Chord melody intros: Theory, established practice, and/or as written?

Oldscruggsfan

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Topping my laundry list of musical perplexity is song intros. Coming from a bluegrass background, I have little or no context as to chord melody intros. Bluegrass generally just jumps right in. My only frames of reference are (A) Gospel, (B) Southern Rock, and (C) That oooh, oooh, oooh thing that Brudda Iz did so well. Let me set the stage to better explain my perspective:
When attending church services as a youth, I recall the upright pianist ALWAYS kicking things off by playing the final 1-2 bars of whatever song the congregation had been instructed to turn to in the hymnal. Having never been any nearer a piano than whatever pew I was in at the time, my young brain presumed that such a practice had been established solely to give even the most musically-disinclined congregant the chance to get a feel for the correct key. My old brain has since clung to that notion like a hair in a biscuit. Meanwhile, Southern Rock intro riffs are distinctive and clear and they're not necessarily those final 2 bars.
Regardless of musical genre, is there either an accepted practice or a theory-based method of knowing what the chord melody for any given tune's intro should be, or does it simply boil down to finding the sheet music and playing precisely what the composer wrote?
 

donboody

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Topping my laundry list of musical perplexity is song intros. Coming from a bluegrass background, I have little or no context as to chord melody intros. Bluegrass generally just jumps right in. My only frames of reference are (A) Gospel, (B) Southern Rock, and (C) That oooh, oooh, oooh thing that Brudda Iz did so well. Let me set the stage to better explain my perspective:
When attending church services as a youth, I recall the upright pianist ALWAYS kicking things off by playing the final 1-2 bars of whatever song the congregation had been instructed to turn to in the hymnal. Having never been any nearer a piano than whatever pew I was in at the time, my young brain presumed that such a practice had been established solely to give even the most musically-disinclined congregant the chance to get a feel for the correct key. My old brain has since clung to that notion like a hair in a biscuit. Meanwhile, Southern Rock intro riffs are distinctive and clear and they're not necessarily those final 2 bars.
Regardless of musical genre, is there either an accepted practice or a theory-based method of knowing what the chord melody for any given tune's intro should be, or does it simply boil down to finding the sheet music and playing precisely what the composer wrote?
Lil Rev has a method book on intros, outros, and turnarounds.
 

Steedy

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Intros and outros are very important, because to me, the three most important parts of a song are the beginning, middle, and end. But hey, no pressure!
 

ripock

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I know it is rather simplistic, but I like to play the V of V, the V, and then the I. It kind of triangulates towards the beginning of the song. For example you would play D, which is the dominant of...G, which is the dominant of...C. Obviously not too advanced but I like the sound and I prefer it to those intros that are like suites that introduces the actual themes of the song.
 

Oldscruggsfan

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I know it is rather simplistic, but I like to play the V of V, the V, and then the I. It kind of triangulates towards the beginning of the song. For example you would play D, which is the dominant of...G, which is the dominant of...C. Obviously not too advanced but I like the sound and I prefer it to those intros that are like suites that introduces the actual themes of the song.
Simplistic is always the best approach for me, and your guidance is largely what I was hoping for. Thank you, Ripock.
 

UkingViking

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Ripocks solution should sound just fine for many songs, but does not include any chord-melody. Naturally, chord melody intros are optional.
If you want chord melody, you need to be able to either find some tabs or sheet music, or listen by ear what is supposed to be played.

When you get to this point, it is hard to generalize. What is written as an intro. What part of the melody is played as an intro in the recorded version you like. What do you think sounds good.
 

ripock

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oh yeah, I forgot about the chord melody part. If I had to play the melody as an intro, I would just take the most characteristic part of the melody and play those intervals on the G string, double-stopped with the C string. I wouldn't play it in the same key as the main song because it would be boring into introduce the song with the actual song. This way you introduce the melody with a re-harmonized version of the melody in a different key. It gives an indication of the melody without actually giving it totally away. Obviously, what I'm doing is predicated on my sense of theatricality which may not be the vibe being sought. I offer it as just one way.
 

Oldscruggsfan

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oh yeah, I forgot about the chord melody part. If I had to play the melody as an intro, I would just take the most characteristic part of the melody and play those intervals on the G string, double-stopped with the C string. I wouldn't play it in the same key as the main song because it would be boring into introduce the song with the actual song. This way you introduce the melody with a re-harmonized version of the melody in a different key. It gives an indication of the melody without actually giving it totally away. Obviously, what I'm doing is predicated on my sense of theatricality which may not be the vibe being sought. I offer it as just one way.
Thanks again, Ripock. I suppose there is no way to ask this without seeming as if my original question was contrived toward this end (it wasn't), but the process you described seems precisely what I unintentionally did when posting a cover of "The Ballad of Curtis Loew" in SOTU #551. Circling back to your hilarious quip of "Do it once, it's a mistake. Do it twice, it's Jazz", did I inadvertently pluck the intro and outro riffs in a musically-appropriate way?
 

greenfrog

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You can also take some of the chord progressions that occur in the song, but use them to play around with a short repeated musical phrase that is not part of the melody (and may or may not make appearances as accompaniment, or in transitions or in other parts of the song). That way you get an interesting intro but don’t give away what’s coming in the melody.

Journey’s When the Lights Go Down in the City is a good example of that. It gets your ear acclimated with the flow of the song before adding more layers on top of it so you can better appreciate the next layer (vocals) when they start instead of being distracted trying to figure out what the song is doing.

The rhythm and structure of that song are elaborate enough that if it just started right in at the vocals part with no intro, it would feel like trying to step onto an escalator blindfolded - jarring and disorienting and you’d struggle to catch your balance. The song intro gives the listener a moment to look at the escalator and get their brain acclimated before stepping on.

In this case there are two repetitive musical patterns:
  • The piano playing arpeggiated chords as triplets (stops right before the vocals, since it’s done its job showing your brain the 6/8 beat so you’ll be able to follow it even when other parts of the song are swinging/syncopating/etc.)
  • The guitar riff (provides a distraction so the simplicity of the piano pattern doesn’t become annoying, and continues as accompaniment to the main song to provide a smooth transition).
 
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greenfrog

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Another time when intros can be particularly important is when the song has a complex chord structure. Here are some examples with songs that use chord progression with a partial circuit through the “Circle of Fifths” - each of these songs has an intro that makes it clear what chord the song will try to resolve its way back to, but they don’t all do it the same way:
  • It’s a Sinby the Pet Shop Boys. First time around the circuit is just chords, second time around adds rhythm, and by the third time around when the vocals come in your brain is following the circuit and knows where the chord progression is supposed to resolve to. In addition, the first time through is played in a way that suggests a church organ, then the second time through with rhythm is very not-church, fitting with the lyrics of the song that will follow.
    • It also puts kind of a pre-intro before the intro to say “attention! attention! song starting now!” and make sure the church organ part doesn’t accidentally make anyone think it’s going to be a song they can’t dance to.
  • I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor. The vocals start during the tonic chord that the song will resolve to at the end of each trip around the circuit. But if the song just started there, it would be harder to tell that that’s where the song is trying to make it back to. So the big dramatic all-over-the-piano chord before that is to make the tonic already sound like a resolution the first time you hear it.
  • You Never Give Me Your Money by The Beatles goes once around its circuit before the vocals start, and is an example of a song that shows you the melody during the intro
  • Barbie Girl by Aqua takes you once through a (kind of) circle of fifths based chord progression once before the main song starts so you’ll be able to identify which chord the song is trying to work its way back to
Intros don’t have to go through the whole chord progression (“I Will Survive” does not), all they have to do is help get the brain oriented to some part of the song (key, chord structure, rhythm, etc.) that might be hard for a listener to follow if it was thrown at them all at once.
 
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DuckyI

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There are some very helpful tips above on how to create a very musical introduction to a tune based on an understanding of its harmonic structure and its melody. There are also some stock intros that will sound instantly familiar, and this site gives a helpful list of some of them.

In the end, creating a good intro is a function of knowing a little about the theory behind a song, and really knowing the tune in question.
 

Jim Yates

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I like turn-arounds that start with a I and end with a V for swing tunes.
In G you could play |G / E7 / |Am / D7 / | or |G / Ddim / |Am / D7 / | or |G / Bm Bbm |Am / D7 / |
Play each turn-around twice for an intro. You could play minors as minor sevenths and end with any dominant chord.
 
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Nickie

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oldscruggsfan, I'm a longtime Bluegrass fan too. I've noticed that some songs intro with a few fiddle notes, or a guitar run, or a banjo solo.

Our band is lousy at bluegrass songs, but we do apply a chord melody at the front of most songs we do, because our lead singer wants them. i prefer to just knock into a song as it's written. We've become really good at that.
 

Jim Yates

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oldscruggsfan, I'm a longtime Bluegrass fan too. I've noticed that some songs intro with a few fiddle notes, or a guitar run, or a banjo solo.

Our band is lousy at bluegrass songs, but we do apply a chord melody at the front of most songs we do, because our lead singer wants them. i prefer to just knock into a song as it's written. We've become really good at that.
or Four Potatoes "Dee-didda-dee-didda-dee-didda-dee". Some people call it A little bit for nuthin'.
 

Oldscruggsfan

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or Four Potatoes "Dee-didda-dee-didda-dee-didda-dee". Some people call it A little bit for nuthin'.
That's a run I think I understand, much like Scruggs used as the intro to The Ballad of Jed Clampett. Now that I've mentioned it, the "Beverly Hillbillies" theme may just be the 2nd cover I post for mountaingoat's "Celluloid or Bust" contest. My cover of "The Fishin' Hole" certainly isn't a winner, LOL:ROFLMAO:.