The New (Additional) Purpose of the Song Intro

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Ke$ha- "Blow"Even though I’m fond of pointing out that the main difference between pop songs 40 years ago and pop songs today is performance style, it’s still worth looking at other elements and making note of how they’re different. When you dig down into the typical elements of a song, you will start to notice important differences between a song from 1970 and a song on Billboard today, differences that go beyond simple performance style . The chords, vocal harmony, melodic shape, and form used in hit songs 40 years ago are a little different from ones chosen today.

For example, we know from a random sampling of hit songs from the 70s that the repeat-and-fade was a common, almost typical way to end a song, while today, repeat-and-fade is far less used.

Starting in the late 60s, and lasting through to the late 70s, the major 7th chord built on the 4th degree was a common chord choice (e.g., Bbmaj7 in the key of F), becoming far less used through the 80s and beyond.

One other difference worth noting is the new way that song intros are constructed. 40 years ago, the typical intro would set up and establish elements such as performance style, harmonic language, melodic/rhythmic motifs, and so on.

Here’s a representative early 1970s sampling (You can find each of the song samples via a simple YouTube search, if they’re unfamiliar songs to you):

  • “Let It Be” (The Beatles) 1970
  • “It’s Too Late” (Carole King) 1971
  • “Lean on Me” (Bill Withers) 1972
  • “Let’s Stay Together” (Al Green) 1972
  • “Crocodile Rock” (Elton John) 1973

The song intros are clear as to purpose: establish the tempo and feel of the song. The typical intro didn’t draw attention to itself as much as it established what was to come.

In the 1980s we began to see a change, however. An additional task has emerged: grab the listener’s interest in whatever way you can, as quickly as you can, even if the intro (in some cases) doesn’t bear great resemblance to the song it’s attached to.

So the old purpose of introducing ideas, rhythms, tempo and mood are often still there, but the intro now seems to add an element of astonishing the listener (tempo-less sound effects, instrumental oddities, etc.) to the point where they feel compelled to keep listening, if only to answer the question, “What the heck is going on here?”

Some recent examples:

  • “E.T.” (Katy Perry)
  • “Down on Me” (Jeremih feat. 50 cent)
  • “Look at Me Now” (Chris Brown)
  • “On the Floor” (Jennifer Lopez feat. Pitbull)
  • “Blow” (Ke$ha)

Each song intro uses a captivating production element (sound, call-out, instrumental effect, or other unpredictable sound), for the main purpose of grabbing attention.

Many pop song analysts have theorized about the diminishing patience of the audience these days. And it appears to be true that if you don’t grab people’s interest within the first few seconds, you’ve lost them. Forty years ago, it took more time and effort to change a record. Today, a listener can be listening to a new song with one tap, or one click.

So I’m not necessarily advocating that your song intro needs to be weird to succeed. But certainly, if you’re a songwriter, you need to be offering something captivating within the first few seconds.

If your songs are failing to build an audience, try looking at the song intro, and see if there’s a way to surprise or captivate your audience right away. It’s too easy for listeners to click on to something else.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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