WINDOW DRESSING: INTROS, INTERLUDES, RIFFS AND FILLS

How important are introductions, instrumental interludes, figures, riffs and fills, and how much attention should the songwriter give to them?

Some songwriters leave these considerations entirely up to the arranger, but others like to present their songs as complete compositions.

A good introduction should set up the song: create an ambiance— establish the mood and the feel—and lead straight into the vocal.

There’s no set rule as to how long an intro should be. Some consist merely of an arpeggio, while others sound like the first movement of a symphony. But unless the introduction is powerfully exciting in itself, it shouldn’t be long.

A good introduction is like an emcee—introduce the song, then get out of the way.

Some songs have “figures” or countermelodies written into them that appear in every arrangement you hear. A figure is a running thread that recurs throughout the song and gives it a sense of unity and cohesion.

Whether it was created by the songwriter or the arranger of the hit recording or was perhaps improvised by one of the sidemen, it has become the song’s “signature lick,” an integral part of the song’s structure.

For instance, consider the riffs in James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” or the piano figures in Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is.” These songs wouldn’t be complete without their distinguishing musical figures. Neither would “New York, New York” or “Singin’ in the Rain.”

What about instrumental interludes? How important are they? Some arrangers and instrumental soloists love them because they give them a chance to shine. True, but generally they serve a couple of important purposes:

1.  No matter how wonderful a singer’s voice may be, the audience needs occasional relief from it, whether the singer does or not. A few bars of instrumental color can provide a refreshing change, so when the voice comes back in, it’s a fresh sound and the audience is ready for it again.

2.  Appropriate instrumental interludes also provide time to meditate on the message. In the Psalms we often encounter the word “Selah.” It denotes an instrumental interlude and means “Pause, and calmly think of that.”

We have seen genuinely anointed instrumental soloists “prophesy” on their instruments and lead a congregation into greater heights of worship. (Guitarist Phil Keaggy is a master at this.)

Long interludes, though, are a problem for singers using prerecorded tracks in concert. They might just stand there looking awkward, unless they can dance to it.

Lyrics don’t have to fill up all of every line. In some styles, especially those that use improvising instruments, as in jazz or blues, it’s a good idea to use the first half of each four-bar phrase for lyrics, and leave holes, or “leave some air,” as we sometimes call it, for instrumental fills. This provides a refreshing interplay, or conversation, between the voice and the instruments.

It’s possible to become a successful songwriter while offering no more than words, melody and chord symbols, but the more control you have over these other components of your song, the more satisfied we think you’ll be.

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