Why Do Some Songs Fade Out at the End?

Taylor Swift loves a good fade-out.
Smile/Stone via Getty Images

With 31 tracks, the deluxe version of Taylor Swift’s 2024 album The Tortured Poets Department may seem to go on forever. That can definitely be said of the title track. Rather than come to a definitive conclusion, “The Tortured Poets Department” employs what’s known as a “fade-out,” where the song gets gradually quieter and quieter in the closing seconds until the track is over. There’s no final chord or sung note to signal a hard ending.

Some younger Swifties may be tempted to credit their girl with inventing this technique (and indeed, Swift has used it throughout her career, as one intrepid Redditer has documented), but the fade-out has been around for decades—centuries if you include live musical performances.

While writing his “Symphony No. 45” in 1772, Austrian composer Joseph Haydn conceived of an ending whereby each member of the orchestra would stop playing and leave the stage. This had the effect of slowly lowering the volume until the piece was finished. 

Similarly, while presenting his orchestral suite The Planets in 1918, English composer Gustav Holst positioned a female chorus in a room adjacent to the stage. Toward the piece’s conclusion, the door to the room was slowly closed, dampening the sound until there was silence. 

The fade-out wasn’t really a thing in the early decades of recorded music because in those days, sonic vibrations were cut straight onto wax discs. In order to achieve a fade-out, the musicians themselves would have needed to gently decrease the volume of their instruments. It was only with the advent of magnetic tape recording in the 1950s that it became possible to fade a song out simply by pulling the faders on the mixing board.

So why was the fade-out invented in the first place? There are many explanations, as NPR learned in 2010, when they asked a panel of experts. Some, like author and historian Nolan Porterfield, believe it was the result of songwriters being unable to think of good endings or simply liking the sound of the fade. Others, like producer and engineer Elliott Mazer, suggest the fade-out was a means of getting a song’s hook stuck in listeners’ heads, as the tactic is generally employed on the chorus section.

The consensus, however, seems to be that the fade-out was invented to appease radio programmers. After all, pop radio favors three-minute songs—a run length easily achieved with a fade-out—and if a tune gets progressively softer in the final seconds, it gives DJs time to yack about the next song or whatever products they’re looking to sell. 

The fade-out has come in and out of fashion over the years. Its heyday seems to have spanned the late ’60s through the early ’90s, according to a 2014 Slate piece. But it can still be heard on some of today’s biggest hits. The biggest music story of 2024 prior to Taylor’s Tortured Poets album was the feud between Drake and Kendrick Lamar. The song that kicked off the battle? Lamar, Future, and Metro Boomin’s “Like That,” which ends with a fade-out.

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