There are three ways a song can come to an end. To illustrate, let’s look at several examples.
The first is known in radio parlance as the “cold end.” This is when a song comes to a pronounced, final and almost dead stop. Jack White chose to end Seven Nation Army this way.
The second sort of song ending is the “last chord,” a method with no better example than the 54 seconds that end The Beatles’ A Day in the Life.
And finally, there’s the fadeout, whereby the volume of the song decreases and decreases until there’s nothing left but silence. Again, we can look to The Beatles for the singalong coda of Hey Jude.
Where did the idea of fading a song into the darkness come from?
The concept first appears to have surfaced from the mind of classical composer Joseph Haydn around 1772 when he was finishing up his Symphony No. 45, a piece that soon acquired the nickname the Farewell Symphony for the way it drew to a conclusion. Each musician would stand up, extinguish his/her candle and walk off the stage, gradually reducing the volume of the performance until there was no one left to play.
Fast-forward nearly 150 years to the first performances of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. When it was first staged in 1914, a female chorus was placed in a room to the side of the stage. As the suite began to wrap up, the door was slowly closed, making it harder and harder for the audience to hear them. Everything came to an end when the chorus appeared to fade into silence.
But what about recordings? Back in the days before magnetic tape, all songs on record had to have a defined and definite ending because there was no way to turn down the input volume of the recording apparatus. Musicians would either have to gradually reduce their playing volume or move away from the microphone in a careful and controlled manner.
A number of 78 RPM records were made this way, including an 1895 recording entitled The Spirit of ’76, which featured a marching band heading toward the acoustic horn and then away again.
There were other experiments with longer songs and tracks that couldn’t fit on one side of a 78 RPM record. The practice became to fade the song toward the end of the playing time on side one — usually less than four minutes — and then pick things up with a fade in on side two.
It would take some new technology to make this sort of audio manipulation commonplace. Around 1950, recording engineers using magnetic tape on new reel-to-reel recorders — the two key pieces of modern electrical recording — realized they could just fade out a song by gradually turning down the volume control connected to the microphones in the studio.
The concept was simple: play the hook/chorus of the song over and over again as it got softer and softer before disappearing entirely. Those who experimented with this new technique thought it sounded kinda cool.
What was the first record to employ the fadeout? There had been some experiments with the idea in the late ’40s when artists still had to slowly silence themselves. As for electronic fading — or having an engineer turn down the input control to smoothly reduce the volume to zero — the best guess anyone has is a 1951 recording by Bill Haley and his band The Saddlemen, who covered Ike Turner’s Rocket 88. We hear the sound of the Oldsmobile in the title driving away into the distance.
As more studios became outfitted with reel-to-reel machines and modern recording consoles, the idea of the fadeout became more popular. But why?
Two reasons: (a) It eliminated the need to write an ending for the song — the artist(s) could get into a groove and just sing and play until they felt it was time to stop — and (b) the repetition of the hook became more memorable for the listener.
There was a third element to this thinking, a sort of psychological twist. The fade supposedly gave the listener the sense that the emotional promises made by the song went on forever, again making the song more memorable. That’s certainly the sensation people tend to take away from Hey Jude.
Song fadeouts became standard practice for decades in many different genres. Not all subscribed to the same thinking, though. When I first became involved in alternative radio back in the 1980s, I distinctly remember thinking it odd how so many songs in the genre actually had endings. They either ended cold (i.e. abruptly on the beat) or with a last chord that naturally faded out. I became a fan of songs that took a stand and actually finished. It was a declaration of mission accomplished.
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Today, though, the fadeout seems to be endangered. Slate.com published this chart showing how Top 10 hits came to conclusions over the decade. Fades began to rocket upward in 1968 and reached a peak in 1984 when every one of the top 10 singles of the year faded out.
Things remained more or less steady until 2005, when only three of the 10 biggest songs of the year had fades. Then in 2011 and 2012, the number dropped to zero for the first time since 1956.
Is the fadeout in jeopardy? Hard to say. Definite endings seem to provide a more satisfying listening experience when streaming a playlist. But there will always be something to say about songs that disappear into the ether, leaving that catchy chorus in your head.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107 and a commentator for Global News.
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