fh-header fh-header fh-header fh-header




webmaster: phil@fullhouseproductions.net

The Silence Between Songs

by Phil Houseal
June 8, 2011


Driving to work the other day I scanned the radio dial. I quickly grew tired of the music spilling out. One guy was bellowing he was “good at drinking beer.” Another bragged about being “as good once as he ever was.”

What is music come to if amounts to losers singing about their flaws? I actually was enjoying more the spaces between songs than the songs themselves.

So this column is about those spaces.

Spaces start when songs end. Have you noticed how song endings have changed over the decades? The biggest bands have the shortest endings. Listen to 30s or 40s tunes, usually big band stuff. When those songs are over, they stop. The end is a simple riff on the drums, like “dah dah dum” with the “dum” being a pump on the bass drum.

In the 50s with the advent of crooners and doo woppers, singers began holding out those final notes, as if afraid to let go of the spotlight. Imagine Mark Dinning hanging on to that last line: Teen angel, teen angel, answer meeeeee, pleeeeeeeeeeeeease.

Better recording technology allowed musicians to essentially never stop. The famous “fade out” grew popular in the late 50s and early 60s, when bands repeated the last chorus as the volume gradually grew softer.

(Amazingly, I have played in bands that do this live. Yes, they repeat the phrase over and over, gradually playing softer until all the musicians simply stop by acclamation.)

Sometimes these fades can last a ridiculously long time. The Beatles took that technique to its logical end with Hey Jude. “Nah... nah nah nahnahnahnah... He-ey Jude...” When that song first came out I heard one disk jockey cut it off because he thought it was skipping. The chord at the end of Sergeant Pepper lasted one and a half minutes.

But the grand champion of the never-ending “ending” was Grand Funk Railroad. The drum-driven final chord would echo seemingly longer than the actual song. Every 1980s garage band (the “real” garage bands - not the video game) drummer practiced hours on perfecting the big ending.

Of course, many bands employ the “Sears & Roebuck” ending - which is simply a turnaround and final chord. We used “Sears & Roebuck” intros a lot, too. Both were good ways to play a lot of songs without having to actually practice starting and stopping them.

Speaking of “spaces” in music, live bar bands give a lot of thought in how to pace a four-hour show. Most often it is broken into 45 or 50-minute sets, with a 10-minute break for beer intake and beer outflow. The strangest format I experienced was sitting in with a dance band that played three similar songs in a row, then sat at our instruments for 5 minutes silently, before doing three more tunes in a row. This went on all night, and was the longest evening ever. I think their theory was by playing three in a row they could keep the dancers on the dance floor, then give them a short break to refill their glasses.

When I started playing, I used to look forward to the breaks. But as I grew more experienced, I realized the breaks were the hard work of a night. You had to visit with people who were usually drunker than you, and it broke up the flow of the music. Playing all night seemed to make the gig go faster.

So, here’s to the spaces between songs, which serve as the frames to great art. In good music as in good writing - spaces tell you when to stop.