28 March 2005

The fade cadence

I have a problem with pop songs that fade out at the end. Maybe. There's a restless uncertainty about it as if the musicians couldn't decide what to do. So they do nothing. There are two important points to consider. First, what are the possible intentions of the musicians involved (the composers, performers, engineers, etc.)? Second, what are the possible impressions it leaves on the listener?

In composed music from before the advent of electronic recording, the fade out's ancestor was simply a decrescendo and an increasingly sparse arrangement throughout a coda [Wikipedia] section. I've heard this technique in Haydn symphonies, and I'm sure there are numerous instances in others' symphonies as well as chamber and solo works (to some degree even in the Beethoven Rondo I'm working on currently). The fade out found in recordings differs in two ways. First, no final chord is arrived at. Although the song sound must end at some point, the decrescendo is generally gradual enough to mask the actual ending where you hit "speaker" silence. Second, the decrescendo is applied to the sound and not the performance. In acoustic (non-amplified) music, there is no reciprocal to playing forte with the volume turned down.

Most fade outs appear as repeated chord progressions either as vocal choruses or as instrumental solos.

The reasons to end a song with a fade out could be unique across different musicians or across the same musicians for different songs. Since it is such a standard method to end a song, choosing a fade out could be the norm, and choosing to compose a definitive ending could be the more unusual choice. "Unless I say so, end with a fade out." We can only guess. The most common explanation I've read is that the musicians are lazy. We can never really know, but that's certainly a possibility. An equally possible reason is that they wanted to emphasize a specific phrase. If the chorus is used for the fade out, the lyric content is being emphasized. If it's an instrumental or solo section, then the musicians might be emphasizing an attractive melody or a harmonic progression that lends itself to improvisation. And finally, with improvisation, the musicians may be just showcasing their technical skills.

Some of these intentions may be communicated to the listener with this technique, some may not. However, the fade out as a style communicates more than just reduplication of themes or improvisatory skill. I think it gives the listener the impression that the song continues forever. The choice of content of the fade out serves the intentions listed above, but the execution of the fade out carries with it extra semantic baggage. The closure you feel with a standard coda isn't achieved. The volume approaches and never quite makes it to absolute silence, so the listener is left with a feeling of ellipsis.

[ posted by sstrader on 28 March 2005 at 11:04:58 PM in Music ]