There is no third way

There are three steps to heaven. The best democracy has an executive, legislature and a judiciary. Basic technical drawing at first year level will show you that designs have a front elevation, end elevation and plan. This three-dimensional world we live in just loves to hit us with threes. The post-impressionist French artist, Paul Cézanne, defined natural things by their geometric shapes. In nature everything was either a cylinder, a cone or a sphere. I could go on with more trinities but it’s time to get the point and it concerns that most basic of popular art: the song.

There are many genres of songs from bluegrass to electro and everything in between and outside. And there are many ways to write a song. Some follow the tried and trusted- verse, chorus, verse, chorus, break, chorus- line. Others try to be more clever by being more instrumental, having varying themes and mood swings in the song and doing away with a chorus. Going back to our threes it was common for most songs to be a three-minute record.

The start of a song also offers a wide breadth of varied starting methods. This can be a big power chord or an a cappella introduction and everything in between and outside. At this juncture it would not be a lie to say that there are more than three ways to start a song. Some performers even leave in the 1.2.3 countdown. During Space Oddity David Bowie reversed the countdown all the way from, not Memphis, from ten to lift-off. This did tie-in with the storyline of the lyric.

As we can see there are many types of songs in vastly differing musical styles and they can all have a completely random beginning depending on the whim of the songwriter. The composer runs into a more troublesome area when he reaches the end of the song. This is because there are only two ways to end a song. The two ways are with an abrupt halt or a fade-out.

The abrupt halt does bring closure and signifies the end. I prefer the sudden stop as it’s as if you’ve slammed the book shut and all has been resolved. The fade-out is a bit of a cop-out. These fades can last longer than most of the song. Hey Jude, anyone.

I have to laugh at fade-out songs because when the artist performs these songs live they can’t fade them out in front of an audience. How can you ask a crowd to partake in a fade-out? There would be too many variables as everyone would have their own idea of when the fade-out should stop. It would be chaotic. Therefore, the creators of fade-out songs change their tune and introduce an improvised ending. Ending with a bang. Why didn’t they do that in the first place?

Another subtle tactic used in live version fade-out songs is the morph into another song. The song is fading and fading before a new track is played resulting in the inevitable cheer from the crowd. The band might think they’ve got away with it but it’s cheating. The song has not been offered the way it originated.

Fade-out songs show a lack of talent as everyone should know when to call it a day. It’s just that fade-out songs make me so angry I don’t know when to stop. I mean, who on this earth wants to hear the same tune dying away in the distance? The Spices called it right- Stop right now, thank you very much.

20 thoughts on “There is no third way”

  1. It is easy to think of fade-outs as cop-outs; it is the easy option to end a song when perhaps there is no progressive climax or satisfying conclusion, sometimes called resolution in music (harmonically speaking). However as most good tunes can stay with us, even after the end, then it is not so unusual for the song to imitate that effect by fading away, like in the old cowboy films, the hero trotting off into the sunset on his trusted horse.

    Another trick to lengthen a song in danger of losing its potency is for the key to rise, mostly by a semitone but in some cases by two or three semitones, some songs even climbing a range of successive semitones.

    So I sort of disagree with you – there are guys who do want to hear the same tune “dying away in the distance”, much like one watching an old friend walk away or seeing someone off at the train station. Don;t we remain on the platform waving as the train leaves the station; don’t we wait till the train is out of sight before we turn on our heels and go for home?

    But yes, the fade-out is a get-out clause!

  2. Hey Jude! I agree it is a long fade out, but I like it. On the other hand, did you know that the longest note in ‘recording history’ is the final note of ‘A Day In The Life’? Apparently!

    The Beatles ended many of their songs with iconic final notes, but it was in ‘I Feel Fine’ that they introduced the deliberate acoustic feedback for the opening note. John said he was there before Jimi Hendrix or any of the other greats. EMI had a policy against the use of acoustic feedback (why, I am not sure) so the Beatles claimed it was a mistake. Personally, I believe it was a fortuitous accident.

    The Romans could never blasted off like Major Tom since they did not have the number zero! They would have gone from a second before blast off to a second after.

  3. Definitely maybe, as a wise man once said. I had a tutor at university who hated my liking for the imperfect and the unresolved; the essay or the poem that did not draw everything to a neat conclusion. I thought she was neurotic; she thought I was a sloppy post modernist. Life is not full of neatly rounded endings so why on earth would art be? Zadie Smith once wrote a brilliant essay about negative capability; her argument being that elements of muddle and doubt – the unresolved bits – are the best bits, because they make for epiphany and enlightenment.

  4. BB = interesting and thanks for the Zadie Smith link. In music, certainly classical music, elements of “muddle and doubt – the unresolved bits” are often found WITHIN the composition, (dissonance, broken harmony, major and minor key shifts) yet are brought together in triumphant or liberated climax and here I think off Oliver Messiaen who wrote clusters of toothache type chords before finally resolving into majors.

    I remember a TV programme in which Picasso was filmed painting on the same canvass for weeks on end. The film was edited to show the movement and changes day to day, but invariably, whenever I had thought the painting complete, so Picasso over-painted and the whole picture would begin to change shape, both in composition and colour. God knows how he decided it was finished; In my view he had painted over several pictures over a course of time.

    But in art, in any art gallery, we see what appears to be the definitive picture. An abstract painting may appear unresolved in structure yet it is a fixed image. I’m not sure I’m getting what you are saying when you question why art should have neatly rounded endings. I don’t suppose art need be symmetrical to make a statement …. is this what you are saying?

    But popular song format, like instant coffee, has a formula. Pop songs need to finish within 3 minutes or so; that is what we have come to expect. How do we know when its finished? If the recording has stopped, does that mean the music has completed its journey? In most song structures, the use of chord progression and modulation lead us to anticipate and expect a certain ending; we are built, are we not, to find resolution and structure in what we do. (I believe autistic children find continuity through harmonic resolution.)

    On the other hand I could be talking bollox. Best have a bowl of cornflakes and an instant coffee!

  5. PG…this is the third time I have tried to comment. Dodgy internet connection; loose wires, laptop otn its last legs. How is that for an unresolved ending…I dislike dissonance and unresolved conflict in classical music; I need the familiarity of structure, like a child needs a lullaby, possibly. In fiction, I think it is different; doubt and superstition and dissonance throw a different light onto things. I can’t remember if it was Zadie Smith who said that caricatures, in life as in art, march to their deaths to the tune of a cliche, and that is because we pigeon hole people and things.
    Lots of authors have bemoaned the falseness of the narrative and the neat ending. EM Forster bemoaned the fact that the story had to be told at all, in Aspects of the Novel; Jane Austen also remarked that Pride and Prejudice was too bright and hard and sparkling, or something. And that famous line; reader I married him, never rang true with me. It made me think; what happy ever after, with a wife jailer?

  6. Janus; It works for me, beautifully, when listening to say, Mozart – but I always found the acrobatics of the allegro far too tricky to play. Laziness, I suppose, or perhaps my fingers were too small. But going back to unresolved endings in music; Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique fades into nothing, and the only resolution there seems to be a total void, almost like death. I always feel that there are questions hanging in the air after the final note.

  7. I may not know much about all this high falutin’ stuff, but one thing I do know. If I were to wade through a book only to find it just faded away repeating the penultimate chapter without a proper ending, then my fur would go frizzy. Same with music.


  8. Well, it does boil down to that, I suppose.
    I can’t help but think it is so crude, though; I have every sympathy with EM Forster when he says yes, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story…

  9. Janus,

    This is the sonata form in c#, which I think is the best key, don’t you think?. This is a nice little tune even though it is of the fade-out variety (you’ll find that out if you get that far).
    Prepare to buy some new eardrums. 🙂

    Oh yeah, uh, play it loud.

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