The fade: More than just a haircut


The fade: When a song doesn’t have the guts to end properly.

Austrian composer Joseph Haydn is usually cited as having invented the fade-out in 1772. Hegemonic implications aside, it’s a pretty good story. Haydn’s boss, Prince Nicolaus Esterházy, used to spend the summer season at his rural estate, but loved it so much that he started extending his visits to 10 months of the year. This kept his Viennese musicians away from their families and city life for what they considered an unacceptable amount of time. But when your CEO is a Prince it’s difficult to know how to raise the question of overtime.

Here’s what went down, according to A Guide to Orchestral Music: The Handbook for Non-Musicians, written by Ethan Mordden, somewhat confusingly, in the present tense:

The musicians complain to Haydn. Shortly thereafter, the last movement of Haydn’s latest symphony is not so much played as allowed to peter out: one by one the instrumentalists snuff their candles and depart, eventually leaving only Haydn and his concertmaster (the chief of the first violins), the impeccable Tomasini. Enough said? The next day, the estate is evacuated.

So the fade started out as some passive-aggressive bullshit. This suited my initial argument, which was going to be all about how fade-outs are lazy and annoying. But during what I am generously going to call ‘my research’, I’ve conceded a grudging respect for them.

Here’s Haydn’s fade. It’s pretty cool:

The next most famous early example comes from 1916, when Gustav Holst used a fade-out in the final movement of The Planets, at the end of ‘Neptune, the Mystic’. At the time (… and now again, I guess), Neptune was the most remote planet in the solar system, and I defy you not to be transported there when the choir comes in (just after 4:25 in the video below). Holst is so ridiculously awesome and timeless, he’s like The Ramones of classical music. If Ridley Scott had lifted this piece of music whole and plonked it into Prometheus, nobody would have blinked an eye.[1]

The technology to produce a digital fade didn’t exist back in the nineteen-teens, so Holst rustled up an analogue version. His score notes specify that the chorus be placed in a room separate from the rest of the orchestra, behind a door that is ‘slowly and silently closed’ during the final bar, which is ‘to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance’:

Choruses in Neptune

Jumping forward a few years, in a 2014 article for Slate, William Weir worked out how many fade-outs there have been per year in the Billboard year-end top 10, from 1946-2013:

Number of fade outs per year

I went ahead and worked out the number for 2014: zero. Starting from 2006, that’s a very sudden decline. So why?

Fade outs give the musicians the opportunity to wig out a little bit, or sneak in some dirty words. Or get to another appointment [2]. But usually it’s because they couldn’t think of a proper ending. But when chosen deliberately, with malice of forethought, a fade does make you … feel something. I’ve been thinking hard about what it makes you feel, but it’s difficult to pin down. Maybe it’s just an impression of infinity.

David Byrne’s ‘Life During Wartime’ – a ‘jab at the cold war generation’ that became ‘the New Wave anthem of the early 80s’ – is slightly different. The final verse continues as the song fades away, creating the impression that the lyrics go on forever:


In an alternate version, released in 2005, the secret words were revealed and were roundly judged to be a bit of a let-down:


Feast your eyes on the only Billboard year-end top 10 between 2011 and 2014 to fade out; Robin Thicke’s moral-outrage magnet, otherwise known as ‘Blurred Lines’:

Wow. Catchy as it is, that song is almost unbearably long. Seems almost certain that in this case Thicke and his mates used a fade-out to make sure we plebs were aware that the party with the girls with the amazing boobs was carrying on without us.

There’s an interesting pattern of fades in the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, but I’m still working on the correlations (maybe there aren’t any). Here’s a mix of all the songs with fades, anyhow:


Finally, here’s where I got the bad pun for the title of this post:


Here is your reward for reading this far. A different kind of fade.


1. After typing that I did a quick Google and found this. Uncanny.

2. Ctrl+F on ‘fade’ here.

Author: ProjectJennifer

Project Jennifer was one of the most complex, expensive, and secretive intelligence operations of the Cold War at a cost of about $800 million ($3.6 billion in 2012 dollars).

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