For centuries, a song ended when the composer/musicians said it did. The music wrapped up in some kind of way that signaled that it was definitely over.
But then something changed when electronic recording technology came along: Instead of just ending, producers and engineers had the option of having the musicians continue to play while they electronically faded the song into silence. This became known as a the “fade-out.”
There had been experiments with these sorts of musical conclusions before. In the earliest days of acoustic recording–this would be the late 1800s–options included having the band march away from the recording apparatus. Alternatively, someone could move the recording gear slowly away from the performers.
Then on September 29, 1918, British composer Gustav Holst had the premiere of his orchestral suite called The Planets. Instructions for the performance are quite complicated, especially for the last movement called “Neptune.” Holst stated that the women’s chorus was to be placed in a room off to the side of the stage where they could be heard but not seen by the audience. When the final bar of the performance was reached, the women were to sing that bar over and over again as the door to this room (and to the audience) was slowly closed. The result was a gradual fade-out of the music. Lo-tech, but it worked.
With the evolution of modern audio recording using magnetic tape and recording consoles in the early 1950s, performers, producers, and engineers have used the fade-out as a way of bringing many a song to a close. Think about the long singalong fadeaway conclusion of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”
Who was the first to do this? Unclear, but it became a trend for decades. Fading a long allegedly left the listener with the subliminal feeling that the hook went on forever and ever.
I first took notice of the, er, fade of the fade during the 90s when a lot of alt-rock artists insisted on ending songs concretely in what we radio people called a “cold ending” (a sudden stop to a long) or a “last chord” (ending the song on a final chord that naturally fades out).
Now the trend away from fades has sped up. Check out this article from Pocket by William Weir.
“Among the year-end top 10 songs for 1985, there’s not one cold ending. But it’s been on the downturn since the ’90s, and the past few years have been particularly unkind. The year-end top 10 lists for 2011, 2012, and 2013 yield a total of one fade-out, Robin Thicke’s purposely retro “Blurred Lines.” Not since the ’50s have we had such a paucity of fade-out songs.”
Read the whole article here. (Thanks to Rob for the link.)