Think of a song’s intro as “packaging” that eventually reveals the product.
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There is a part of Steve Job’s biography, written by Walter Isaacson, that might just have a connection to the songwriting world. And no, not the “So-sue-me” story about how Apple Computers promised Apple Records that they wouldn’t get into the music business.
This has to do with a completely different issue: how long does it take to unbox a computer; how special is the act of removing an item from its container?
Some people are so excited by the process of unboxing their new computer that they record the event and upload it to YouTube. At this point, 826,000 people have uploaded a video of themselves removing their iPhone 5s from its box.
The story goes that Apple Inc. has put a lot of thought into how long it takes to remove one of its products from its packaging. If it takes too long, consumer excitement and anticipation is replaced with consumer frustration: not a good thing.
If it happens too quickly, however, the excitement that comes from anticipation doesn’t get a chance to grow. No doubt, the actual product is what you want, and you want it now. Or so you think. Perhaps like the proverbial hunter, you want the hunt, not the object.
In music, you might think of listening to a song’s intro as a kind of “unboxing” that happens before you get to the actual song. If that analogy works at all – and I think it does – you’ll begin to see why a simple strumming of a guitar chord often misses the mark. And if an intro takes too long, excitement dwindles.
If you could have been one of the lucky ones to hear “Stairway to Heaven” live, you know exactly what an iconic intro can do for your music. That intro acts as a kind of wrapper that needs to be removed before the song is revealed. And because it’s timed so perfectly, you relish in the sound of that guitar intro. You’re willing to be patient.
Song intros usually happen after a song is written, and so often is not part of the initial songwriting process. But intros have an ability to make or break a song in the sense that listeners can get bored and turn away if the intro is missing the mark. So it’s a crucial element that needs considerable thought.
If you’re doing your own recording/producing, here are a few hints to help you create the best intros for your songs:
- These days, the length of a song intro is typically about 5% (give or take) of the length of an entire song. For standard pop songs that are 3-and-a-half to 4-and-a-half minutes long, a song intro is usually between 10 and 15 seconds in length. That’s about the right length for building anticipation without being too long to bore.
- Longer intros need to be thought of as mini compositions. Longer instrumental intros can work as long as you apply the same kinds of principles to their construction that you might apply to the song that follows them. So for long intros, you will want to think about melodic contour, chord progressions, instrumentation, and so on. Done well, it can really work nicely, as in “I Need a Lover” by John Cougar (Mellancamp), and Supertramp’s “Bloody Well Right” – a 1’37” intro for a song that’s just 4-and-a-half minutes long.
- Every song intro needs an answer to the question, “This intro is perfect because ____”. If you find that your intro is a kind of “vamp ’til ready” sort of mindless chord repetition, you’re missing an opportunity to build excitement through anticipation.
- Consider a song intro as a great connector between verses, especially in verse-only songs. Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” as a good example of this.
Having said all this, don’t ignore the potential of a longer intro, a shorter one, or even a song with no intro at all. Remember, the object is to set your song up and get song energy, excitement and momentum working for you. Like opening a door and suddenly seeing a long-lost friend, songs with little or no intro at all might be the best thing.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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