Why do some songs fade out at the end of a record? Here’s the answer.

[This was my weekly column for GlobalNews.ca. – AC]

There are three ways you can bring a song to a close.

The first is known as a “cold end,” an abrupt, very defined conclusion that makes it very clear that the song is over. The second is a “last chord” in which everything concludes on a final note that’s allowed to naturally fade away. The third and final way to wrapped things up is with a “fade-out” where the chorus or another catchy part of the song gets quieter and quieter into nothingness.

When you think about the history of composing, the fade-out is weird, although not unhead-of. In 1772, Joseph Hadyn composed what became known as the Farewell Symphony (Symphony No. 45). As the piece wound down, each of the musicians would extinguish the candles on their music stands and leave the stage one-by-one, gradually reducing the volume until nothing remained. The Planets by Gustave Holst (1916) requires a woman’s chorus offstage in a room with a door. The piece ends with the door being gradually closed so that the audience heard less and less of the chorus until the door was fully shut.

Another interesting experiment in fading away came in 1894 when a performance of The Spirit of ’76 was committed to record. The band got louder by moving towards the recording device and then quieter by walking away. Then we have 1919’s Barking Dog by the Ted Lewis Jazz Band which seems to have a bit of a fade that didn’t involve musicians traipsing all over the place.

A better example would be Count Basie’s Miss Thing. When performed live, the song ran over five minutes, far too long for one side of an old 78 RPM record. The recording faded down about three minutes in after which the listener flipped the record to hear the music fade up again at the start of side two.

The modern fade-out began to be a thing starting in the very late 1940s. To explain why we need to enter the recording studio.

Keep reading.

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.

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