In the previous article on song endings we approached writing an ending to your song by looking at two important aspects: what part of the song to end with and what options of which chord to end with. But that isn’t the end all be all. There are still other aspects to consider when crafting the end of your song.
A great song can be like a plane ride. The beginning/intro is like take off, and over the course of the song the verses and choruses represent peaks and valleys in the architecture of the tune. The verses stabilize, pre-choruses ascend to the height of the chorus, and a song’s bridge is like a banking turn that leads our ears to a fresh place harmonically. But as with any plane ride, the most important element ensuring the success of the flight is sticking the landing.
Let’s look at four more elements of an ending that you may wish to employ.
What beat to end on
Traditionally songs end on the first beat of a new measure. This comes down to us from European classical music. It feels right to us for a song in 4/4 time to play through the second to last measure and then end on the first hit of the final measure. So if the chord progression is C-G-Am-F and you end on the tonic (I) chord, the last five measures look like this:
C| G| Am| F| C. . . .
1 2 3 4 1 end
But this isn’t the only option. You can take away the “final” expected measure and end on the 4th beat of what would have been the second to last measure. Without manipulating the chord progression we end up on F, which is the IV chord (an option we discussed in the last article) and would play like this
C| G| Am| F|
1 2 3 4 end
Now the sense of incompleteness we created by choosing the IV chord is underscored and made more robust by the added feeling of rhythmic incompleteness. Remember, it merely feels wrong to us because of how many songs we’ve heard end the first way. As an artistic choice, it is completely legal if used in the right context.
You can further confuse the listener’s sense of rhythmic and harmonic intent by ending on the 4th beat but replacing it with the tonic (I) chord. In this case it would play like this:
C| G| Am| C|
1 2 3 4 end
To Fade or Not To Fade?
For decades, especially from the 1950s until the 1980s, composers and artists in the studio have relied upon an old friend, the master volume fade out, for many reasons. Although it seems like a lazy way to avoid writing a quality ending (and I’m sure that happened occasionally), the real reason for the prevalence of fade outs is because after it became widely used in the 1960s, people just got used to it and continued to do it.
The main reason for ever doing it in the first place is that in the 50s and 60s, almost all recording sessions were conducted live- from orchestral backing all the way to rock ’n’ roll. Because of this, a group would record maybe two or three live takes of the song and then choose the “best” one. Oftentimes the “best” take would be one that maybe had a mistake toward the end, or the ending itself sounded terrible. So the engineers in their wisdom would just mark the mistake and cut the song just before. After that it became an industry standard.
Whether you want to fade a song out in a recording or not is up to you, and we really shouldn’t make a value judgement about it. There is some truth to the fact that a well-written song with a strong hook that fades after repeating the chorus two or three times at the end has a high chance of getting stuck in peoples heads and maybe even tempting them to replay the tune. This is something to seriously consider in this age of streaming platforms.
Whatever you do in the studio, make sure you have an ending designed for live concerts. That is where you will have to prove to the listeners that although you did a cool thing and faded out on the album, whether for practical or nostalgic reasons, you still can bring it home in a strong way.
Some songs simply just don’t end. In contrast to the tight, brief rock ’n’ roll hits of the 50s and early 60s, the late 60s and 70s brought us longer songwriting formats. Bands like Led Zeppelin and Genesis pushed the limits of song length to the ten and twenty plus minute marks, and it had a considerable influence on writing since then.
One option for you to consider, especially when making a track or set list for an album or concert, is continuation. Continuation is not the same as disparate parts of one epic song being played in order, but instead are two distinct songs with their own characteristics that naturally flow into each other, where by common chord, or key change.
One of the best selling albums of all time, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” employs a good amount of continuation, where to the listener a song like “Any Colour You Like” goes right into “Brain Damage”, although if you watch the time code, the track shifts between the two as the music continues.
The Unexpected Ending
One last strategy is the unexpected ending. It’s like ending on the 4th or 2nd beat of the last measure taken to an extreme, completely disregarding the common groove of the beat pattern and ripping the needle off the record, for lack of a better phrase.
The Beatles use it on the ending of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, and it’s an interesting move to think about because it comes after the chord progression vamps for minutes on end, repeating and repeating. You feel like this plodding slow receptive pattern is going to go on for ever and then a sound enters, goes wooosh, and the recording disappears.
My favorite Beatles example of the unexpected conclusion comes at the end of “Her Majesty”, a way shorter and minimalistic song. Listen to it and try to find what beat the song ends on.
It ends on the upbeat of 3 (or the & of 3) and just ends. A regular downbeat of 1 ending vs. this unexpected ending looks like this.
Regular: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & | 1
“Her Majesty”: 1 & 2 & 3 &
Further heightening the drama of this unexpected ending is where it occurs on the album and in the band’s discography. This song, with this unexpected, randomly weird ending is the final note, the final ending of the final song on the final Beatles album. Choosing that moment to use that much of an unexpected ending may be telling us something about the breakup of the Beatles.
Like has been said time and time again, it’s all in the ending.