Throughout most of the era of recorded music, audiences were more or less “patient.”
It wasn’t unusual in the early days of pop, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley for a song to have a long, drawn out intro section, often an entire instrumental pass of the song’s 32 bar form, before the vocalist or lyrics even entered the picture. Barring some radio-optimized bubblegum pop and the Beatles, this style of songwriting even lasted to remain popular for decades into the second half of the 20th century.
Think disco in the ’70s, prog rock, RnB, heavy metal; Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner,” Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star,” “Stairway to Heaven,” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Purple Rain,” and “Master of Puppets,” the list can go on.
But all that changed in the 2000s. Technology spread rapidly, music went digital, Napster happened, then came digital streaming, on-the-go access to social media, and everything became instant. Attention spans have since shrunk rapidly, music was being shaped by the medium with which it was being delivered.
David Byrne of the Talking Heads believes that music is and should be shaped by the environment and climate around it, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing — when addressed creatively that is.
“Made for Spotify” tracks began popping up on playlists everywhere, Frank Ocean made an album of 60-second songs, designed to be replayed to boost streaming numbers and revenue. TikTok entered the picture, and music became meme.
“Attention spans have since shrunk rapidly, music was being shaped by the medium with which it was being delivered.”
The average skip time on playlists is 6 seconds; 15 second audios do best on TikTok. This has led writers and producers everywhere to adapt their process to meet the standards of today’s audiences. Grabbing listener attention straight away has never been more important, and one way to do that is with a knockout opening line.
The Call To Action
Opening your song with a call to action is one way to get a listener locked in, pronto. A call to action uses a verb to grab listener attention, something “actionable” that the listener can take to heart. Let’s look at a classic example by the Beatles.
Beatles – “All My Loving”
“Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you”
The Beatles were pioneers of “don’t bore us, get to the chorus,” and this is a prime example. Paul opens the song at second 0:00 with a direct, call to action lyric using a verb. By asking the listener to do something, you’re engaging with the listener in an active manner. As opposed to passive storytelling or lengthy, disinterested exposition.
Let’s look at some more examples of great calls to action.
Tears For Fears – “Shout”
“Shout, shout, let it all out.”
Tears For Fears’ iconic smash opens with a great, direct call to action verb, “Shout!” This type of single word, visceral command is a great way to inspire an audience and get them invested in the song.
Donny Osmond & Chorus – “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” (from Mulan OST)
“Let’s get down to business…”
This line is not only great as a call to action, but it’s a “we” call to action, which actively involves the listener, making them a part of the song and the story itself.
A sensory opening uses sense words to hook a listener by engaging one’s imagination and five senses. Sensory openings are often metaphors or similes and use adjectives like colors, tastes, scents, smells, feelings and sights. Every word is valuable, so don’t be afraid to go bold.
Here is an example of a great sensory opening from Harry Styles.
Harry Styles – “Watermelon Sugar”
“Tastes like strawberries, on a summer’s evening”
Is your mouth watering? This line is fire. Tastes, strawberries, and summer evenings are all vivid. Harry manages to engage all of our senses in just seven words.
Before we look at more examples. Let’s see how we might apply this while songwriting. Let’s say we have the line: “My eyes are running with tears.”
This line is boring, it begins with a throwaway word (I, me, mine, it, and), and contains no adjectives to engage the listener’s imagination. Zzzzz.
Here’s how we may use sense words to make the line punch harder.
“Black mascara running wild all down my face”
Now we’re onto something. Black mascara, the action of running (wild, for extra imagery), a preposition (down) and the image of the singer’s face streaked with make-up at the end.
Now don’t think that every line needs to be this jam packed. We’re talking specifically about opening lines here — but this is a good practice and exercise to push the limits of your imagination and creativity at any point in the writing process.
Here are a few more examples of sensory openings.
2Pac – “Keep Ya Head Up”
“Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”
“Keep Ya Head Up” has a great sensory opening, makes great use of color, taste, and metaphor. Black, berry, sweet and juice are all sensory words that stimulate the listeners senses and draw them into the rest of the track.
Taylor Swift – “Red”
“Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street.”
“Red” opens with one of my favorite lines ever. This line is filled with so much vivid imagery, and contains such an inventive and fun metaphor. “Driving a new Maserati” is a great image with a specific reference to a fast car, while “down a dead end street” not only conjures an image, but also works as the antithesis to driving fast.
I could do a deep drive on this line, but for now that’ll do.
Bon Jovi – “You Give Love a Bad Name”
“Shot through the heart… And you’re to blame.”
Wow, it doesn’t get much more gut-wrenching than that. This is a great opening line that hits the listener right in the chest, literally. Bonus points for a vocal intro, before the band absolutely barges in on this track.
The lowest hanging fruit as a lyricist is to grab attention with something shocking. This needs to be done with extreme care. Very little is truly shocking in today’s world, and when you go after shock value you can easily end up sounding cheesy, tone deaf, and contrived.
For this purpose, let’s redefine shocking as provocative, jarring, or avant-garde, instead of dirty, violent or vulgar. Here are a few good examples of lyrics that grab our attention with so much sheer intensity, we simply can’t tune out.
Carmen Twillie & Lebo M. – “Circle of Life” (from The Lion King OST)
“Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba”
This legendary opening from The Lion King is so epic and resonant that it grabs listeners’ attention in a second.
Ozzy Osbourne – “Crazy Train”
“All Aboard! HAHAHAHAHA”
Ozzy’s first solo smash opens with this wild call to action meets onomatopoeia. Ozzy’s cackling evil laughter serves to rouse even the most unimpressed listener from a jaded slumber.
Billie Holiday – “Strange Fruit”
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”
Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” stirred fervent controversy when it was released in 1959. A song about the horror of lynchings in the American south, its opening line still makes stomachs churn and hearts ache today.
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