Why do pop songs end with a fade-out?

I’m not a fan of pop-music - I prefer orchestral - yet cannot avoid the stuff intruding into my airspace. But one thing has bugged me for some time: when a DJ plays a pop song, at the end it typically fades out rather than come to a definitive end, whereas orchestral pieces almost always have a definite end. Why is this?

My WAG is that it is easier than having the beat come to an end.

All well-written stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Endings are hard.

A college professor of mine who was a bass player in a jazz band in the 60’s told the story of meeting a famous jazz composer. The composer’s first words to my teacher: “Got any good endings?”

Ah, youngsters, let me tell you of the days when radio signals had to travel uphill both ways, carrying buckets of coal that brawny men shoveled into the maws of steam-powered turntables.

Or at least the days of 1967, when four-track stereo mixing boards were first coming into use. The Beatles were recording the album to end all albums, and doing so on a mixture of drugs. They wanted Sgt. Pepper’s to have Effects with a capital E and they got them.

One of their Effects was to call a full orchestra into the studio and tell them to improvise during a 24-bar crescendo. After that:

Those were the days of records played on turntables. Some turntables lacked (some deliberately) the automatic lift at the end of a side. The needle would stay in this groove for the “infinite ending,” perfect to groove to, especially those on drugs.

I’m not saying that this was the first ever such effect, but that it is by far the most important. After The Beatles did it, it was tres cool and everybody did it.

The fade-out is a mixture of studio technology - much easier to manipulate a fade with a mixing board than to do it live - and the cool factor.

If a song on the radio ends with a fade-out, it gives the DJ (or did, back when real live DJ’s were picking and playing the records on the radio) leeway as to when to start talking over the end of the song, or starting up the next song.

Which makes me wonder if the fade-out ending is more common on singles than on album tracks, or if the fade-out endings you hear on the radio are ever artificially induced.

Of course, a classical composition, like a symphony, is planned out and written down, down to the last note. The composer writes out the ending in full, and he generally doesn’t write “fade out here.” Pop music, by contrast, is much more of a recorded medium, and it’s the record producer, not the composer, who decides how the song will end.

And orchestral pieces are typically longer than a three-minute pop song and maybe for that reason they deserve a big, significant ending, not just a repetitious fade-out.

If you look at orchestral dance music - waltzes and the like - they usually don’t go on very long but have definitive ends. Another example would be Ravel’s Bolero as used by Torvill and Dean.

Yeah, you’re right. I was just throwing out ideas; I didn’t mean to imply that every one of them applied to every composition/song.

My bet is on “requirements of air-play.” As mentioned above, pop music is very much a child of the radio. DJs need to be able to fade in/fade out songs as they switch from one turntable to another. A song that ends abruptly makes it harder for the DJ to segue into another song, and is jarring, to boot. Most classical numbers are written to be performed by themselves. They end, people applaud, the orchestra members switch music, then they play the next piece. Radio songs run one into another into another. Fade outs make it all easier. Not to mention that back when DJs actually chose which songs to play, a “hard-ending” song wouldn’t get the airplay.

The pop fade-out came when songs were written specifically for an artist and a recording, and not as pop standards for any singer. In other words, the fade-out came with the singer (or group)-songwriter era, when recording artists wrote their own songs.

I also don’t buy the DJ theory. Top 40 radio got by just fine for a decade without song fades.

I don’t buy the DJ theory either. Also, there are still plenty of pop songs (and rock songs, and country songs, etc.) that do end cold.

My completely uninformed guess is that fade-outs came into being as the result of artists who spent most of their time in the studio, and very little (if any) time performing live. I’ve never heard anyone do a fade-out in a live performance, unless it was deliberate (e.g. Hey Jude going on and on until McCartney decides to stop playing, which is different from a definite cold ending). When songs are composed and recorded with no live performance, a clean ending isn’t necessary … so they just fade out. Of course, sometimes fades are deliberate, some studio acts have cold endings, etc.

Fred Astaire’s 1935 recording of Top Hat faded out. One of the first surely must have been The Coaltown Cadets by Arthur Collins on one of those early 4 minute cylinders. Right around 1910.

I don’t understand the point here. What difference would that make whether to have a fade out or not?

Man, I lament the by-degrees but sure passing of the fade-out. I love fade-outs!

I also do not buy the DJ theory. I think maybe its just about not leaving you hanging in the breeze with a sudden ending. If you are grooving to the song, you get a bit of a warning that its about to be over.

Often they probably just couldn’t figure out how to end the songs, so they faded out to avoid having to come up with something. Or, what Ethilrist said.

When you are a songwriter writing a song primarily as sheet music, you have to write a conventional ending. But when you are a recording artist writing a song for yourself to perform on a recording, you don’t have to have a conventional ending. You can do studio-only things like have a fade-out at the end of the song. You can add reverb. You can multi-track your own voice. Knowing that the song you are writing will be a studio-recorded product, and not sheet music for others, opens up the songwriting process and the concept of a performance.

I think it was just something someone tried, others thought it was cool, and it caught on. Kind of like the last-chorus key change and the saxophone solo. This one has taken much longer to die, though.

There are plenty of after-the-fact “reasons” for the fade-out, but they all seem to be unsubstantiated. As a kid, I was told the technique kept the song resonating in the listener’s head after the song was over, increasing the likelihood of them buying the record. Clearly nonsense.

OK, that makes sense. Thanks for elaborating.

I’ve noticed just recently that on a few “compilation” CDs that my husband and I bought for “car tunes”, these CDs often have what is considered the “Radio Edit” of many singles. However, we own some of the original albums these “Radio Edit” songs come from, and the song on the original does not fade out, but the song on the compilation, besides being chopped up here and there, tend to fade out. Sometimes the music videos are not the radio edit, either, but the originals, with no fade.

I haven’t gotten any sleep yet tonight (and it’s now almost 7am) so my mind is pretty fuzzy, but one example is the Pet Shop Boys “I Get Along”. On the compilation we bought, it’s missing a line, and the song fades. But on the original, the track doesn’t fade, it wraps up nicely.

I don’t know if that helps at all. I was just thinking about this yesterday, and I had figured that bands might release some mixes of a song specifically for the radio - edited for time and possibly add a fade where there wasn’t one originally.