Of all the places songwriters stumble into writer's block, the start of a song can be one of the worst places. It’s an especially fickle roadblock, since the intro doesn’t necessarily come to you when you begin writing a song.
Everyone has his or her own approach to writing new music. Some songwriters start with the lyrics while others choose to tackle the melody first. Some choose to write a song straight through, from intro to verse to chorus to verse 2 and so on. Others will start with the chorus as their focal point and will build every other piece of the arrangement around that.
Because of these changes to process, an intro can have it’s own obstacles to overcome anywhere in the writing process (and sometimes don’t even get considering until tracking or mixing)!
Luckily, there are a few age-old approaches to writing a catchy, attention-grabbing intro that can work no matter where you are in the songwriting process. Let’s take a look at some of the most common (and most effective) intro techniques.
Start With The Hook
If you’ve got an especially catchy instrumental hook that loops throughout the song, starting there might be your best bet. A good guitar riff, drum pattern or unique synth can be enough to drive a song from start to end, so you’ll want to plant it in your listener’s ear as quickly as possible.
A watered down version of the hook is also acceptable if you’re trying to reserve the impact of the full hook for later on (such as in the chorus). Instead, try having a clean or acoustic guitar play the melody for the intro. Have a slightly altered version of the hook that makes your listener intrigued or reminiscent of the actual hook.
Even if you’re not ready to give away the farm with your hook from the start, there’s nothing wrong with giving your listeners an easily identifiable way to recognize your song right from the second they hit play.
Have you ever realized how many songs start on a 3 or 4 count instead of the downbeat on 1? A ton of them.
It’s got a deeply rooted psychological base – we love puzzles, and hearing a song that starts on 3 or 4 makes us want to solve the puzzle of where the song’s loop actually begins. Subconsciously, we’re playing detective as soon as we hear pick-up notes at the start of a song.
By playing a few notes, having the drummer play a partial pattern, or even starting the vocals just a beat earlier than the rest of the song, you start a cat-and-mouse game with your listener. As soon as they catch on to rhythm/timing, they feel as though they’ve “won” but few ever know why they feel that way.
Build The Space Around Your Song
I bet you’re a big fan of placing your instruments in a particular “space” when mixing, don’t you? Using delays and reverbs, we can put musicians in a stadium or a basement with just a few clicks. Have you considered how setting that space can impact your song before it even starts though?
By leaving some ambience before your track starts, you can place your listener in the headspace they need to be before the first note ever hits. For some, simply recording the room mics during the session and playing them before anything else comes in can achieve this ambience.
Others might find themselves looking to create a space that they didn’t record in. Engineers and producers have used samples of busy streets & subways to achieve a particular setting, and you can too. There are huge ambient sample libraries that are mostly used for audio post-production (film/television), but they can be just as effective for your song.
For a few dollars, your song can sound like it’s being played anywhere in the world.
The Intro Effect
Effects can be applied to just about any form of intro and are capable of bringing complexity and creativity to all of them. Even if your intro is just a repetition of the verse or chorus instrumentation, special effects can go a long way to make them sound unique and interesting.
Take, for example, a bit crusher like Pixelator on your instruments giving them a lo-fi, 8-bit sound. The effect can be applied to the overall mix, or to specific instruments. You can apply if for a full 8 bars, or automate it to swell over and out of the bit-crushed sound into a full-spectrum wall of sound.
Check out Nick’s use of Pixelator in combination with some additional filtering here:
As you can see, there’s a lot of tweaking that can be done to perfect your effects and how they’re applied to your intro. These effect tricks can also come in handy when trying to create a more drastic bridge section in your song.
Fade Into View
While more commonly used on outros (especially if you can’t figure out how to end a song), fades into songs aren’t unusual. In combination with the right instrumentation, fading in can add a further sense of dynamism to a song.
For this reason, fade-ins are a great way to kick off a song that’s punch and impactful from the start. Even if everyone’s playing their hardest, a fade in creates a swell – a wave of sound that your listener can sense coming before it hits their ears.
Have Other Intro Tips?
If you’ve got some production or songwriting techniques that can be used to crate better introductions, we’d love it if you shared them with us.
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