Endings in music were once the most laboriously crafted item in a composition. From Coda to Conclusion — the ending had to include the melodic motif of the entire creation — building masterfully to an eminent explosion of finis. Tympanic swells, staggering low-end orchestral bombast of cello, viola, bassoons, and maybe even a soupçon of triangle. This tradition carried over into American music and perhaps the most lucrative innovation in artistic history: the blue note. Created by Creole and Black musicians, rooted in the slave spiritual tradition, the blue note is the fountainhead of the blues scale and all rock and roll’s subsequent bastard offspring. Rather than the traditional direct movement from note-to-note in a chromatic scale — the blue note bends from origin into its next position. Revolutionizing everything in music from instrumentation to recording practices.
The things we take for granted were often novel when introduced. It was half a century before music made its way from the gramophone to radio. Like all great communication innovations of the industrial era — radio was the product of a conglomeration of concepts coalesced into functional purpose by the US Military. Amplitude modulation is widely known as the precursor, but frequency modulation only trailed the former’s inception by a few years. In AM radio, the amplitude, or strength of the signal, is modified to harness the sound information. With FM, the waves are uniform with the frequency carrying variation.
The Golden Age of Radio rotated around programming that resembles our modern television formats. From News, Comedy, Drama, Soap Operas, even Satiric Ruse — it was all packaged in a mammoth wooden box you pointed your furniture at and blared loudly as to ignore your family. Sound was limited to monophonic capabilities, which some stations remedied by broadcasting dual, simultaneous signals. Making contemporaneous audiophiles buy two receivers — one AM, one FM — with the left signal being broadcast always in FM and right AM. While conventional wisdom holds that the advent of TV took over these radio-plays for its format — leaving radio to fill its empty creative coffers with music — as an audio and musicphile, the stereo broadcast would have been my impetus to put down the Victrola and tune-in with the dials.
Stereo’s inception coincided with the rock and roll explosion of the late ’50s. Before, popular music was still largely instrumentation. Making fans often musicians themselves — complex and intricate compositions a laborious endeavor for the neophyte. Duke Ellington is accredited with pioneering the “Riff” — a series of notes repeated throughout the song that became a motif recognized and captured by listeners of all stripes. From there the melding of 12-bar blues song structures along with gospel lead to the verse, chorus, bridge, and outro immortalized in all American and Popular genres today (except for the hellspawn that is EDM).
As visceral as it may have sounded to the masses — the popular rock and roll song was as formulaic as any other mass-produced creative art. And like Ford did the Model-T, record labels hired an assembly-line of songwriters to mass-produce these catchy ditties using the golden hook progression us songwriters like to call Four Chord Wonder. The I–V–vi–IV movement is one that is rooted deep in Western Civilization’s music tradition, spanning from Greensleeves to Under the Bridge. Here’s an article that goes more into depth about this. Over the decades, the festooning of genres may change but popular music at its chordal core remains the same.
With the advent of reverb and other recording effects, volume mixing became a standard tool in any decent producer’s arsenal. Wig enthusiast Phil Spector invented the “Wall of Sound” meant to blare every recorded instrument at maximum volume to provide a listening experience that would mask his future murders. Soon, bands like the Beach Boys and the Beatles used this technique to fade out outros in order to blend intricate multi-song medleys in records — usually culminating into a crescendo resolving several progressions within the album. Most famous is the E chord ending to Day In The Life:
Lennon, McCartney, Starr and Evans shared three different pianos, with Martin on a harmonium, and all played an E-major chord simultaneously. The chord was made to ring out for over forty seconds by increasing the recording sound level as the vibration faded out. Towards the end of the chord the recording level was so high that listeners can hear the sounds of the studio, including rustling papers and a squeaking chair. This final E chord represents a VI to the song’s tonic G major — A Day In The Life: Indepth Analysis
With the now illegal practice of payola in full swing, record companies and radio heard this brilliant advancement in the art and thus humped it mercilessly into sycophantic pandering — designed to bleed all their aural merchandise into each other. Within a year — not a song to be found in the Top 40 had a decent ending. Soon thereafter outros and even bridges were extinct — paving the way for our current crap-fest that is modern music: glorified ringtones in booty-shorts.
Its hard not to argue that this had a significant effect on how music and it’s technology evolved afterwards. A long, amorphous string of uninspired charlatans using obscenity and indecency to enthrall the youth — instead of the cathartic genius that was once rock and roll. No distinguishable beginning or end — just horrible, gnashing, and unchanging middle. Forever gyrating sticky-fingered mediocrity into the souls of American youth. And the disease has metastasized into other American art — literature, cinema, sitcoms, and dramas are all just a long blend of monotony. Meant to serve as a comforting background noise we can count on, not to stimulate but rather keep us company as we slog through lives excised of risk and the remarkable.
Mortality forever dogs the human psyche. We do everything we can to push out the reality that one day we will cease to exist on this Earth. This idea has leached into everything we create and consume — making us eschew ideas with colossal heights for they must begin and end in order to reach magnificent plateaus. Our fetishistic obsession with youth has become grotesque and all-consuming. It’s up to musicians to dip deep into the well of genius and us as consumers to reward such efforts.
The power of music to change culture is undeniable. The ’60s often are cited for the hippie movement and the sexual revolution — but that is small fry to the work Motown did for racial equality. It is an unsung (so-to-speak) genius — art as capitalistic and social awareness endeavor was at an unparalleled peak with the Funk Brothers rhythm section. Motown session bassist James Jamerson played with the Detroit Symphony, and managed to out-liven the lower end frequencies of the orchestra not by defeating them but accentuating the overtones melded by those traditional movements with the visceral brilliance of Dozier, Holland, Simpson, and Ashford. Pure cultural synergy at it’s finest here, folks.
Not to mention that ineffable pocket that he and Allen managed to create, where the rhythm dances all around the break — going from playful insouciance to cultural conductor of jubilant patience. I’m tellin’ y’all, the bail-out went to the wrong damn industry.
Neil Young wrote “its better to burn out than fade away” — ironically, in a song that fades-out; but the sentiment is true. The art of the song ending must be resurrected — with all the attentive detail and mortal investment that goes into a beautiful conclusion. Our natural lives and eternity are not reconcilable concepts. Although our drive to eternally live and love family and friends is inherent — the desire remains one of gluttony. Blinding us to the harsh reality that every sentiment, emotion, and joy exists because we know our time is fleeting. That existence is ephemeral. Those notions can be seen as melancholic, but to me they underline that life is both a miracle and a gift.
Moments are to be treasured — perhaps best diagrammed in the analogy of song: Our daily in-and-out the verses, marriage and children the choruses, tragedies we overcome the bridge — all building to that beautiful conclusion that combines these motifs of life and love and surges them into the bombast of one final exaltation that echoes of our days in this sacred and blessed realm of existence.