On the most recent installment of their pop-obsessed series “Earworm,” Vox heroically comes to the defense of a production technique that has fallen out of favor in recent years: The pop music fade out. These days, when a pop song ends by slowly trailing off into nothingness, listeners see it as a bit of a cop out. Like the artist couldn’t figure out how to properly end the song so they just brought all the levels down during the final chorus. Moreover, in our fast-paced, content-hungry world, a slow fade can be seen as a pointless interlude that’s simply impeding the listener from hearing the next song before their attention span runs out.
But, as the video points out, the fade out is widely misunderstood. Though it was initially only employed to shorten pop songs for radio play, the fade out become a purposeful technique used by producers starting in the 1960s and continued to gain popularity over the next few decades. Whether they knew it or not, part of the reason nearly every artist in the ’80s ended their songs with a slow fade is because a fade out has a specific scientific effect on the listener. A 2013 study found that when listeners tap along to a song with a hard cut ending, they stop tapping 1.4 seconds before the song ends, but if the song has a fade out, they stop tapping 1.4 seconds after the song ends. A good fade makes the song live on a little bit longer in the mind of the listener.
That’s why it’s so jarring to hear more recent, infectious pop tunes like “Somebody That I Used To Know” or “That’s What I Like” just abruptly end after the final chorus. It’s one of those weird audio quirks that, once you become aware of it, is difficult to un-hear. Even if you’re not the biggest fan of these toe-tapping hooks, you find yourself wishing they would stick around a little longer.