noise that I can tolerate, which varies with recording. The better and more captivating the performance, the more noise I will accept. I just wish there was a Gus Skinas time machine, where we could transport him to any place or time, so he could record some of these wonderful, vintage performances in DSD.

  5. Is it in his contract that he has to start conducting inside 30 seconds of the lights dimming, in case people lose interest and start walking out?

  6. Generally I agree but, as has already been said, it sometimes takes a while for some albums to grow on me. I recently had that experience with London Grammar and Truth is a Beautiful Thing. Worth checking out, but let it grow on you!

  7. With me, 99% of the time, I know much quicker than that. Today, I stumbled across an album by the Mark May Band (who? Never heard of them). By the third note, it had me boogieing along with them. Usually, 10-15 seconds is all it takes to determine if a work is going to grab my heart and soul. Sometimes, after 2-3 seconds I say “Hell NO!!!”. Often on stuff new to me on Qobuz, I play the first 3-3 seconds, skip a minute or so, then play another snippet, skip another minute or so, then play another snippet. By then I know if it’s gonna rock my heart and soul, or not.

    1. I like your approach. I use it as well. It gives me a better window of the overall musical direction on any given album. On the flip side, my first step is to stream and won’t make a purchase unless I understand what I’m buying but if the the sound quality is poor on the physical media I don’t need the 30 second rule because I have a good idea if the music is to my liking before deciding to buy any given recording to add to my collection.

  8. When I wont to buy cd ‘and Wine and HiFi ! If I don’t Like it the First time , Then it is a Wast of time and money !!!!
    When I go to concert and the sound is bad , then I leave the concert !!!!
    It had to be good at the First time !!!!
    I built my own speaker and the first time I listen to them , I did not like them
    But I give them a chance and I still have them ( 1999 ) and they still sound good , with some modifications over the time !
    So sometime it goes the other Way

  9. 30s may or may not be sufficient time to determine the quality of a recording: it will depend upon one’s skill in critical listening. (I’m assuming that this is listening with a good, resolving system.)

    It certainly is not enough time to decide whether a piece of music new to the listener is worth getting to know. Some of my favourite music was hard to learn to enjoy. Upon first hearing it I was underwhelmed or even quite negative; with time I came to understand and thoroughly enjoy it.

  10. This past Saturday a friend and I went to listen to a pair of speakers in the 25k price range. Within the first 5 seconds of music we both know well we looked at each other in disbelief and said “muted”.

    I agree with both sides of this subject’s discussion. I agree there are hidden gems worth discovering amongst less worthwhile music. This discovery requires patience, more time invested. I also agree that oft times our first quick impressions hold up over time. I certainly have music in my collection I don’t visit often because, though I’ve tried over time, its first impression didn’t grab me in a significant way.

  11. I think the 30-second rule is valid, for more than just music. Over the years I interviewed hundreds of people for professional job positions. After screening a person’s resume, I could typically tell within 30 seconds of interview whether I was going to hire that person. The rest of the 30 to 45-minute interview was just a courtesy for most interviewees. Reference checks typically confirmed initial first impressions. In business it is a well known fact that a first impression is generated in only 12 to 15 seconds, involving body language, eye contact and a few spoken words. When it comes to resumes, most resumes get less than 30 seconds scan when culling down to create a short list.

  12. I will never forget one of the biggest disappointments in my listening history when my cousin and I went to the return of Miles Davis after his multi year hiatus from performing.

    Miles came out on the stage with a group of young musicians playing acid rock and within 10 minutes almost one third of the entire audience walked out disgusted. My cousin and I left at intermission and by then the concert hall was well over 50% empty. Everyone was expecting the old Miles and they got a really bad taste of his new direction. I would’ve left in less than 30 seconds but I was afraid to stand up and be the first one to go. Miles didn’t give a damn. He was that arrogant.

  13. I think we have all become impatient due to current circumstances. Yes, life is too short to drink bad wine, eat bad food, listen to bad music, etc. I am in my 70’s and I know all too well that life is too short. I want to live my life at full throttle ( to the extent that I still can ) instead of the half throttle that I am being forced to do by the pandemic. It seems silly to be posting about whether it takes you 30 seconds or 2 minutes to decide if you like certain music, but I think we are all become more impatient because we want the pandemic to end.

    1. Hey Tony,
      Yes l’ll agree life is short and that many want to live at “full throttle”

      I’ve been traveling all over the US since a year ago this past June for work and the differences in approaches by regions, individual states , and individuals concerning COVID is pretty stark.

      The numbers went down, and in many cases people dropped their guard and stood on the throttle. The numbers are headed back up and ‘break thru’ cases are on the rise.

      So from my narrow view and personal observations this COVID crap isn’t leaving any time soon.

      Maybe it’s best for individuals to throttle back and remember that the vaccine is primarily there to minimize symptoms if the virus is contracted. Not a free pass to ‘stand on it’ 🙂 At least not yet.,,

  14. Paul, I’m sure you know there are many exceptions. How many people listened to the first 30-60 seconds of “Fanfare for the Common Man” or “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and thought, wow, this is great, only to turn off within the next minute?

    And stimpy2, that happened much earlier with Miles. Some of his fans from earlier years didn’t realize how much changed once “Bitches Brew” came out in 1970. I had a similar experience to yours in the early ’70s, years before his hiatus from performing. When we entered the theater the curtain was open and across the stage was an array of cables and speakers/amps. When the musicians came out they all plugged in. By intermission at least half the audience left.

    1. Didn’t know about that performance. Miles was always on the cutting edge and didn’t care what anyone else had to say about him or his playing. He still goes down in history as “the man”.

      I am really starting to enjoy his music over the past few years. He was that great even with the few hiccups that we both brought up.

      1. Well, Miles did care about popularity and record sales. Most of his biographies mentioned how frustrated he was over many rock stars developing huge audiences and greater income. Yes, he was restless musically and was always moving forward. But he also was willing to change his music to reach a broader market of young people.

        I’m sure most of those who left your concern and mine were older traditionalists.

        1. No question that it was all traditional Jazz fans that showed up awaiting the old Miles. I can’t see where he picked up the younger generation though. He didn’t market to them as far as I know.

          1. stimpy2, I’ve been a fan of Miles since before “Kind of Blue” was released, have a sizable collection of his recordings, saw him in person more than a couple of times, and have read a few bios. I’m really surprised to see you say he didn’t market to the younger generation. As I suggested, he made major changes in his music beginning with “Bitches Brew”. One, because his creative sense always drove him forward rather than continuing to play the same songs and in the same way. And two, he truly sought to attract younger fans to broaden his appeal to increase his earnings. Some of that was likely ego as well, believing he could perform fusion better than anyone else. Toward the end he wanted to record with Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and later with Prince, but Hendrix died too soon and then Miles too before he ever could with the others.

            1. Just as Dylan kicked open a door plugging-in at Newport 1965, Miles, always an innovator and never a follower kicked upon a door and paved the path to Jazz Fusion in the 1970s reigniting interest in the genre.

              I purchased Bitches Brew in the summer of 1970 (13 years old) drawn in by the album cover, then listened and carefully placed it at the back of my record stack. Over the next few years i found myself purchasing music from all the artist’s who worked with Miles on “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” especially John McLaughlin and Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Return to Forever, Stanley Clarke, Jeff Beck, Jean-Luc Ponty, Al Dimeola, Weather Report, ECM Catalog etc.

              Highly influential stuff…

  15. This is horrible advice. Some of my favorite albums are ones that were only so so at first blush. With subsequent listens they blossomed. It often depends on one’s mood as to what catches on at the time. Take for instance “God Told Me To” by John 5. I thought it was merely a heavy metal shred fest til I delved more deeply. John 5 – Noche Acosador (official video)

  16. I was all set to but in with my ten cents worth, but found that “Peter” and “Secretguy” have already made every point I wanted to make.

  17. Most U.S. television network commercials are 30 seconds long. Fortunately they are grouped into 2 to 3 minute blocks so you can take a break and do other things. In the U.S. each half hour of broadcast network programming typically has 8 minutes of commercials; that’s 16 minutes per hour. The EU limits commercial breaks to 12 minutes per hour. Some European countries have additional restrictions.

  18. It is true. Life is too short for uninteresting music or for one which is not a close approximation of the real thing i.e. it does not grab you and make you feel as if you are listening to the real thing, almost. What good is a performance which does not sound close to the real thing ? I agree with the 30 second rule. It’s more than enough time to either continue enjoying the piece or shutting it off. Regards.

  19. Sorry (but not really), I don’t buy it. At least not for me. Non prime facie example: the music of Thelonious Monk. I had read many music critics and reviewers enthusing about about his music, but I really could not get in to it. At first. However, I persisted and would listen to his music off and on, but remained not overly impressed. And then one day the synapses finally aligned and the muse smiled. After collecting my jaw from the floor, I thought, “Damn, this cat really is the genius of modern music!” Now I love Thelonious Monk.

    Maybe I’m just slow (not unlikely). Maybe Paul’s good friend Lowell Graham is a man of Olympian discernment and cognitive abilities. However, to for my little stream of consciousness within the cosmic vastness of the space-time continuum, my conclusion is that the ’30 second rule’ isn’t.

    “Just around the river bend . . .” — Stephen Schwartz

  20. My grandfather taught me about movies. “If none of the characters or storyline grabs you in 10 mins get rid of it.”

    I’ve followed that rule ever since he told me that, however by that excellent philosophy I use that in music.

    So on a Streaming service I’ll give you track 1 & 2. If nothing hits me, see you later. The good thing about streaming services like You Tube Music and such is that you can efficiently audition music like no one’s business and don’t have to run out and buy the cd like the older days.

    I’ll be honest. I love all my CDs in my collection for most of that very reason. There is still quite a few discs that I love based on luck and the attraction of the album cover Art. 😉

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