Ways to End a Piece

How many ways are there to end a piece of music? If we take “to end” as referring only to the most obvious musical punctuation, it seems that there are precious few options: despite great variety and nuance, most endings either “fade out” through some manipulation of dynamic, texture, or activity, or else they build to a kind of rhythmic singularity that assertively marks the music’s conclusion.

The true exceptions to these categories are extremely rare; the ending of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, for example, is marked mezzo-forte, following a previous stretch of pianissimo—one of the most unique endings I can think of, yet still perhaps a variation on the “fade out” trope. But as listeners we’re rarely bored, as music is subtle and flexible enough to yield endless possibilities colored with individual character. The sublime unwinding of a Schubert slow movement affects us in an entirely different way than the aching, sighing feeling at the end of a Chopin Nocturne or the “blown away in the wind” effect of many Takemitsu works. This incredible diversity forces one to reconsider the sense in which an ending is merely punctuation; rather, the ending is the culmination of a gestural process that may have been initiated as far back as the piece’s first note.

Once we start looking for the ending of a piece not in its final cadence or section but in its beginning, the question of “how to end it?” becomes much more interesting: a dramatic problem rather than a merely grammatical one.

I find that my own most convincing endings are the ones that reach back far into the piece and seem inevitable, though perhaps unexpected. Conversely, the more tacked-on my endings are, they necessarily resort to some cutesy gesture or coloristic effect, which is a bit like ending a paragraph on any noun, verb, or adjective you like and then slapping a boldface exclamation point on the end.

Endings are about content, not punctuation, and by weaving a compelling story we create needs and expectations in a pattern of fulfillment and postponement. Machaut’s celebrated Rondeau Ma Fin Est Ma Commencement hints at this circular nature of storytelling. The beginning of a story searches for its ending, and in turn the ending must lead us back to the work’s initial premise. The snake must devour its own tail in order to complete itself.

3 thoughts on “Ways to End a Piece

  1. Phil Fried

    Its been pointed out by others the compositional problem of placing too strong a cadence, that sounds final, into the beginning of a work. Strauss’s Zarathustra and Moussorgsky’s Boris for example. One tends to forget the rest of work. That said the question of time and music is an artistic one with many answers. I myself have ended a number of works in mid sentence as it were. That is neither with a final cadence or a fade out. I don’t think I’m the only one to have tried that.

    Reply
    1. danvisconti

      Hi Phil, yeah that’s how the end of Sibelius 4 hits me as well–maybe “ending mid sentence” has become popular enough that I should have included it as a category unto itself.

      Still, the number of ways to “end a piece” seem very limited when one only considers the final bars of “punctuation”, whether there are 2 or 3 or 5 basic types of punctuation. I feel like the possibilities become more varied and interesting when one takes a longer view.

      Works that feature a massive cadence near the beginning, as you mention, throw so much of their weight on the front end of the piece that the final section can take on the sense of a denouement. There are some pieces that exploit this effect in a striking way–the last movement of Vaughn Williams Sixth is one of my favorites. But you’re right that this approach has been considered a no-no for a good deal of common practice music. The “right” ending has everything to do with being an appropriate–if not always predictable!–fit to the musical material.

      Reply
  2. mclaren

    Actually there exist a number of other ways of end a piece. One other way involves a set of convulsive rhythmic gestures surrounded by increasing amounts of silence. For a pop music example of this type of ending, consider “It’s a shame” by Simple Minds.

    Another way of ending a piece is with stasis: often a pianissimo tone cluster. The cluster animates the timbres and the long-held notes signal an ending. A good example of this type of ending would be the finale of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Symphony No. 6 in E minor. At the time this spooky static ending was taken to symbolize a world annihilated by nuclear war, but Williams denied it.

    Yet another way of ending a piece is to strip the composition down and simplify it to a single line. The best-known example of this remains the Ishtar variations by Vincent D’Indy in which the variations go from complex -> simple and end with all instruments playing the original theme in unison.

    Yet another type of ending involves synchronization. When a compositional process move out of sync slowly enough, at a certain
    point we expect it to move back into sync, and when it finally reaches full synchronization this usually signals the end of the piece. The example here remains “piano phase” by Steve Reich.

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