The Fade-Out of the Fade-Out in Popular Music

Back in the days before recordings were made on magnetic tape, all songs on record had to have a defined and definite ending. But around 1950, recording engineers using new reel-to-reel recorders realized that could just fade out a song. The concept was simple: play the hook/chorus of the song over and over again as it got softer and softer before disappearing entirely. This technique (a) eliminated the need to write an ending for the song; (b) helped the hook become more memorable for the listener; and (c) supposedly gave the listener that the emotional promises made by the song went on forever. Think “Hey Jude” or “Smoke on the Water.” The effects could be rather dramatic.

Song fade-outs 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 80s, 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.

Today, though, the fade-out seems to be endangered.  Slate.com published this chart showing how Top 10 hits came to conclusions over the decade. The trend is obvious.

NumberOfSongsThatFadeOut.jpg.CROP.original-original

Interesting, no? I wonder why this is happening? Thoughts?

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

5 thoughts on “The Fade-Out of the Fade-Out in Popular Music

  • September 16, 2014 at 9:30 am
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    I’ve noticed that too, and welcome it; in fact, when I hear a fade today, I think: I guess they ran out of ideas for an ending. I’ve heard some cool creative uses for fades recently, however, a song by Manitoba trio Crooked Brothers (Blackbird in the Snow) on their new record has the band fading out at a normal rate, but the lead vocal kinda separates from that fade, almost like it was forgotten, and fades later, at its own pace.

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  • September 16, 2014 at 10:56 am
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    It is very interesting. I think the fade out was an album gem mostly. When songs are played on the radio, the ending is cut off anyway, so a fade is pointless. Also now, for bands, there is added incentive to make your songs short because the audience attention span has typically decreased significantly and radio favours shorter songs. So, why have a song that reads 3:52 because of a fade-out when you can have a song that reads 3:34 without the fade out? Radio promoters will look at the two and are likely to instinctively disregard the longer song. Just my two cents.

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  • September 16, 2014 at 10:02 pm
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    This is because modern songs don’t have a hook or the hook is bad. So there is nothing to reiterate to the listener. Most so gas are vocal driven, basically speech drable, where melody is simply shoved in the background of a voice. Songs with a fade also have a good melody which they want to emphasize so since modern music has very little melody there is nothing to emphasize.

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  • September 17, 2014 at 11:24 am
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    Okay, just a bit of a guess, but it’s because we listen to music differently today. The shift to digital media has removed the usefulness of the fade.

    When most of the listening was on radios with DJ’s, the fade could be used to provide a cross-fade segue to the next track. Today, with media players, phones, or streaming services, there isn’t a DJ or anyone manually mixing the tracks to provide a cross-fade. The fade out actually gets in the way more because it seems like a “gap” between songs to more listeners when the level drops below the level at which they would pay attention to the sound.

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