How To Create Killer Intros and Outros
This is part 10 of our One Man Production Machine series by Ed Elefterion. Check out his previous posts here if you missed them.
Intros and outros are more than just a way in and out of a song. They are the first impression and the final sound. Let’s define each.
Intros serve to present themes that the song develops, both musical and lyrical. They give your audience an early taste of what’s coming and orient their ears to the sonic world that will unfold over the course of the song.
Outros provide a resolution to the sonic journey the audience just experienced. The resolution may simply restate the main theme (like a song’s chorus fading out), or it can create a new theme that works in counterpoint to everything before it.
Sidebar: Counterpoint is a compliment to as well as a development of a musical idea. For example, Since I Gave Up Hope (I Feel Much Better) features the use of counterpoint in the “La la” melody of the outro. The ending of Hey Jude is another example.
How Are They Different?
Of the two, intros are more valuable. Why? Beginnings are important. Whether seductive or mysterious or joyful or very sparse and dark – first impressions make or break any work of art. If you start poorly, the audience will never get to the actual song, let alone the outro.
Also, by the time your audience gets to the outro, you’ve either hooked them or lost them. This way, you can think of the outro as more of a treat, a place to have fun with an unexpected twist of the plot.
With any performative art (music, theater, dance) something happens over time. In theater, it’s about bodies and language in space. In dance, bodies and sound in space. In music, it’s just sound and space. But it’s always all about telling a story.
Think of songs as stories – even if they don’t have lyrics.
- Intro: We begin a journey with some very simple pieces (a melody, instruments). These simple pieces are located some place at some time and have simple relationships to each other.
- Middle (Rising Action): Things get more complicated. Relationships evolve and change, sounds develop, an organizing rhythm emerges (if it hasn’t already), and variations complicate and deepen the very simple elements we began with. This is the heart of the story. Conflict is unavoidable here. In fact, conflict is the whole point, it’s what storytelling is all about. Conflict and resolution.
- Outro: Here’s where our elements resolve. Here’s where the story continues in perpetuity and fades into the void. Or…here’s where we arrive at a new location. Maybe the next song will develop where this one leaves off? Or…here’s where things conclusively end.
Build Your Intro
Any good story starts by identifying the main characters, the theme, and the setting. How? Start by asking yourself if the song wants a gentle intro that builds to the first verse or if it wants to start with a bang, complete with drums and the main rhythm section (bass, keys, guitars).
More simply put:
Does it start small or big?
Since I Gave Up Hope (I Feel Much Better) wanted to start small. I knew that the song was quite a journey, with a large bridge that led to a fully rocking ending. Starting big would’ve been too much too soon. I started small so I could build.
I took the lyrics from the chorus and created a variation on the melody from the chorus. I tried using the chords from the chorus but they were too rhythmically linked to the melody and I felt that something related but different would be best. I imagined teaching the audience the lyrics and came up with a simple 2 chord progression that repeats and resolves on the 5th chord (B7) because I wanted to introduce the audience to the tonal center of the song.
I wanted them to feel like they knew where “home” was. In a very important way, this orients them in sonic space. Once they know where home is, I can take them away and – like everyone does every day – return them home, some sonic space that they recognize. How do they come to recognize home? I taught them where it was with a short introduction.
I also gave them lyrics to remember. And…using specific instruments…I gave them an emotional home – but this gets into orchestration and that’s coming up in the next post.
Common Tactics for Creating Intros
Strip away the drums. Or try just pairing them down. This gives you somewhere to go.
Experiment with tempo. A slower tempo often works very well because it accentuates the rest of the song.
Look to your chorus and your bridge. Try copying the chord structure and removing the lyrics but keeping the melody. If you have no lyrics then just use the melody of the section.
Always ask yourself: what’s the point? What goal am I aiming to achieve?
- To set the tone of the song?
- Teach the audience the hook? (The Beatles did this often in their early days: Help, Can’t Buy Me Love.)
- Create expectations that I can then break later (a very dramatic effect)
- Build a link from a previous song (on an album, for example)
- To ease into the heart of the song
- To create a sense of mystery and anticipation
A Word About Mystery and Anticipation
Audiences lean forward when they’re wondering what’s going to happen. They lean back when they already know and just want to enjoy the ride. Pick the one that best suits your purpose and you’ll be off to a great start when you must make decisions about arrangement, lyrics, tempo, just about anything. Why is this true? Storytelling. It’s all about the story.
How Does Your Story End?
Is it abrupt (like punk and rock songs), does it wind down (like so many ballads), does it have an epilogue with a whole new section (prog rock), or does the chorus fade out? That’s the basic question.
I usually can hear an ending as I’m working on the song. I know how it should end. Fade vs no fade is the first thing I think about. If it fades out…usually, I’m thinking that the thematic content of the song just keeps going into eternity – like in Since I Gave Up Hope (I Feel Much Better). If it doesn’t, and I feel like the audience should hear how the song ends, it’s usually because I want to leave them with something. I want to put a period or an exclamation point or a question mark at the end of the experience.
Outros offer an opportunity to take your audiences to a very specific conclusion.
How to Create an Outro
Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen offers a good example of how to create an outro. Apparently, the famous tenor sax outro originally sat in the middle of the song…and it slowed the momentum down irreparably. They couldn’t figure out how to jump back into the rest of the song without it feeling unnatural. It just did not work. The producer, Jon Landau, suggested trying the solo at the end instead of the middle. Worked like a charm and the legendary song was not only saved but it was given a super outro. Audiences sang along with sax man Clarence Clemons until his death. Now…they sing it for him.
I’ll often build my outro from the existing chorus – which is where most songs end up. I’ll play the chorus again and again while I play with alternative melodic ideas. Like I said way back when this series began – melody comes easily for me. In a short time, I’ll have several ideas to work with and they honestly kind of pick themselves. One of them will hook into my head and when that happens, I trust it.
Sometimes I’ll pick up the guitar and solo a bit (recording it, of course) over the chorus which I’ve looped. Then I’ll pick through that material specifically looking for a small snatch of sing-able melody between 2 and 8 measures long. Then I’ll basically turn what started as a guitar solo into a La-la style outro, or just leave it as a guitar solo…or…try it on another instrument, a keyboard or horn.
And yes, you guessed it…I’m always asking:
What’s the story?
Some Story Ideas
Here’s a list of provocative questions that get my creative juices flowing.
- Is it a singalong?
- A warning?
- A celebration?
- A breaking up or a coming together?
- Does the tone change or does it keep repeating?
- Does it lead to another (new) song?
- Does it repeat the introduction – a cyclical story?
- Do things literally fall apart? Or almost fall apart? (I promise you that this is more compelling for an audience.)
- Can I do with a single instrument?
- What’s the fewest I can get away with using?
- What’s the most?
Listen for Intros and Outros now that we’ve shined a light on them. Ask yourself: what does it mean? Why is it here? What would the song sound like without it? Would it still work?
Practice developing your skills by first noticing how others use the same ideas.
Some people will say that songs don’t need introductions or outros. I say it depends on the song. After I’ve written a new song I always ask myself if it wants an intro. Most of the time, the answer is yes.
Notice, I didn’t say needs an intro – complete songs can stand on their own without an introduction. But when I feel that the experience of a song will be enhanced by an introduction, when a song wants one, then I create one. Worst case scenario: it doesn’t work and I cut it. That’s a powerful fact. Keep it in mind.
You can always cut it.
Sometimes, I want to make a statement by not having an intro and just starting the lyrics immediately. It’s a bold choice…and can be very effective. Try it.
We get more firmly into producing. Namely: where do you begin the recording process – especially if you’re like me: a one-person-band? It’s a huge undertaking and I’m very excited to share how I do it with you. I sincerely hope it helps.
(If you’ve been following the series you’re sick of seeing this section. I kind of am too. But I tack it on the end for those who are just dipping in here and there so I can get the word out to as many folks as possible. Thanks for putting up with it.)
(And everyone else who’s confused by that last paragraph…you’re missing out. Go back through the previous posts and dig up some nuggets for yourself.)
If you’re overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Shoot me an email and I’ll help you out with a…
I’ll listen to your demo, we’ll Skype for 15 min and I’ll tell you what I’d do. You can take my ideas (or not) and execute them yourself.
Or, if you want more direct help, we can talk about how much (or how little) you want me to be involved.
We’ll work out a fair price…I’m not in this for the money. I’m an artist, too, and I won’t exploit other artists. But more on this later.