The introduction is one of the most important parts of a song or composition. It's your moment to grab the listener's attention, make them want to hear more, and set them up for what's to come.
Too often I've seen singer-songwriters begin every one of their songs by strumming out the chords from an entire verse, as if that's just what they're "supposed to do" without any thought to how boring that is to listen to.
In this tutorial we'll examine introductions across a variety of styles, from pop to classical to film scores, and learn techniques for crafting introductions that do more than just take up time.
How Important Is the Introduction?
1. Why Have an Introduction?
The main function of an introduction is to establish the style and mood of the song.
The introduction to this cue from Final Fantasy establishes several key elements for us.
First, it's quite clear that the piece is orchestral.
Second, there is a feeling of fanfare from the triplet figures in the brass which associates the piece with adventure and fantasy.
Lastly, the static movement on the dominant chord, as well as the motivic figures with no real melody, give us a feeling of tension and anticipation, setting us up to welcome the theme when it finally arrives.
An introduction can give you a moment to set the stage before you begin your main theme or verse. By setting up your main groove or instrumentation, you give the listener a chance to get their bearings and settle into the piece.
A strong introduction can grab your audience's attention, and immediately say, "Hey, listen to me!". We'll discuss this further below.
An introduction can also be a way to establish contrast right at the beginning of your piece, thus highlighting certain elements of your song simply by juxtaposing them with opposites. For example, your tempo will feel faster if your introduction is slow. We'll get into this more too.
2. When an Intro Isn't Needed
You don't always need an introduction. There are countless examples of songs that just get right into it without wasting any time. Two that come to mind are Lorde's "Royals" and The Beatles' "Hey Jude".
What both of these songs have in common is that they begin with a solo vocal pickup. The human voice is a very powerful "instrument" for grabbing people's attention, and it will usually pull in our ear right away. By starting with the voice unaccompanied, we are sucked right into the verse of the song and no other establishment is needed.
"Trepak" from Tchaikovsky's Nutcraker is an instrumental piece that begins without an introduction.
Tchaikovsky smacks you over the head with energy and excitement, he doesn't need to establish the mood first. Rather than give you time to settle down and get comfortable, the theme starts right away and we are off and running.
How Do You Write an Introduction?
1. Use Material From The Song
Many times, however, you will want an introduction. The most natural way to get it is to use material that already exists in your song.
Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" begins with the first four bars from the verse, just without the vocal.
Although very simple, this manages to be an effective introduction because the synth is a fresh sound, and the dissonance in the fourth bar is interesting.
Notice that the song only plays through the pattern once, which is all that's needed to say "Here it is," without going the entire length of the verse.
You don't always have to use your verse as material for the introduction.
The introduction to "What Does the Fox Say" is the background accompaniment from the pre-chorus. This time it's without the voice or drums, but there is still plenty of activity and motion for it to sustain our attention.
In both examples that use material from later in the song, it is a stripped down version. Better to start with less and give yourself room to grow than use all your tricks right away.
2. Compose New Material
Some songs will use new material for the introduction that doesn't come from another section. When that's the case, it still has to be interesting on it's own.
"I Want to Hold Your Hand" is an example of such a song, which begins with a guitar lick and pattern that doesn't return anywhere else in the song.
The intro establishes the tempo and pace of the song, while also using all of the main instruments (except voice) to establish the style.
The guitar lick has an interesting rhythm and tone which is enough to grab our attention. Just the drums and rhythm section alone might establish the style, but it's the lead guitar that provides something more substantive for our ear to grab onto.
The harmony is a persistent V chord which, just like the Final Fantasy piece, builds tension and suspense for the I chord to come and the song to actually begin.
The guitar lick follows the Rule of Three pattern; after the third time it's played it doesn't repeat but instead crescendos to the chorus.
Also interesting to note is that this song has a composed ending as well.
3. The Hook - Grab Their Attention
A great way to tell your audience "Listen up!" is to use a unique sound. Something that really stands out from the usual rhythm patterns and feels novel.
The opening chord from "Hard Day's Night" is a classic example of a unique hook.
There is a lot of disagreement about what that opening chord even is, because it doesn't fit our usual music theory conventions (Fadd9 over D seems to be the consensus). And that's exactly what makes it stand out and make you sit up straight to pay attention!
4. Introductions For Contrast
Sometimes a song will have an introduction that is actually very different in character from the main music.
"That's Amore" begins with a rubato, romantic and lush introduction.
The tremolo mandolin and guitar create an open suspenseful feeling, and the group of singers singing about Napoli and love give us a sense of the mood.
The introduction ends on a V chord which makes the main groove on the I chord feel strong.
Most importantly though, this introduction is slow and rubato, while the main song is medium-fast and has a feel-good sway. Sure, they could have begun the song right on that verse groove, but by contrasting it with the slow romantic feeling they make it feel even more fun.
"Rx" by Hiroyuki Sawano is an instrumental piece with a introduction that is similar in tempo to the main theme, but very different in function.
The introduction establishes a tempo, style, and groove. But as it develops more and more instruments add on to create a very complex texture. It's almost like a marching band is wandering down the street and everyone is just playing whatever they feel like.
The beginning feels fun and wild, but also chaotic and uncertain. When it builds to a climax the music suddenly stops. And then out of the silence comes the main theme in unison.
Unison is not always a very interesting texture, but when contrasted with complete chaos it suddenly feels poignant and purposeful.
The sudden contrast of "many" to "one" is extremely powerful. Even when the rest of the orchestra kicks in after only a few notes, the theme now has our attention.
The main lesson from this introduction is contrast, and in order for contrast to be effective it is often best exaggerated.
5. Introductions to Introductions to Introductions...
There are many songs that have an introduction to the whole song, as well as introductions to different parts of the piece.
"That's Amore" has a composed introduction using material that doesn't return again later in the song. However once the main groove comes in there is also a four bar introduction before the vocals begin. The tempo is much faster, so those four bars take up proportionately less time than the slow beginning.
The beginning was nice for setting up a romantic mood and making the main beat feel faster, but the main groove also needs a moment to be established, and so the mini-introduction to that section allows us to reorient ourselves to the new tempo.
"Anakin's Theme" from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace by John Williams is another example of a song that begins with an introduction for the entire piece, as well as a short introduction to the main theme.
The piece begins with a shortened version of the main melody, four bars instead of eight. It is also played by winds, which is a very contrasting color to the strings that carry the theme for the entire piece.
After this "main introduction", the low strings establish the pacing and mood for the main theme.
Similar to Dobby, notice how the viola arpeggios get out of the way once the melody begins.
Some Final Advice
1. Keep It Interesting
The cardinal sin of writing music is to be boring, so even a small section like an introduction deserves to be worth listening to. Remember how "Wrecking Ball" used a very simple technique of borrowing the verse pattern, but there were elements present that still caught our ear.
The introduction to John WIlliams' "Dobby the House Elf" from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has a little flourish in the flutes that grabs our ear.
Notice that the flourish stops once the melody starts. It gets out of the way to let the principal voice have space to be heard. Often composers will lay down an introduction, and then after four bars just stick their theme on top of it. But by removing the flutes, Williams gives the english horn melody room to be the main event.
The flourish has another effect beyond giving our ear something to focus on; it helps create a sense of playfulness.
2. Keep It Simple
Never let your introduction be confused with your main theme. The most effective ways to do that are to keep it short and keep it simple.
Use little motivic ideas that don't develop into complete melodies, like "Dobby the House Elf" and the flutes.
This is why accompaniment patterns work as introductions; usually they are repetitive and motivic so they don't mislead us into thinking they are a main theme.
Beethoven's Eroica Symphony has an incredibly simple introduction of two punctuated staccato I chords, and then it's off and running.
3. Write the Introduction Last
It is often wise to write your introduction after you've written the rest of the song. How can you introduce something if you don't yet know what it is?
Instead of writing an intro and then trying to figure out what song goes after it, write your song.
Then figure out the best way to get your audience's attention, establish the scene, and make your main event shine.