Orchestral pop music

Using Classical Music as a Model for Writing a Good Song Intro

Because most of my formal training in music and musical composition has been in classical music, I like thinking of ways in which pop songs have borrowed ideas from the classical masters.

Chords are one way. Whether it’s a Mozart symphony, a Bach Cantata, or a Brahms sonata, the way progressions work — the way one chord moves to the next one — is more or less the same as the way they move in practically any song from the pop genres.

Hooks and RiffsThe hook is arguably the most important part of successful pop songs. Learn how it works,  and how to create them for your own songs. With examples of pop music history’s best hooks.

Melodies, and the notes we use to construct those melodies, are also similar. It’s quite easy to take a modern day pop song and arrange it for a symphony orchestra, and the melodies can sound like they were actually written by one of the masters, like this arrangement of “Bohemian Rhapsody” for orchestra.

There’s one other way that pop songwriters could be borrowing from classical composers, and it has to do with creating song intros that just a bit different from what the rest of the song offers.

The Creative Song Intro

As a good example, the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 starts with a rather prolonged introduction that has not a whole lot to do with the rest of that movement. It starts in a generally quiet, contemplative mood, and you notice that once the main theme of the movement begins, more than 3-and-a-half minutes in, the lengthy intro didn’t do a lot to give you hints of what the main part of the movement would eventually sound like.

In other words, it’s an intro that acts like its own self-contained mini-movement.

So with no reference forward to the rest of the movement, what does an intro like that actually do? Here are some possibilities:

  1. Because the intro ends with a prolonged implied dominant chord, it builds musical tension that is released when the main theme finally happens.
  2. It offers musical contrast — a series of mainly gentle musical melodies that use long notes, contrasted with the quicker notes of the main melody.
  3. It offers little snapshots of full orchestration “shots” that hint at what the full orchestration will eventually be.
  4. It also builds musical tension because the audience of that day would expect the first movement of a symphony to be energetic and fast.

The Pop Intro

Pop songs are considerably shorter than symphonic movements, so it’s not like there’s a lot of time to do something more creative with a pop intro. I suppose “Bohemian Rhapsody” is, itself, a good example of a pop intro that would make Beethoven proud.

Most songs won’t have a lot of time to offer a long intro, but song intros that veil their intentions can be a great way to add interest to a song that’s needing it. Some examples to listen to and think about:

  1. Chicago: “Fancy Colours
  2. Genesis: “Behind the Lines
  3. Moody Blues: “Nights in White Satin
  4. Yes: “Roundabout
  5. Beatles: “All You Need is Love

Not every song you write will be right for a creative intro like these ones, and to be fair, most of these songs in their original forms were much longer, with shorter radio-friendly singles.

But if you’re looking for a way to have your song stand out a bit from the crowd, the answer may lie not in doing something to the main part of the song itself, but doing something creative in the intro.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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  1. Sadly this idea won’t do for songs to be released as singles. In streaming oriented music of today you have about 5 seconds to introduce and push the main hook of the song.

    Unless you want to waste a great musical idea for an intro you should keep such a structure for EPs or LPs. As long as the pop audience of tomorrow will buy/listen to such lengthy products.

    • It’s true Martin, radio-friendly usually means a 5-10 second intro. But in most cases of longer, more creative intros, they’re edited down for radio purposes. Over the years there have been lots of examples where intros are made shorter, but with the longer version still available to be heard on the album. Chicago’s “Make Me Smile” is one example, as well as two examples from my post: “Nights in White Satin” and “Roundabout”.

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