If the first 10 seconds is the most important part of the song, why not fill it with something solid? In addition to a repeating riff, a good intro can be an extract from a bridge or chorus, or even something culled from a different track altogether.
The irresistible riff. In the film Bull Durham, pitcher Nuke LaLoosh tells catcher Crash Davis that he needs to lead off with his rocket fastball “so I can announce my presence with authority!” In pop music, the aural equivalent is the riff—whether it’s a looped synth, strident piano or distorted lead guitar line, a solid opening motif puts the listener on notice, helping to hold their attention as the song builds. However, don’t start your tune with anything less than a potent idea (unless you want it to quickly disappear like Nuke’s first pitch). Nor should you ruin a clever intro with endless repetition—make your statement and then get on with the song.
Lead with the lead vocal. Why allow listeners to click through before you even get to the first word? If you really want to cut to the chase—and you don’t have any mind-blowing riffs up your sleeve—then just start out singing. It’s a simple strategy that has informed countless tracks over the years, but with attention spans waning it’s perhaps more effective than ever. Thanks to digital editing, you can even make this a game-time decision—go ahead and record the song with whatever intro idea you currently have, and if while mixing it seems flaccid, just select and trim the part right up to the start of the vocal.
Hooks go first. If you’ve got a superb refrain, don’t make them wait—consider inserting at least a section of the chorus right at the top, and then begin the song. The Beatles were masters at front-loading the hooks, from “She Loves You” to “The Long and Winding Road” and many more in between.
Add a real intro. As jazz fans know, many of the great songbook standards from the 1930s and 1940s included a full 16-bar (or longer) introduction, some of them so sophisticated that they were like standalone songs themselves. These lengthy intros ultimately went out the window with the arrival of the 3-minute single, but a distinctive piece of music or rhythm right at the top can still work like any other hook. Extracting from an entirely different unfinished song may be perfect for this—go into your folder and randomly drop in a few of these remaindered bits and see if one of them fits the bill.
Use your tools. With sampling in full swing during the ‘90s, producers frequently relied on technology to create riveting intros, such as processing guitars/vocals with distortion or using radical EQ to give the whole beginning a lo-fi feel. Another trick you could try is paring back most of the instruments so you only have a skeletal backing for the first half-minute or so, then abruptly unmute the parts so that the volume instantly doubles. You best believe that will get their attention!
Finally, to make the most of your intro be sure to carefully preen the entire opening section of the song, using your software to close up any unnecessary space between the opening and the verse—even a few seconds here and there can make a difference.