The origins of the single are in the late 19th century, when music was distributed on phonograph cylinders that held two to four minutes' worth of audio. These were then superseded by phonograph records, which initially also had a short duration of playing time per side. In the first two to three decades of the 20th century, almost all commercial music releases were, in effect, singles (the exceptions were usually for classical music pieces, where multiple physical storage media items were bundled together and sold as an album). Phonograph records were manufactured with a range of playback speeds (from 16 to 78 rpm) and in several sizes (including 12 inches or 30 centimetres). By about 1910, however, the 10-inch (25 cm), 78-rpm shellac disc had become the most commonly-used format.
The inherent technical limitations of the gramophone disc defined the standard format for commercial recordings in the early 20th century. The relatively crude disc-cutting techniques of the time and the thickness of the needles used on record players limited the number of grooves per inch that could be inscribed on the disc surface, and a high rotation speed was necessary to achieve acceptable recording and playback fidelity. 78 rpm was chosen as the standard because of the introduction of the electrically-powered synchronous turntable motor in 1925, which ran at 3,600 rpm with a 46:1 gear ratio, resulting in a rotation speed of 78.26 rpm.
With these factors applied to the 10-inch format, songwriters and performers increasingly tailored their output to fit the new medium. The three-minute single remained the standard into the 1960s, when the availability of microgroove recording and improved mastering techniques enabled recording artists to increase the duration of their recorded songs. The breakthrough came with Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone": Although CBS tried to make the record more "radio-friendly" by cutting the performance into halves and separating them between the two sides of the vinyl disc, both Dylan and his fans demanded that the full six-minute take be placed on one side, and that radio stations play the song in its entirety.