Like the proverbial old soldier, some songs never die — they just fade away. Think of "Hey Jude," in which The Beatles hammer the closing refrain for more than three minutes before drifting into silence.
In a recent Slate article, music history and technology reporter William Weir says this used to be the popular way to end a pop song: Repeat your hook while the volume gradually eases off. Weir examined Billboard's Top 10 songs for every year since 1946 to see where the technique popped up.
"It peaked in 1985: Every one of the Top 10 songs of the year-end chart is a fade-out," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "By the 1990s, you start seeing a noticeable decline. It just gets worse for the fade-out after that."
In fact, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" is the only major hit of the past several years to fit the bill. As NPR has covered before, the reason to add a fade-out varies from song to song. So, Weir says, does the artistry applied: The Beach Boys' "Caroline, No," for example, uses the opportunity to introduce a new element.
"Brian Wilson is meticulous about all recording aspects, so it shouldn't be surprising that he came up with some new ways to make the fade-out stand out," Weir says. "Just as you think you've heard everything in the song, this bass flute takes prominence in the last dwindling seconds. It really makes you pay attention all over again."
As studio tricks go, Weir says the fade-out is an easy one to pull off — but that hasn't always been the case. To learn how musicians created fades before modern recording technology, check out the radio version of this story at the audio link.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We end this hour by talking about a classic ending - the fade-out. It's a musical effect that's used in the Beatles' song "Hey Jude."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY JUDE")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Na, na, na, na-na-na-na...
SIEGEL: Like the proverbial old soldier, "Hey Jude" doesn't end. It just fades away. The fade-out, as opposed to a song with an actual ending, was pretty popular in its heyday before the millennium. But it has now almost completely disappeared. The only hit in the last few years to use the technique is the song "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke. "Blurred Lines" has a proper beginning.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLURRED LINES")
ROBIN THICKE: (Singing) If you can't hear what I'm trying to say...
SIEGEL: But at the end, it trails off like the sound of a marching band that's marching away from us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLURRED LINES")
THICKE: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey...
SIEGEL: Over the past three years of the Billboard Top 10, this is the only song with a fade-out. And for that fact, we're indebted to William Weir, who wrote about this trend for Slate. Welcome to the program.
WILLIAM WEIR: Hi, thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: And when and why did the fade-out fade out?
WEIR: From 1946 to today, you look at the Top year-end 10 songs, it peaked in 1985. Every one of the Top 10 songs of the year-end chart is a fade-out. By the 1990s, you start seeing a noticeable decline. It just gets worse for the fade-out after that.
SIEGEL: Now, I remember when disc jockeys commonly talked over the fade-out, just as they talked over the vamp before the next song began. Were the record companies producing fade-outs to accommodate the disc jockeys or were the disc jockeys taking advantage of the way the records were being made?
WEIR: I think it was kind of symbiotic. I mean, the fade-out was to some degree a very convenient tool for making sure that the song fit the format for radio, make sure that - the time limits. And yeah, it gave DJs a chance to sort of speak over the end of it, go to the next commercial. But these days, I mean, with so much programming now done automatically by computer and the trend of fewer DJs, that tool is no longer as needed.
SIEGEL: At first, a fade-out, I assumed, was something that must happen in the studio where someone can turn the knob down on record. But actually there have been real-life live fades that have been recorded as well.
WEIR: That's true. Gustav Holst with his Planets during the "Neptune" section, he had the women's choir singing in a room offstage with the instructions that the door closes very slowly so that, as he put it, until the sound is lost in the distance. His intent was to create the sense of how distant Neptune was and sort of conjure the mysteries of the cosmos.
SIEGEL: And you're saying closing the door on the chamber they were in was easier than having them all march out of the concert hall at that moment.
SIEGEL: What do you mean by the studio fade when you write about fade away endings?
WEIR: There are different stages of the technology. I mean, you know, pre-studio would be things like The Planets where you just do it live. Then you had electrical recording, which you could decrease or increased the amplification on the microphones, but even that was a little bit difficult. Once you had magnetic tape recording then you could do it in post-production, it made it a lot easier.
SIEGEL: I read in your article that there have been some fade-outs that actually were kind of creative, that people introduced new sounds in these dwindling last seconds of a song.
WEIR: Right. Brian Wilson is meticulous about all recording aspects, so it shouldn't be surprising that he came up with some new ways to make the fade-out stand out, one was "Caroline, No."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROLINE, NO")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Oh, Caroline, no...
WEIR: Where just as you think you've heard everything in the song, this base flute kind of takes prominence in the last dwindling seconds. It really makes you kind up in pay attention all over again and then it ends.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEACH BOYS SONG, "CAROLINE, NO")
WEIR: 10cc with their song "I'm Not In love."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M NOT IN LOVE")
10CC: (Singing) I'm not in love.
WEIR: That piece has a whole host of new sounds, including a music box.
SIEGEL: Might we infer from the Robin Thicke song "Blurred Lines" that, you know, there could be some retro trend here that we're going to hear the fade-away feedback in?
WEIR: Well, it always seems like these things come back at some point and "Blurred Lines" did have a very retro feel to it, so I can see the fade-out feigning back in, definitely.
SIEGEL: Well, thank you for speaking with us. That's William Weir, who writes about music history and technology. He wrote about this for Slate. And he joined us from New Haven, Connecticut. Thanks.
WEIR: Thank you.
SIEGEL: And of course we'll have to end with our own fade-out. I'm just going to keep on talking about this interesting phenomena of songs that don't end with a clear ending, but simply go away, and it might be a way to end other kinds of radio programs, too. By the way, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.