Reducing Instruments in a Song Intro Keeps People Listening

The intro can be the most important part of a song; if you don’t grab the listener quick, they’ll move on.


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Rock Band AudienceBack in the days of the early Classical musicians, say around 1750 or so, a composer would write an intro to their symphony that often started with rather loud notes from the orchestra. It was a way of saying, (quite literally!) “Stop talking, the music is starting!” Eventually, composers relied less on the decibel level of their intro, and more on the level of musical interest to captivate listeners. The same is very true with today’s pop songs. A song intro today is likely to be less than 15 seconds long, and needs to provide something of interest, or else the listener will give up and move on.

One technique that almost all of today’s songwriters are using in their song intros is reduced instrumentation as a way of enticing people to keep listening.

Here’s a list of the current top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the kind of intro that’s used. (Do a quick YouTube search for any in the list you’re unfamiliar with):

  1. “We Found Love” (Performed by Rihanna). Intro: highly syncopated synthesizer vamp on two positions of the tonic chord. Length: 7 seconds
  2. “Sexy and I Know It” (Performed by LMFAO). Intro: drum/percussion/bass intro. Length: 14 seconds
  3. “It Will Rain” (Performed by Bruno Mars). Intro: short white-noise-based sound. Length: 2 seconds
  4. “Good Feeling” (Performed by Flo Rida). Intro: syncopated acoustic guitar. Length: 7 seconds
  5. “The One That Got Away” (Performed by Katy Perry). Intro: basic snare/bass drum. Length: 3 seconds
  6. “Ni**as in Paris” (Performed by Jay Z, Kanye West). Intro: spoken word, altered speed speech, light percussion, synth, effects. Length: 19 seconds
  7. “Someone Like You” (Performed by Adele). Intro: Arpeggiated piano chords. Length: 14 seconds
  8. “Without You” (Performed by David Guetta feat. Usher) Intro: Repeated synth chords. Length: 14 seconds
  9. “Moves Like Jagger” (Performed by Maroon 5). Intro: Highly syncopated rhythm guitar, “whistle” hook, then add guitar. Length: 14 seconds
  10. “5 O’Clock” (Performed by T-Pain Featuring Wiz Khalifa & Lily Allen) Intro: none

You’ll notice right away that except for one, all song intros are less than 15 seconds long. You’ll also notice that practically all the intros use a diminished instrumentation. They do this so that they can control song energy.

We know that from the start of a verse to the end of a chorus, the energy should gradually increase. We also know that if we plot that energy on a graph, it’s not a straight line. Songs usually show an “ebb and flow” of intensity, where some moments feature high energy, and others a bit lower.

One important effect of lower energy is that listeners expect the energy to increase again. By dropping back in energy, a song entices the audience to keep listening through the promise of higher energy.

We hear this effect when performers reduce the instrumentation of a chorus, before building the instrumentation again for the final repeats. For example, Taylor Swift uses this effect in “You Belong With Me”. We get a repeat of the chorus after the bridge (at 2’55”) with a much reduced instrumentation, before the final repeats with a full complement.

Now back to the intro. As listeners, we subconsciously know (or at least think we do) that a reduced instrumentation means something bigger could be coming. And whenever we get that feeling, it compels us to keep listening.

So this tip has more to do with song performance than songwriting itself, but it’s important for you to keep in mind. Reducing the instrumentation of your song intro is a great way to help you in your quest to build song energy.

And it serves as a good reminder to take a close listen to a performance of your music, and make sure that you’ve allowed for moments of reduced instrumentation throughout (usually in a verse), followed by fuller instrumentation (usually in the chorus).


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