Developing a musical introduction (Part 2)

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Read Part 1 here.

I recently finished the edits on a book of arrangements and my editor was asking me about a title. He was trying to figure out something that described my style and one of the ways he described my style was extended intros and improvisation on the melodies.

I have never really thought that I use overly long intros but he would know since he has edited maybe a thousand books like mine. I do think the two descriptors he used are related though. I tend to try to paint with a broad brush when I arrange. I think of it more in an abstract way where I am trying to generate a palate of sound that is more of a landscape than a finely detailed portrait. I don’t know if that makes sense but that is how I see it.

The intro is used to sort of define the musical colors in the palate. I discussed this a bit in part 1. I rarely write introductions less than 8 bars long because it takes that long to establish the palate (in my opinion). Very often, I write 16 bar intros which basically take up the first page. In fact, it is very common for the melody to not make an appearance for up to 30 seconds of the song.

Long intros of course is a preference and I am not prescribing it. I am reminded that the college I went to had a president who hated long intros. In fact, she (a bit of a micro-manager) forbid my CDs from the college bookstore for a while because I had long intros. While her position was silly, it would be just as silly for me to tell you that my thoughts on intros represent anything more than a preference.

So where do you get the bones for your intro? In general, you go to an element of music that you are going to feature in the song. Let’s talk through three of them.

Melody
Melody is always an obvious choice since every arrangement will feature melody at least some. If you go in that direction, you will probably do a twist on the melody of the underlying song as an intro. If it was me, I would start by playing a distinctive phrase of the melody and then try to come up with a few small twists that you can put on it. Perhaps change just a few notes or change the rhythm of the notes. The idea is to hint at the melody but not give it away.

A typical music phrase is 4 bars long so you might play your idea once and then do a second variation of your idea. At that point, your song will be about ready to start. It would not be abnormal for me to do four variations of the idea and liberally include some dynamic contrast. That is roughly 30 seconds of music and it works very well.

Here is an example of using melody in the intro. Note how the first line hints at the melody of “Christ Arose” but is modified.

melodyintro

Harmony
As you might expect, I use harmony a lot as the backbone of my introductions. Again, if there is a harmonic idea I am using in the song itself, I will lift it for the introduction and just put another melody on top of it. You don’t have to use the exact same chord progression. You might just use something that is similar.

What I am about to say is sort of advanced but one of the advantages of writing over a backbone of harmony is that you can intentionally choose melody notes that work extremely well with that harmony. Very often, when writing melodies, I am writing with the harmony in mind in ways to get certain combinations between harmony and melody. For example, it is very nice to have a melody note that is the b9th of a dominant chord. I might intentionally write a melody that creates that combination.

A typical chord progression is 4 bars long so pick one and then try to come up with a few variations of a melodic idea that work on top of it. Keep in mind that typically your chord progressions will not be exactly the same in both phrases. It is common that some of the phrases in a song ask questions (ending on non-tonic) and some make statements (ending on tonic).

This example demonstrates using a harmonic idea from the rest of the arrangement (the use of bVI and bVII).

harmonyintro

Rhythmic
If you have ever heard the professional music term “vamp,” you will probably understand this concept. Vamping is playing a very simple idea based on rhythm that is pretty much void of melody or harmony. It could be just 4 bars of a I chord and designed to set up the style and tempo of the song. Vamps can be as simple as playing quarter notes on each beat or very elaborate rhythms.

I don’t use many vamp introductions though I vamp a lot if waiting for a song to begin (such as in a situation where the song leader is speaking and I don’t know how long). Vamping an intro to an arrangement is most appropriate if the arrangement is rhythmic-based. I don’t write much stuff like that so vamping is not something you will see me doing a lot. Here is a vamp concept that I did recently though.

vamp

One thing you might note from my examples is that really they are all combinations of all three ideas. For example, look at “Come Ye Thankful People Come.” That intro has interesting harmony but it is also a vamp concept that is setting up the rhythm for the song. And note the melody on top of it and how I modify the melody in the second four bars. The moral of the story is that your introductions will be best if they combine together all three of the elements I have discussed and even incorporate a lot of other things I did not discuss like dynamics.