Writing Musical Introductions

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Just about any song you play should have a short introduction. In most cases four or eight bars are perfect. But, if you play your songs from things you've composed yourself or from “Fake Books” you will have to create your own “little songs” to accomplish this task. In this essay we'll cover a few simple ideas that will give your performances that extra bit of professionalism.

An introduction should accomplish the following:

  • Let your audience know the tempo of the piece. Pretty important if you're playing for a dance!

  • Establish the key of the song ... your vocalists will love you (maybe a good thing).

  • Establish a frame for the song. Think of an introduction coupled with an ending like a nice frame on a picture.

There are three parts to the introduction: The chords used, the “melody,” and the rhythm. Depending on the style of music you might use one, two or all three parts. Let's start out with the simple stuff, rhythm.

Rhythmic Introductions are quite suitable in many songs. If you have a drummer in your band, have him play four bars of the same pattern he'll be using in the song. If you are using a drum machine, you'll sometimes have “intro” settings—use them.

Chording Introductions Figuring out what set of chords to use to introduce a song can be daunting at first. But, it'll get easier. To get started, look at the key of piece. I'm not going to present a long music theory lesson here, but a few tricks might help:

  • Look at the first and last chords in the piece. If the song starts and ends with a “G Major” chord, it's probably in the key of G. If the two chords are different, odds are that the last chord is the key.

  • Look at the key signature. Here's a little table listing the number of flats and sharps and possible keys:

    # of sharps/flats Major key Minor Key
    7# C# A#m
    6# F# D#m
    5# B G#m
    4# E C#m
    3# A F#m
    2# D Bm
    1# G Em
    None C Am
    1b F Dm
    2b Bb Gm
    3b Eb Cm
    4b Ab Fm
    5b Db Bbm
    6b Gb Ebm
    7b Cb Abm

    You can figure out if the key is minor in a few simple ways. If the piece sounds “sad” it's probably in a minor key. If the first or final chord is minor, that's a good clue. If the chords just don't seem to match those you'd use in a major key (for example, there is one sharp in the key signature, but chords like G and D7 don't seem to fit), it's likely in a minor key.

Once you have figured out the key of the song, here are a few ideas to creating the chords for the introduction. Note that in these examples we're using a four bar introduction with a different chord on each bar. Feel feel to expand this to eight bars (just duplicate each bar) or to add chords. After all, it's your introduction.

Emphasize the key by simply repeating the first chord in the piece in the correct rhythm. So, if the piece is in the key of G, play four bars of a G major chord. Hey, not for every piece, but it is a start.

Root and Five is a well established pattern. Play the root chord (in the key of F major this would be an F major chord) followed by the seventh chord on the fifth note of the key (in this case it is a C7). You'll see this referred to as the “I” and “V7” chords. Repeat or vamp 'til you're ready.

Decending Bass Lines targeting the tonic of the key often works nicely. You just have to match the chords with the bass notes. So, if they key is F major, you might play the bass notes Bb, Ab, G and F (one note per bar). The chords to match this would be Bb, Ab, C/G and F (with maybe a C7 on the second half of the fourth bar). The third chord in the series is a “slash” chord indicating that a G bass note is to be played with the C chord (it can also indicate a chord inversion, but that is a different essay).

The I vi ii V7 progression is probably the most common set of chords used in introductions. And for good reason—it just about always works. Hey Bob, “what's this I vi ii V7” stuff? Well, sorry to get into theory, but this is a notation known as “roman numeral analysis” and indicates the tonality within a key. The neat thing about this is that it doesn't matter what the key of the piece is, the numerals remain the same. For now it's enough to know that:

  • “I” represents a Major chord on the tonic of the scale. For a song in G major this is a G major chord.

  • “vi” means a minor chord (lowercase means minor) on the sixth (also called the superdominant) tone. Again, for G major this would be an Em chord.

  • “ii” is another minor chord, but on the second (supertonic) tone. In this example, it works out to be a Am chord.

  • “V7” The final chord is a dominant seventh chord on the fifth (dominant) tone. Here is it a D7 chord.

Here's a table showing the various combinations for each key signature (mostly this works better in major keys, but don't be afraid to try it in minor keys):

# of sharps/flatsMajor KeyMinor Key I vi ii V7 Chords
7# C# A#m C#, A#m, D#m, G#7
6# F# D#m F#, D#m, G#m, C#7
5# B G#m B, G#m, C#m, F#7
4# E C#m E, C#m, F#m, B7
3# A F#m A, F#m, Bm, E7
2# D Bm D, Bm, Em, A7
1# G Em G, Em, Am, D7
None C Am C, Am, Dm, G7
1b F Dm F, Dm, Gm, C7
2b Bb Gm Bb, Gm, Cm, F7
3b Eb Cm Eb, Cm, Fm, Bb7
4b Ab Fm Ab, Fm, Bbm, Eb7
5b Db Bbm Db, Bbm, Ebm, Ab7
6b Gb Ebm Gb, Ebm, Abm, Db7
7b Cb Abm Cb, Abm, Dbm, Gb7

One simple variation which may work is to change the minor chords to minor sevenths or major sevenths.

The iii VI7 ii V7 is another series to consider. In this case you would play (in the key of C) an Em, A7, Dm and G7 chord.

Yet another series is vi II7 ii V7. In the key of C this would be the chords Am, D7, Dm and G7.

Finally, we need to talk a bit about the melody used in the introduction. The notes you select should be related to the song, but not necessarily repeat the melody. To make life a bit harder, they have to fit the rhythm of the piece and fit the chords you have picked. Here's a few ideas:

  • Repeat the first bar in the piece, but change the notes to match the chords in the intro.

  • Simply repeat the tonic (first note) of each chord in a pattern similar to the main song. So, if the song uses a pattern of quarter, eighth, eighth, half for the lyrics use that for your pattern.

  • Use the last two or four bars in the song and try to play them backwards. Some adjustment will be needed in timing and to get things to match with the chords.

  • Arpeggiate the chords. Simply play each note in the chord and try to make it sound melodic.

To get any good at this you'll have to do two things: practice and listen to other people's songs. Nothing like learning from a master! So, if you need to write an introduction for a Mambo you'd better get those old Perez Prado albums out.

I use combinations of the above methods all the time when doing different tune arrangements. After a bit of practice it gets easier. Honest. So, give it try. And have fun!

And let me know if this article helps.

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