Developing a musical introduction (Part 1)

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I got to tell you: I am having to really discipline myself not to talk politics these days. I have so much I want to say and none of it is good. I absolutely despise everything I see and in a lot of ways, this election cycle feels surreal. Is this really happening to us?

OK, enough of politics. Let’s talk about music for a while and specifically, introductions.

The obvious first question is this: do you need an introduction in the first place? The answer is clearly no. In fact, I encourage you to intentionally choose not to use intros sometimes. I would say I use them 80-90% of the time but that is a preference. Even if you are accompanying singers, intros are optional assuming they get a starting pitch from somewhere.

In general, introductions stylize arrangements. If you wonder what that means, it just means to take something common and polish it up a bit.

There are two specific things I use intros for that I will readily admit to and a third thing I use them for that I will grudgingly admit to. Here they are:

1) To help define the aural landscape of the arrangement (the overall style, feel)
If you follow my music, you probably know by now that I tend to paint with a broad brush and in a somewhat impressionistic way. Some musicians will disagree with me on this but I am not one that tends to try to get extremely specific in communicating every lyric in a piece of music. If it is a song about comfort, I like the style of the song to be comforting. If it is inspiring, I like it to be inspiring. However, I give myself a lot of latitude in regards to melody, etc. In some of my arrangements, you hear melody less than half the time. That is just fine with me if I am painting the right kind of picture with what I am playing otherwise.

The introduction is where you start developing that aural painting. It sets up everything.

2) To introduce thematic material that can tie the whole arrangement together
It is very rare that I use an idea in an introduction and never come back to it in the rest of the arrangement. It is the simplest thing in the world to do but also the most effective way to tie an arrangement together and make it feel stylized.

Remember that when you introduce an idea, you don’t have to replicate it exactly in the rest of the arrangement. Rather, you can develop it. For example, if you use a particular melodic line, you can use almost the same line in an interlude but modify it slightly. As you have heard me say before, good music is a combination of repetition and development. You want the listeners to recognize an idea as familiar but also notice that you are changing it up a bit.

Here is an example of what I am talking about: He Leadeth Me

Note the use of an idea that is introduced in the introduction. It is a very simple idea: riffing over a 2-chord progression of I to IV/I. I come back to it at bar 19 and develop it into something fancier to lead into the next section which is busier and bigger. Then at the end, I touch on it again.

3) To make arrangements longer
This is the one I don’t like to admit to but I do it. Very often, when needing something to be longer, rather than developing another verse of a song, I just develop an intro more. It is not uncommon for my introductions to be longer than 30 seconds and some of them are 45 seconds. As long as they are reinforcing what I want to do with the arrangement (see point 1), I don’t really care how long they are.

I guess that brings up a question: how long should intros be? There is no solid answer of course but I tend to write between 8 and 16 bars. I usually write a number of bars divisible by 4 but that is not a hard and fast rule either.

I am going to write another post discussing the technical side of introductions and hopefully get you some practical ideas to help you as you write your own. That will be next week.