This is a series of posts about song formatting and structure. Every couple of days I’ll be writing about the different individual elements that make up a song.
Please bear in mind that these are my definitions and interpretations of the different parts of a song structure. There are no hard and fast rules determining which part of a song goes where.
However, there are generally accepted guidelines. Think of this Songwriting 101 series as the “nuts and bolts” of putting your songs together.
You’ve been refining your songwriting process and you’ve come up with some great ideas and now you are ready to put them all together.
Your journey starts now…
A song is not merely a composition but a story. It has a beginning, middle, and an end, each of which plays a crucial role in captivating the listener. As a songwriter, understanding these structural components is essential, as they form the backbone of any composition.
Today we’re focussing on two foundational yet often overlooked elements of song structure – the Intro and Outro.
Akin to a book’s first and last chapter, these elements serve as the opening and closing statements of your song. They set the stage and conclude the performance, respectively, each adding depth, character, and intrigue.
In songwriting, crafting compelling intros and outros is an artform in itself. A well-written intro grabs the listener’s attention and sets the tone for the song, while a carefully planned outro provides a sense of closure and leaves a lasting impression on the listener.
So whether you’re a budding songwriter or a seasoned composer looking to hone your craft, this guide aims to provide valuable insights into creating more engaging and impactful songs.
Understanding Intros in Songwriting
A song’s introduction, or “intro”, is the initial segment that kickstarts the entire musical journey. This section is the audience’s first encounter with your song, and as such, holds the power to immediately capture their attention and set their expectations for the rest of the song.
Intros can be as varied as songs themselves – ranging from a few simple chords to elaborate instrumental solos. Regardless of its complexity, the intro serves as the initial preview, setting up the key musical and thematic elements that will be elaborated upon throughout the song.
The intro plays several crucial roles in the songwriting process, contributing significantly to the overall structure and impact of the composition.
Establishing Mood and Tone: The intro is the first glimpse into the song’s emotional landscape. An energetic, upbeat intro, for instance, may signal a lively, feel-good song, while a slow, melancholic intro may foreshadow a more somber or reflective tune.
Presenting Musical Themes: The intro often introduces the song’s primary motifs or themes. It could showcase the main melody, a notable rhythmic pattern, or a distinctive chord progression that reappears throughout the song.
Grabbing Listener’s Attention: In the era of streaming services and easy access to music, a gripping intro is key to preventing listeners from simply skipping to the next track. An engaging intro sparks curiosity and draws listeners in, setting the stage for the song’s story.
Transition and Pacing: The intro allows listeners to acclimatise to the song’s rhythm and tempo, easing them into the sonic world you’ve created. This transition period is especially important in setting the pace of the song.
Setting the Key: The intro typically establishes the key in which the song is set. This lays the tonal foundation for the subsequent sections of the song.
Providing Structural Balance: The intro offers a form of symmetry to the song’s overall structure, often being reflected or echoed in the outro, thus creating a well-rounded musical experience.
While an average song intro is often between four to eight bars long, there are exceptions. For example, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” features a sixteen-bar introduction, essential to map out the complex and timeless musical arrangement of this epic tune.
The intro can also serve various purposes throughout the song. It may reappear as a space for breathing between verse and chorus, form the foundation of your bridge section, or even bridge a major and minor tonality.
For instance, your introduction may be in A minor, and your verse in its relative major key, which is C. This use of tonality can add depth and complexity to your song.
Understanding and effectively employing intros in your songwriting can elevate your composition, creating a captivating opening that will engage your listeners from the first note
Recognisable Song Introductions
We’ve already touched on this with “Stairway To Heaven” but a well-crafted intro can leave an indelible mark on the listener, often becoming a defining feature of the song itself.
Let’s delve into five more iconic song intros that have shaped the landscape of music across various genres, demonstrating the power of an impactful intro.
“Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses: The song opens with Slash’s iconic guitar riff, instantly drawing the listener into its vibrant, energetic soundscape. The intro sets the stage for the rock anthem that follows.
“Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple: The opening guitar riff is a staple of rock music and a favorite among budding guitarists. Its repetitive structure creates anticipation for the powerful track to follow.
“Hotel California” by The Eagles: The intro of this classic track sets the stage with a complex, beautifully harmonized guitar duet, building an atmospheric soundscape that perfectly complements the song’s narrative.
“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson: The driving, syncopated beat at the start of this song is a definitive feature of its composition. Its simplicity and distinctiveness make it immediately recognizable.
“Thunderstruck” by AC/DC: The frantic, high-energy guitar riff that opens this song is a staple of hard rock, introducing the song’s relentless energy from the get-go.
Each of these songs utilises its introduction to establish a unique musical identity, grab the listener’s attention, and pave the way for the story that the song unfolds. They serve as prime examples of how intros can significantly contribute to the overall songwriting composition and leave a lasting impact on listeners.
Understanding Outros in Songwriting
As we reach the tail end of a song, we encounter the outro, a segment as crucial as the intro. An outro is the concluding section of a song that signifies the end is near. It offers the final chance to leave a lasting impression and ensure that the song remains in the minds of listeners long after it has ended.
An outro can take various forms in songwriting. It might involve a repetition of the chorus, an instrumental break, a fade-out, or an entirely new section designed to provide a powerful ending. Regardless of its form, the outro should provide a sense of resolution, concluding the song’s musical journey.
Just as the introduction has a vital role to play, the outro also brings several benefits to a song’s composition:
Providing Closure: Much like the final chapter in a book, the outro provides closure to the story told through the song. It concludes the narrative and musical themes, allowing for a satisfying end.
Reiterating Musical Themes: The outro can be used to restate the main melodies or motifs one last time, reinforcing them in the listener’s memory.
Creating Balance: When mirroring elements of the intro, the outro can bring balance and symmetry to the overall song structure, creating a well-rounded composition.
Providing a Platform for Variation: The outro can be an opportunity for musical exploration, allowing for solos, improvisations, or unexpected musical twists that add intrigue and depth.
Setting Up for the Next Song: In an album context, the outro of one song can serve as a transition to the next, maintaining the flow of the album experience.
Conveying Emotion: The final moments of a song can be emotionally powerful, leaving the listener with a strong emotional impression.
An outro can take several forms – it can be as simple as a repetition of the chorus or the hook-line, or it can be a bridge-like departure, providing one last surprise before the end of the song. A well-executed outro can significantly enhance a song, providing a satisfying conclusion and leaving listeners with a lasting impression.
Notable Song Outros
The final notes of a song, when expertly crafted, can resonate with listeners and form a lasting impression. Let’s explore five songs that perfectly demonstrate the power and potential of a well-crafted outro.
“Hey Jude” by The Beatles: This song is known for its extended outro, a four-minute-long fade-out centered around the song’s catchy “na-na-na” refrain. This lengthy outro transforms into a jubilant sing-along, giving the song an enduring appeal.
“Message in a Bottle” by The Police: The outro repeats the line “sending out an SOS” as the music slowly fades, providing a powerful, melancholic ending that echoes the song’s themes of loneliness and longing.
“Purple Rain” by Prince: The song concludes with a soaring guitar solo and gospel-style backing vocals, creating an emotional climax that leaves a lasting impact on listeners.
“Layla” by Derek and the Dominos: The outro is a masterpiece of rock music, showcasing the raw talent and emotional intensity of the band. This iconic section serves as a climactic finale to the song, leaving listeners captivated and longing for more.
“God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys: The outro features a round-style repetition of the chorus with elaborate harmonies, providing a beautiful, uplifting conclusion to one of their most beloved songs.
Each of these songs utilises its outro in a unique and effective way, from repeating refrains and memorable instrumental solos to dramatic climaxes and surprising tonal shifts. They serve as inspiration and testament to the power of a compelling outro in creating an unforgettable musical experience.
Practical Tips for Crafting Intros and Outros
Crafting memorable intros and outros is an art that can significantly enhance your songwriting. Here are some practical tips to guide you in creating compelling beginnings and endings for your compositions:
Establish the Mood Early: Your intro should provide a taste of what’s to come. If your song is upbeat and energetic, make sure your intro mirrors this. If it’s a slower, emotional ballad, a more mellow intro might be more fitting.
Keep it Brief but Impactful: Your intro should be short enough to keep your listener’s attention, but long enough to establish the key musical themes. As a general rule, intros typically last between four to eight bars.
Use Recurring Motifs: Consider introducing a motif or theme in your intro that you can call back to later in the song, or even in the outro. This can create a sense of unity and symmetry in your composition.
Don’t Overstay Your Welcome: Just as your intro should be concise, your outro should also know when to bow out. Outros often involve a fade-out or a repetition of a key theme, but it’s important not to let this section drag on too long, or it may lose its impact.
Provide Closure: Use your outro to wrap up any musical or thematic ideas introduced in your song. This could mean reprising your chorus, revisiting a key motif from your intro, or creating a new section that provides a sense of resolution.
Experiment with Variations: Outros can be a great opportunity to introduce a new variation on a theme, a key change, an instrumental solo, or other musical surprises that will leave a lasting impression.
Consider the Transitions: Pay attention to how your intro leads into the main body of your song, and how your outro provides a smooth exit. These transitions can be critical in maintaining the flow of your composition.
As always, there are no hard and fast rules in songwriting. Some of the most memorable songs break traditional conventions, so don’t be afraid to experiment and find what works best for your unique musical style and the story you want to tell.
So, to sum things up, in the world of music, intros and outros serve a crucial role, acting as gateways into and exits from the auditory journey that is a song. They have the potential to become defining elements of a track, playing an instrumental role in setting the stage for a composition or bringing it to a memorable close.
Understanding and crafting powerful intros and outros isn’t just about making a catchy first or last few bars. It’s about making conscious decisions to capture the listener’s attention right from the start, maintain their interest throughout, and then leave them with a lasting impression that ensures your song resonates long after it has ended.
From the dreamy, intricate intro of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” to the heartfelt, repeating outro in The Police’s “Message in a Bottle”, the influence of well-constructed intros and outros is undeniable.
This just shows that in songwriting, as in storytelling, how you begin and end your tale can be just as impactful, if not more, than the narrative itself.