A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …

The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly

The once-ubiquitous, but tragically underappreciated fade-out in music appears to be near its end. And like a classic example of itself, the decline has been long, gradual, and barely noticed.

The fade-out—the technique of ending a song with a slow decrease in volume over its last few seconds—became common in the 1950s and ruled for three decades. 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.

Composer Gustav Holst understood the power of the fade-out and employed one of the first at a 1918 concert. For the “Neptune” section of The Planets, Holst had the women’s choir sing in a room offstage. Toward the end, he instructed, the door should be closed very slowly: “This bar is to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance.” Given the subject matter—Neptune was thought to be the most distant planet in the solar system—Holst’s attempt to conjure the remoteness of the planet and the mysteries of the cosmos makes sense. Early fade-outs on record similarly ascribed real-world scenarios, like the passing train of George Olsen’s 1930 song, “Beyond the Blue Horizon.”

Back when recording was strictly mechanical, in which the vibrations of sound waves directly created the grooves on discs or cylinders, it took heroic efforts to end a recording with a fade. Patrick Feaster, an ethnomusicologist at Indiana University Bloomington who specializes in the preservation of early sound media, says doing so usually meant slowly carrying the phonograph away from the sound’s source. He points to an 1894 Berliner Gramophone record, the “Spirit of ’76,” as an early example—on the recording, we hear a fife and drum band seemingly approach and then march away.

Advances in technology played a big part in the rise of the fade-out. Electrical recording emerged in the 1920s, allowing studio engineers to increase or decrease amplification. And achieving the effect became even easier when magnetic tape recording became widely available in the ’40s and ’50s. Many early fade-outs were added simply because engineers were short on time: To meet the demands of radio, or the limited runtime of one side of a vinyl single, they had to make the record fade out early.

At some point, studio engineers found that the fade-out could also be used for dramatic effect. Just as audiences came to accept sounds on record that had no real-world equivalent, like multitracking and artificial reverb, they came to hear the fade-out as another tool in the sonic arsenal. Recording became recognized as an art form in itself and not just a way to document live performance. Classical music—even when composed after the phonograph’s invention—is still rooted in the prerecorded era and the essence of jazz is in live performance. So you don’t hear the fade-out as much in either of those circles. But the recording studio gave pop musicians new avenues for song endings, and eventually they began to take advantage.

The Beatles are a good example of this. As Ian MacDonald points out in Revolution in the Head, the Beatles preferred cold endings throughout their career, but they became more open to the fade-out after they stopped touring in 1966. No longer burdened by the need to recreate their songs onstage, they got a lot more creative with their endings, and it was during this period that they recorded some of the all-time great fade-outs.

Arguably the most famous ending in pop belongs to “A Day in the Life.” Although the final, apocalyptic chord rings for more than 40 seconds before fading to silence, it probably doesn’t qualify as a proper fade-out. (Technically, it was sort of the opposite—they extended the chord by slowly lifting the volume faders.) But the finale of “Hey Jude” meets the criteria, with its repeating chorus and artificially reduced volume (the entire coda takes an impressive four-plus minutes to wind down). There’s also the fake-out fade of “Helter Skelter” that sounds like it’s about to close down, only to recharge to full volume before crashing to an end.

The fade-out often gets dismissed as the lazy way out. But the best ones often deploy slight change-ups to recharge the listener’s attention milliseconds before all goes silent: the music box sounds introduced over the ethereal fade-out of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” for example, or the bass flutes that take unexpected prominence at the end of “Caroline, No.” It can even prompt a reconsideration of the song itself. The Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” fades not on an instrumental groove or a repeating chorus but with David Byrne singing an entirely new verse. It makes you wonder: “Just how many more lyrics are there to this song?” (That is, until an alternate version was released in 2005—not that many, it turns out.)

A good fade takes more than a steadily turned knob. Jeff Rothschild, an engineer who has worked with Bon Jovi and Nelly Furtado, explains that the volume must “go down a little quicker at first, and then it’s a longer fade.” And then silence. “That’s what sounds more natural to your ear.” Like its own miniature composition, the fade-out has a beginning, middle, and end.

And it’s when musicians cut loose. The singer ad-libs (Stevie Wonder is good at this), or the band launches into an extended jam. Turning up the volume at these points is like staying late at a show after the squares have gone home to hear the band members play for each other. Done right, the fade-out is a song’s parting gift to the attentive listener. “Thanks for staying ’til the end,” it says. “Here’s a little somethin’ for ya.”

For Abby, a character in Nicholson Baker’s 1992 novel Vox, songs that fade out sound like a final stand in the face of the inevitable: Although the singer fights to be heard “as she goes for one last high note, full of daring and hope and passionateness and everything worthwhile, she’s lost, she’s sinking down.”

David Huron, of the School of Music and Center for Cognitive and Brain Sciences at Ohio State University, has struck upon a different interpretation. “With a fade-out, music manages to delay closure indefinitely,” he writes in Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. “The ‘stop’ gesture is replaced by a gesture toward the ‘infinite.’ ” And Huron’s notion has some empirical support. Researchers at the music lab of Hanover University of Music in Germany recently had music students tap along to the beat of different versions of the same song. One ended with a fade-out, another with a cold ending. Listening to the cold ending, they stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the song’s end. Listening to the fade-out, though, their tapping continued 1.04 seconds after the song’s end. This suggests that the fade-out allows a song to live on beyond its physical self; the listener senses that it never truly ends.

So the fade-out offers us hope in the face of death and a sense of the infinite. Perhaps it’s an escape from the physical world, or a bittersweet yearning for all that can’t be known.

Or a chance to hear some dirty words. Mischievous singers have long used the fade to sneak in some radio-unfriendly ad-libs. If “Start Me Up” featured “you’d make a dead man come” as the main chorus, it would not have been a hit. But the Rolling Stones get a pass by placing that line just as the song heads to the fade.

So why has the fade-out fallen out of favor?

Let’s first consider the field of psychology. Although it seems to have been with us forever, the notion that we require closure in our lives only gained traction in the 1990s. The Need for Closure Scale was developed in 1993. This, as it turns out, is about when fade-outs started losing ground to songs with cold endings—or, yes, closure. Is it a stretch to blame the American Psychological Association? Perhaps.

Let’s shift our accusatory fingers, then, to the iPod. That’s where our itchy thumbs have been stationed since Apple introduced the device in 2001. With a mere depression of the fast-forward button to get to the next tune, why wait out those last dwindling seconds? “It’s all about that,” says Itaal Shur, a songwriter and producer who co-authored the Santana hit “Smooth” (nice guitar jam in the fade-out). “We’re living in a skip culture.” Forget about the final seconds of a song, Shur says—go to a club and you likely won’t even get to a song’s third verse before the DJ goes on to the next tune. Music is now all about the build-up, he said. Once it hits a peak, time to move on. (Our attention spans might deserve more credit: A Calgary, Alberta, radio station adopted a format in August promising “twice the music in half the time” by editing songs down to about two minutes each. The format was abandoned weeks later after a backlash.)

Perhaps the blame lies with new studio technology. In today’s studios, new editing tools have made it easier to fix mistakes, Shur said. For producers who (wrongly, in my estimation) view the fade-out as only a cop-out, they can now patch in a “proper” ending with the click of a mouse. If Beatles producer George Martin had Pro Tools, “Strawberry Fields Forever” might not have that first fade-out (he used it to mask a flub), one of most memorable parts of a great song.

Of course, the answer could be more simple. Perhaps songs stopped fading for the same reason we stop wearing certain styles of clothing—that is, the mysterious caprice of the collective consciousness.

“As soon as it becomes the way to do it, that’s the way to do it,” Shur says. “And people don’t even know why.” A style slowly falls out of fashion, and before you know it, it’s gone.