There are three ways a song can end.
There can be a defined, abrupt conclusion —something radio people call a “cold” ending. Other songs come to an end with a nice last chord that slowly disappears into silence. The third way to end a recording is to have the catchy part of the song continue while simultaneously dropping the volume until there’s nothing left. That’s called the fade-out. Thousands upon thousands of tracks end this way.
But who came up with this idea? The thought came to me the other day when I caught myself listening to some music while at the mall. Fading a song into nothingness is peculiar to recordings; you almost never, ever see it done in live performances.
No one knows who invented the technique. The fade-out couldn’t have appeared any earlier than the late 1940s, when magnetic tape — an invention of the Nazis brought to America by allied soldiers — replaced the practice of one-take mechanical recordings cut directly onto a master copy. For the first time, recordings could be edited, multi-tracked and, yes, faded out.
So why did this catch on? Some composers and arrangers felt liberated because for the first time, they didn’t have to come up with a concrete way to end a song. Lazy, perhaps, but it certainly solved the problem of having to find an ending.
Another possibility is that producers or artists decided that the fade-out was the perfect way to emphasize the hook of the song — the signature melody line or construction that forms the basis of the composition — over and over again as the track ended. That way, they theorized, the hook would be burned into the listener’s mind.
Another theory subscribed to by musicians, artists and managers was that fading out a song using the hook left the impression that the song never ended. Something so glorious and dramatic shouldn’t have an end. The song was eternal and could be revisited ad infinitum simply by moving the needle back.
My theories are a lot less esoteric. Back then, radio stations often refused to play songs that were longer than three minutes. The quickest way to cut a long song down to the maximum allowable length was simply to fade it out. The other thing to consider is that the fade-out caught on just because it sounded – well – cool.
And it stuck.