Forget the Fade-Out

Jerry Lucky Commentary August 2010

Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2010 All Rights Reserved


There is an old axiom, ďform follows functionĒ which to paraphrase the opening line in Wikipedia is to say the shape of

something should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose. When we attempt to apply this principle to music

Iím struck by a number of things that become glaringly apparent. For discussion here let me focus on the aspect of time.

Stick with me on this one.


Before the advent of musical recording, time or the length of musical composition was determined mainly by the time the artist felt they needed to convey the meaning or essence of the piece. The modern convention of time was less of a determining factor. Symphonies could be 30, 40 or even 80 minutes. And yet compositions in other musical styles might only last as long as a musical jingle.


But as we moved into the age of recording suddenly the music had to begin conforming to the dictates of the cylinder or disc. In a way the form began to follow the function. If it was to be re-played it had to fit the recording constraints. And as the process developed we got to a point where you could record up to 20 or perhaps as much as 30 minutes per side of a vinyl disc (although the quality began to suffer). That time constraint changed again when the industry adopted the CD disc.


I have always wondered why the CD was created to hold 80-minutes of music. It seems such an arbitrary number. The answer was recently revealed while reading the book Appetite for Self Destruction, where the author revealed that in the early eighties while the Phillips and Sony teams were working to develop CD technology the leader of the Sony team established a mandate for the technology to hold eighty minutes of music BECAUSE Beethovenís Ninth his favourite piece of music was that long and he wanted it to fit on the disc complete. Itís true, thatís the reason check it out for yourself.  


But letís go back for a minute, back to the time of the early days of the Beatles. When you look at their early tunes you find them all to be about 2-minutes long. And most of them tended to fade out. As time went on the songs collectively got longer. By the end of the sixties, while many bands were recording much longer pieces, the average length of a piece on commercial radio was between three and four minutes and still most if not all faded out at the end. To this day the average length of a song hasnít gotten much longer, all are about four minutes and, yes, most of them fade out.


So whatís with this idea of fading out the music? Where did that come from?


I think most would agree that it was radio that started this. Radio not only dictated how long a song should be to get played on the air it also dictated how it should end because it was easier for the announcer to know when to come in if the song simply faded out rather than coming to an abrupt end. I personally remember some anxious moments of knowing when to come in at the end of ďSheís So HeavyĒ off of Abbey Road. Once again form-follows-function. In many respects the advent of CD technology has brought music back a little closer to what it was like before the limitations of vinyl. Now an artist has more time to determine their music to be as long or as short as they want it and depending on the determination of the artist, the dictates of the industry be damned. 


Simply put, the fade out is a contrivance and I believe it has no place in progressive rock music. All songs when played live have an ending, even the songs that faded out on disc. Why not have put the ending there in the first place? Itís only in the artificial world of radio and records that fading out suddenly becomes an element of composition. When I hear a fade-out it says; you couldnít come up with a proper ending, you were too lazy to try or you simply ran out of time. None of which seem to me to be valid excuses.


This is why I canít stand any composition simply fading out. To my ears, itís a cop-out. Put a real ending there even if you just stop playing and let the closing notes fade outÖbut please donít artificially turn down the record player for meÖthat just sounds so lame. At least thatís what I think.


Jerry Lucky (8/1/10)