So you’ve written a song with all of its parts: a melody, a chord progression, a rhythm, a tempo, and maybe lyrics. But there’s one last thing to consider before it’s truly finished: the ending! Without a proper ending your song not only could theoretically go on and on forever, but the sonic and emotional impact of the song can be undermined.
Imagine if Beethoven’s 9th Symphony ended with a squeaky clarinet or if a super sad, dramatic break up song ended with the notorious “cha-cha-cha” beat. The entire process laid down by the arrangement and executed by the artist is not only mismatched, the ending has the power to change a person’s perspective on the entire song.
In this article, we’ll look at two different aspects to writing the end of your song: what part of the song to end with and what chord of the progression to land on.
What Part to End With
At first glance this may seem silly, since the part we end on is quite literally “the end”, but with songwriting, it’s always helpful to look at things from various perspectives. The most common part of the song to end on is the chorus or refrain. In most songs, the chorus or refrain is also the hook and so it makes sense to return to it again before the song is over. Many songs repeat the chorus a few times at the end: two is standard, though some let it rip time and time again.
Some songs subvert this standard written practice and end on a part that is not the chorus. It is common for folk singers and singer-songwriters to return to the verse for one last chance to add t the narrative or wrap things up, especially in story songs. Common in rock ’n’ roll and progressive bands are to end the song with an instrumental solo over one of the previous parts (usually a chorus or verse).
One final way to end a song is to write a completely new part that hasn’t been heard yet and ending the song in a new progression or key. Whatever you choose, make sure it works with the overall song
What Chord To End On
Ending on the “I” Chord
The most common chord to end a song on is the Tonic or the I (or i) chord. This means the chord that matches the key of the song. For a chord progression in C major, such as C-G-Am-F, the most common move is to end the song on C (the I chord). It feels complete, like we’ve returned “home”. In a a progression in Am, such as Am-G-F, Am (the i chord) is the most common place to conclude. But music would be boring if everything always worked one way.
Ending on the “IV” or “V”
Another option is to end on the IV chord. So for C-G-Am-F, we can end the song on an F (the IV chord) to surprise the listeners ear and suggest a feeling of unfinished business or suspense. It is a great way to keep someone’s attention, because we feel like we’re hanging on to an unfinished sentence, it points to the next song. The Killers’ song “When You Were Young” ends on a V chord, which makes us wait for a resolution that doesn’t come.
Deceptive ending: Ending on the “vi” or the Picardy 3rd
Another variation on this idea is going to a minor chord at the end of a major song or vice versa. It has a very surprising effect and represents a major turn in harmony. In the C-G-Am-F progression, ending the song on Am (the vi chord) gives us the feeling of a twist of fate or a transition to darker material.
In the opposite case, using a Picardy 3rd means to raise the 3rd of a minor chord, making it major. This trick comes from classical music and is always used to turn the i chord into a I chord at the end of a composition. So for our Am-G-F progression, Am is used throughout the whole song but then at the very end, the C in the Am becomes a C# and voila! It is an A major. It brightens a dark sounding song at the very end and is a big surprise to someone not expecting it.
A Final Word On Endings
As you can see, there are lots of choices to make when designing the end of your song and we only hit two of them here. The most important thing to take into consideration when writing an ending is not the complexity or originality of the ending, but making sure the ending serves the song you wrote. Otherwise, you might as well throw in “cha-cha-cha”.
It doesn’t end here! For more tips on how to end your song, check out Part 2.