An Introduction to Introductions
The introduction of a song may build anticipation. It may acclimate the listener’s ear to the music. It may seize the listener’s attention with aural pleasures or oddities.
Actually, the intro can serve any function you like. But to select the type of introduction that’s best for any one song, it helps to have an idea of the range of possibilities.
If you want to grab the listener by the ears from Track 01, 0:01 on, consider the ideas below.
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1. Record sound effects or general atmosphere. For a great example, check out the introduction to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”, which is just ambient noise recorded at a party. Or, for something a little stranger, try “Everything You Can Think” by Tom Waits.
2. Play the chord progression of the chorus or verse. This will acclimate the listener’s ear to your song. If you’ve got something else interesting happening over the chords at the same time, even better! Repeat the chords as many times as you see fit, but usually one or two repetitions of a progression is enough.
3. Use dramatic contrast to craft an introduction that gets the attention of your listeners. Duke Ellington does this with staccato horn blats at the beginning of “Solitude,” which soon gives way to a beautiful, slow cascade of piano chords.
4. Begin Outside. Start in a different key from the one you’ll land on for the first verse.
5. Begin with an instrumental hook from any section of the rest of the song.
6. Sing a few notes a capella. Or a few lines. Or an entire section. There’s something about a naked human voice singing that commands attention—and then you have the supreme pleasure of renewing their interest yet again by bringing the band crashing down.
7. Count it off. Especially fun with weird time signatures. 1! 2! 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10…!
8. Use a hook. Dive right in and sing the refrain line or chorus. You could also play a vocal melody as an instrumental solo.
9. Use digital filters or make acoustic experiments to change your sound. Cut a 78rpm of your intro and play it through a Victrola at the beginning of your song. Or do anything else that adds texture to your recording.
10. Begin with a common chord progression from whatever key your song uses.
11. Jump into the verse. Begin the first verse immediately. This can be a powerful approach, immediately immersing your listener in your sounds. The disadvantage here is that it can sometimes be hard to begin singing in key without any instrumental lead-in.
12. Say Something! You can speak unaccompanied, or with the rhythm section behind you. What you say is totally up to you—you could share an anecdote; tell the story behind the title of the song; you could recite poetry. You could even just include ad-lib dialogue from the recording session or live performance.
13. Fade in. Slowly turn up the fader, bringing in the sounds of the song gradually. This can give the listener a feeling of wandering into a song that’s already in progress.
14. Begin with the song’s title. If you’re feeling sleepy, check out “Blast Off” by The Birthday Party. Did Nick Cave get your attention?
15. Have an instrument play a vocal melody that we’ll hear later in the song. This is a great way to introduce the sound of the chorus at a time when the lyrics might not have proper context yet.
16. Play rubato, or very loosely. Have your musicians play freely or with very loose tempo toward the beginning of the piece, then pull it all tight just in time for the first verse.
17. Compose it. For any and all instruments that appear later in the song… or even more. String intros can sound great, even on songs that otherwise don’t use them. For an example, check out George Benson’s “The World is a Ghetto.”
What other interesting intro ideas can you think up?
Let us know in the comments! There must be more than 17 possibilities.
In part 4, the last part of this series, we’ll explore outros. How fitting!
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