The intro of your song is that one section that’s part songwriting, part production. In other words, for many songs you can take the existing intro away, replace it with some other intro, and the song is still essentially the same. In that sense, a song intro can be decided upon during the production stage of recording it, long after the song itself has been written.
But these days many songwriters are serving as their own producer, so the line between songwriting and producing is a rather fuzzy one. That means that it’s time well spent to think about what would make a good intro for your song.
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A good intro is responsible for doing one thing: inviting the audience to keep listening. If someone clicks away to listen to something else before Verse 1 begins, your intro has failed.
That’s why the current wisdom is to get to Verse 1 by (or before) the 15 second mark, and having the chorus happen before the 1-minute mark. Those are basic pop music standards that have been in place for decades.
Some songs have intros that go on for a long time, like Supertramp’s 1’37” intro for “Bloody Well Right” (Rick Davies, Roger Hodgson), and The Who’s 45-second intro for “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (Pete Townshend).
Some songs have intros that assume the role of an important musical section in their own right, almost serving as a sort of pre-verse-1 section, like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Freddie Mercury).
Why Song Intros Are Typically Short
There’s a good reason for a pop song to keep the intro short, and that’s because the hooky bit — the chorus — really needs to happen soon, or the audience will get bored and distracted, and start looking elsewhere.
So the rule — if you want to call it that — is that a song intro should simply fulfill the role of keeping an audience interested in listening further. For standard pop songs, the shorter the better. Back in the 60s, a standard intro would be 5-8 seconds, and longer than that was being risky. The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” (Lennon-McCartney) uses a 6-second intro (not counting McCartney’s audible count-in), and that seems perfect for that song.
The Beatles became fonder of another option: no intro at all, as we hear with “Nowhere Man”, “Penny Lane”, “Hey Jude”, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and others.
The Guideline: Make an Intro Inviting
Too many songwriters, when recording their material, set up a vamp or some other repeating figure, and then keep it going far too long. They love the mood that it sets up, I presume, and so you’ll sometimes hear intros that go on for 20 seconds or longer, intros that amount to little more than the rhythmic strumming of a chord.
But that rarely does anything to invite the listener to keep listening. Think of this analogy: if you invite someone over to a meal at your house, how long would you keep them standing out on the front step?
You can keep them on the front step if you’ve got an amazing flowering shrub or some other feature on your property that you can view and talk about, but more often than not, you simply invite them in.
And that’s what a good song intro does: it invites the listener “into the song”, and gets on with it.
I can think of many songs where the song intro is too long, but I cannot think of a single one that’s been compromised by an intro that’s too short.
So the best guiding principle for song intros is: make it a good, short invitation to keep listening. If, like The Who or Supertramp, you’ve got an intro that’s interesting, fascinating or otherwise captivating, then by all means do the long intro.
But making that decision requires you to listen objectively to your own song, and make that decision based on the listener’s point of view, not your own.
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