Still thinking about Prince . . .
Like so many, I downloaded some Prince and revisited the music of my youth. Purple Rain, of course. And in listening to it, I did something that I may never have done in the 80s: listening to all of Purple Rain, all 8:42 of it. That includes the final atmospheric two minutes of the song. There’s no more chorus, no big guitar, no more purple rain. There’s some trilling piano, a few of Prince’s vocalizations, and some echoing violins. A friend who’s a musical expert told me that section has a name. It’s an “outro.”
“Outro” is a music term for “the end of the road for your song.” It can be an instrumental solo, repeated chorus, or something else like that. There’s no real formula, but I think the most accurate description of Purple Rain’s outro is a meditation in strings (i.e. violins).
As a young person I honestly thought the end of the song was boring. It seemed like fluff after the huge vocals and massive guitars. The average song length has been on the rise since the 70s, leveling off in the 1990s at about 4 minutes. In fact the radio version of Purple Rain was shortened to 4:05, but I always listened to the album (on tape). Maybe my teenage attention span maxed out at 4 minutes. I would rewind the tape back to the beginning, craving the organ chord and unforgettable opening of the album:
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life . . .”
That did not feel like fluff.
Sadly now, every moment of Prince’s work seems more precious. Spending that extra two minutes finishing out the outro is a way to honor him. It’s a way of appreciating what the artist—in this case, The Artist—was doing. The whole song, including the outro, is what he was really trying to say.
Beyond that, this outro reminded me of a broader theme with communication. Conciseness is highly valued, both in writing and speaking. On this blog I sometimes pull data and anecdotes from a book called Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less. One of its arguments for brevity is the thought-speech gap: listeners can process information at a rate of 600 more words per minute than speakers can actually speak. This gap creates “spare mental bandwidth” that can lead to distraction, boredom, and judgment. Conversely, speaking in a concise, message-heavy way maximizes efficiency and attentiveness.
Brevity is a virtue in pop music as well. A tight 3- or 4-minute pop song reduces the likelihood the listener will flip or click or tap to another song. But Prince (a) was too good to be limited to a formula and (b) probably didn’t care anyway. Those who are attentive enough to hang in through the whole 8:42 get a gift—the gift of a gentle orchestral landing to this booming ballad. Everyone else misses it.
Likewise with conversations, the informal, meandering end of a conversation—when the official conversation itself is over—can be extremely valuable. The “outro” of a meeting is a place for checking in and observing nonverbal communication to understand the real reaction. People may be creating their own outro. Are they still repeating the same chorus over and over? Are they calming down and echoing what was said? Using friendly, open body language can encourage people to tell you things they were thinking about the whole time but just not comfortable saying. Checking one’s phone at the earliest reasonably polite opportunity misses the chance to learn more from the conversational “outro.”
Connections between music and conversation are pretty fascinating; see this post on communications theorists who transcribe conversations with music notation. But ultimately my point here is a simple one about music appreciation. Purple Rain is a great song, and I recommend listening to it again. All of it.