Starting a Song: So Little Time to Make an Impression

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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It’s impossible to know exactly how long listeners will stick with a bad song intro before moving on, but it’s likely less than 10 seconds. If you’ve failed to impress your audience within those first few seconds, failed to make them want to hear what the rest of your song has to offer, you’ve lost them. I only mention this because of the number of people I hear who mindlessly strum away on a chord or two, for 10 to 15 seconds, before they offer anything interesting. By that point – forget it, you’ve lost them.

A song intro doesn’t need to be much. Your job is simply to keep people listening. If you use the analogy of giving a speech, the mindless chord strum intro is the same as a speaker mumbling, “I’m about to give a speech and I really hope you keep listening to me OK so here I go…”

You don’t want a song intro to go on very long, so what can you do to ensure that people will keep listening? Here are five ideas:

  1. Try to come up with an alternative to mindless strumming. And if you think that starting with a chord progression is the way you want to start, try adding a solo instrument above the strumming. Example: America: “Sister Golden Hair”
  2. Ignore the intro and get going with your song. Songs don’t need an intro, and if it’s not adding anything substantive to your song, you might be best to skip it and launch right in to verse 1. Example: Elvis Presley: “Hound Dog”
  3. Try a song intro that features singing rather than instruments. This kind of intro can work because we tend to get pulled in to what a voice is saying to us. If your song is strong and energetic, try a slower intro with lots of pauses that make it feel that something bigger is about to happen. Example: Don McLean: “American Pie”
  4. Use the intro to establish a catchy hook. This kind of intro is great, because all people have to hear is those first two or three notes, and everyone knows the song. Example: Deep Purple: “Smoke on the Water”
  5. Take the guitar strum to a new level. If you need the guitar strum intro, be sure that you use it to establish energy and drive by marrying the strum with important rhythmic ideas. The result can drive your song forward and get your audience up on their feet. Example: Heart: “Barracuda”

So what are your favourite song intros? Have you ever come up with an intro you’re particularly proud of? Post a comment and a link to your tune below.


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  1. Purple Haze and the guitar/bass tritone. Hell’s Bells by AC/DC is a good example of a long intro that keeps the listener interested. Welfare Music by The Bottle Rockets is a nice little instrumental intro… the guitar settles down and the vocals start at the perfect time.

    • Great examples. Love Purple Haze, and Hell’s Bells is another good example of a well thought out intro. Don’t know Welfare Music well, so I’ll give it a listen. Thanks for the suggestions!

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