In How to Write Effective Introductions, we learned about the importance of giving your song a powerful beginning. We also examined various techniques for writing one. In this tutorial I'll discuss one specific trend in contemporary songwriting for ending a song: ambiguity.
Ambiguity in music is uncertainty, a lack of clarity, and incompleteness. In a post-modern world, ambiguity is a response to cliches and predictability.
Your typical predictable ending will repeat the chorus over and over and slowly fade out, like this:
This kind of ending is overly expected and boring. A much more common (and interesting) way to end a song now is to use some degree of ambiguity.
The two main techniques for achieving this are:
- Do not end on the I chord.
- Do not end on a strong downbeat.
For example, Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know" ends on the bVII chord, and the last beat heard is the & of 4. The last bass note we hear is the unstable second scale degree E, which has a strong urge to resolve down to D but never does. We're left hanging.
Thankfully the technique of repeating the chorus and slowly fading away has lost popularity. It can often be seen as a lazy way to get out of a song when you don't know what else to do.
There are times, however, when fading out makes perfect sense.
The best time to use a fade-out is when you actually want the song to feel like it could on on for eternity.
Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" ends with a fade on the main groove repeating over and over. It's appropriate though, because as the lyrics says, they are "up all night". The party doesn't end just because the song does.
The most common way to end a song is to end with the chorus, and play it all the way up to the end but not quite make it to the final downbeat.
The band just stops on beat four and whatever is playing (always including vocals) trails out into the silence.
Here are just three examples of current pop songs that do this, but there are plenty more.
Imagine Dragons' "Demons" ends on beat four, and doesn't hit a downbeat. Instead the vocals echo off into the distance:
Katy Perry's "Roar" does the same thing.
In this song the final "roar" hangs over a little longer than the rest of the band. They never hit the final downbeat.
It's worth noting that she ends with the song's title. Hard not to get it lodged into your memory, no?
Capital Cities' "Safe and Sound" does the same thing as Katy Perry. Doesn't hit the last beat, the synth just trails off into nothing, and it ends with the song's title.
A slightly more advanced ending is to remove everything but the vocals. You're not actually writing any new material, but instead drawing attention to the fact that the song is ending by stripping almost everything away.
Dropping the band out has a focusing effect, highlighting the vocals and giving them a prominent position for the finish.
OneRepublic's "Counting Stars" ends in this way just with the very final line. Notice that it's still an ambiguous ending as far as the rhythm and chord progression are concerned.
Of Monsters and Men's "Little Talks" uses this technique in a much more extended way. They extend the whole chorus with just vocals and a simple guitar strumming.
This time the guitar actually strums the I chord on a strong downbeat. Uncommon in contemporary practice, but it has a calming effect.
An extreme version can be heard in Passenger's "Let Her Go". It becomes completely a capella at the end and the space between vocal lines is stretched out.
It's perfectly appropriate for the lyrics, creating a sense of being very lonely.
Another method similar to the "dropping out" technique, but more nuanced, is to slowly take elements away. This is a less dramatic punctuation and more of a winding down and decrescendo.
The ending to Bastille's "Pompeii" begins with a drop in texture when we lose the drums but keep the piano and vocals. It's similar to "Little Talks" that we heard above. Then the piano slowly disappears and we're left with just the vocals. And of course, we never hit that final downbeat!
In many ways this is a more sophisticated form of the fade-out. The effect is different, though.
Rather than just lower the volume on the master track, elements are removed or fade away piece by piece. With a master fade-out you have a sense that the song keeps on going and going. But with this winding down technique there is a decrease in energy and a feeling of closure.
It is unusual for a pop song to have a completely new section for the ending, after the final chorus. If there is any new material, at most it is usually a simple rhythmic figure.
Of Monsters and Men's "Mountain Sound" concludes with the ending of the chorus, but the whole band does "kicks over time" on the last two syncopated beats. By all coming together on those rhythmic hits, the ending feels stronger and more punctuated.
It's still ambiguously not the I chord or ending on beat one.
And not only does the rhythm leave us open-ended, but the lyrics do as well. The last line they sing is "We sleep until the sun goes..." but never gets to the last word "down". We can fill that in with our imaginations.
Lady Gaga's "Applause" has an actual composed ending, although simple and short. She uses a rhythm from an earlier background vocal, but now it is on vocals and synth.
This feels like an ending because the main groove has been stripped away and just this line is the focus. The vocals and synth are tight and punctuated on that theme, similarly giving a feeling of "punctuation" like the kicks over time from "Mountain Sound".
Yet still we have a some ambiguity—the song doesn't end on beat one or on the tonic.
A useful technique for fading out without just repeating the chorus ad infinitum is to write a new, quiet section that vamps. Typically this will be ambient, simple, and gentle.
Here are two examples:
You get the advantage of a fade, that feeling of never ending, without seeming quite so lazy about doing it.
Once you start listening for them, the examples are endless. Even if no one specifically sat down and thought, "You know, I've noticed that songs don't end on the one chord anymore," the common trend of avoiding the overly expected has permeated pop music.
The next time you are trying to figure out how to end your song, remember that the simple technique of leaving the audience wanting more is easy to do and effective.