How to Write Musical Introductions: What to Say Before You Play


What is the best way to introduce a piece of music? Musical introductions can be improvised or highly polished.

In this article, you’ll discover:

  • The promise of a musical introduction and how to get the most mileage from it.
  • A gameplan and process to craft great intros, plus what to include.
  • Tips for brainstorming, writing, editing, practicing, and polishing your delivery.

If you plan to play for others, it’s worth the time to script and hone a great introduction. Here’s how.

The Power of an Introduction

When we speak before playing, we bring another dimension to the performance.

Whether we play in a recital hall, an open mic affair, or our living room, a word can elevate the experience.

We can form connections with those listening. We can help them enjoy the music. And we may even lead them to understand music in new ways.

Connect with your listeners

The listener wants to know you and feel comfortable listening. And they want to know that you are comfortable sharing.

With a great intro, listeners feel like they know you. They like you and are on your side.

This personal connection may encourage them to stay open enough to have an emotional experience of the music.

Help listeners have a positive experience

An introduction can put listeners at ease. It can give them something to think about or reflect on while you play.

You can help them “enter” the music more fully by showing them a doorway to some aspect of the music.

Educate the listener

An introduction can also lead listeners to learn something new. They may gain a new perspective on music, the world, or themselves.

Builds confidence for the player

In addition to the benefits to the listener, a well-crafted intro can also help the performer. We may feel more confident and prepared after delivering a good introduction.

Do You Need to Introduce the Music?

Not every piece needs an introduction every time. What we say and how long we take to say it depends on the situation.

Short performances

If you are only playing one or two pieces, like at an open-mic or song circle, it is nice to give an introduction.

Here, you can give a more complete musical experience by introducing your piece.

Longer performances

For longer performances, we may only need to say hello after the first piece and goodbye before the last.

We could also introduce sets or groups of pieces.

Here, it depends on the music, the audience, and the setting.

Better safe than sorry – have an intro ready

Because you may or may not need to introduce your pieces, it’s best to have intros prepared and ready.

Then, if needed, you can speak with confidence and clarity.

The Gameplan: 5 Steps to Great Intros

The best introductions sound improvised. They feel to the audience as if the performer is casually sharing something with them for the first time.

But to do this well, the introduction should be considered and strategic. So here are the steps we’ll go through to create this polished effect.

  • Step One: Plan It – Brainstorm lots of ideas and choose the best.
  • Step Two: Write It – Every word, then edit it into a polished piece of text.
  • Step Three: Memorize It – Deeply ingrain the text, so it’s there when you need it.
  • Step Four: Practice It – So it comes out easily and comfortably. Hone the delivery.
  • Step Five: Forget It – Once the finished text is well-ingrained, release it. The structure and key phrases will remain, but some small words may change on stage. This keeps it feeling fresh and sincere.

Once we go through these steps, we know what we will say. We feel confident and collected in the performance moment. And we can relax and present our music in the spirit of sharing.

Writing Tips for Musical Introductions

To craft an engaging intro, take as much time as you need. Consider this time well-spent. Even better, enjoy it.

The extra confidence and improved experience for listeners will be worth the trouble.

Step 1: Brainstorm many ideas

Chances are, your first thought will not be your best. List at least 10 ideas (ideally many more).

To find ideas,

  • Read the Wikipedia page for the composer and piece, if available.
  • Ask a GPT or a search engine for ideas.
  • Find program notes from previous concerts online. University faculty and visiting artist recitals often have good program notes.
  • Use any of the ideas below as starting points for research.

Step 2: Create an outline

Sketch a quick outline of one or more of the ideas.

If you like, set a timer and spend 5–7 minutes creating an outline for each one.  As you do this, some ideas will rise to the top and will feel more attractive to you.

Step 3: Write

Having chosen a top idea, write out the introduction in full sentences with correct grammar.

Tips:

  • Use simple language (small words).
  • Use a conversational tone, as if sharing something interesting with a friend.
  • Avoid jargon and technical terms (unless you are in an academic setting).
  • Make it as long as needed to make the point.

You can then…

Step 4: Edit Edit Edit

Finally, edit your text down to the time you have available. (See below for how long your intro should be.)

Polymath Kevin Kelly wrote,

“To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just redo it, redo it, redo it.”

Continue to cut and recraft until each word serves a purpose. Reading aloud is very helpful at this stage.

What to Include in Your Introduction

So what exactly should you say?

This is the big question. There are many ways to introduce a piece.  But we are aiming to put the listener at ease, to help them have a positive experience, and perhaps to educate them.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

Audience engagement techniques

This could include asking rhetorical questions, sharing a brief anecdote related to the piece (more on this below), or inviting the audience to imagine a scene or emotion as they listen.

It’s about creating an interactive experience, even in a one-sided communication.

Composer notes

You can share fun facts about the composer. Simple birth and death dates are not so gripping. But if you’ve discovered anything interesting that the audience may not know, you may consider sharing it.

For example,

“Erik Satie was a strange bird. He ate only white food and usually carried a hammer under his coat as he strolled the streets of Paris, where he lived in the early 1900s. I’ll be playing his Gymnopedie #1 for you.”

Set the context

Music thrives on context. Knowing about the context of the piece or style can help us enter the trance of the music.

Here are some possible contexts to share:

  • Historical context – What was happening in the area and wider world when the piece was written?
  • The setting or circumstances in which the piece was composed – If out of the ordinary, this could be fun for the audience to hear.

For example,

“Antonio Lauro was perhaps the greatest Venezuelan guitarist and composer. He wrote his Suite Venezolana while in jail for his political beliefs. It was a dark time for him, and you may pick that up in the music. Many of the phrases in the third movement are actually snippets of then-popular songs he heard floating over the prison walls. We may not know these songs today, but at the time we would have recognized them from the radio.”

  • The setting in which it was to be played – Some music was written for specific situations. For example, it may be court music, a requiem, a mass, dance music, or a piece played between scenes in a play or ballet.  Set the scene for the listeners, and their imaginations will run wild.
  • The composer’s life situation at the time – If you know of a personal drama tied to the piece, it may be worth sharing.

Musical notes (what to listen for)

  • Musical themes or recurring phrases – You could play the main melodic themes so people recognize them when you play the piece. These are especially fun if there is a narrative to the music (see below).
  • Technical challenges or innovations – If anything is especially tricky or different, you could explain it.

As an example,

“This next piece, by Baden Powell, is called Berimbau. A berimbau is a Brazilian percussion instrument that has one long string that you strike with a thin stick. The other hand touches a small stone to the vibrating string to make a buzzing sound. On guitar, we can imitate this sound by crossing two strings over each other. It sounds like this [demonstrate the sound].”

  • Music theory – The composer mave have done something unique, or the piece may represent a particular compositional style (12-tone, tone rows, fugue, etc.). If so, it may be worth explaining.

Warning in flashing red lights: It’s usually best to talk music theory only if you are certain that everyone in the room has studied music theory. Otherwise, you’ll confuse people and make them feel like outsiders. In most settings, you can find ways of introducing your piece that will include more people. The exception is if you can explain some point in such simple terms that a 5-year-old would understand. But still, you could likely do better with a different approach.

Stories

As humans, we love stories. We would rather hear stories than facts. And when we tell stories, we can draw the listeners into the music.

Some story ideas are:

  • Musical narratives – if the piece was written as a “soundtrack” to a certain story, you could tell that story.

For example,

“In ‘El Decameron Negro’ (The Black Decameron), Leo Brouwer tells the story of a warrior. It’s based on a tale from African folklore. This warrior loved to play the harp, and his tribe found this unacceptable, as warriors and musicians were of different social classes. They kicked him and his lady out of the village, exiling them to the wilderness. The lovers, now alone in the world, flee through the frightening Valley of Echoes. The third movement tells her side of the story and is titled Ballad of the Maiden In Love.”

  • Personal stories – If you have a personal story involving the piece, this can be a treat for the audience to hear.

As an example, Oregon guitarist Scott Kritzer played an arrangement of Nussun Dorma, by Puccini. Before playing, Kritzer would recall how his working-class dad loved how the great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, sang this song. How he would play the record loudly on weekends. And how he would lie on the floor with tears streaming down his face. It was a powerful image and audiences ate it up.

  • The story of the composition – As mentioned above, there may be an engaging story of how the piece was written.

Apocryphal stories are also fun.  These are tales which, although not true, are commonly shared. These stories are often more entertaining than the reality. It’s best practice to be clear that the story is probably just a myth.

Performance History

Mention any famous performances of the piece. Note how they have contributed to its interpretation or popularity over time.

Cultural Significance Today

Another option is to discuss the piece’s relevance or resonance in today’s world. Does it connect to contemporary events or themes in society?

While a popular choice, it’s worth thinking twice about bringing news, politics, or social issues into your performance. These generally have negative undertones and may detract and distract, rather than enhance the listener experience. People may have come to listen to music as a respite and reprieve.

Multimedia Aids

If the venue and occasion call for it, we can use multimedia to enhance our introductions.

We could use:

  • Slides
  • Objects
  • Video
  • Audio

Pro Tip: If using props or technology, it’s a good idea to practice the presentation more than necessary. Arrive early and make sure all the tech is working. It can be stressful to troubleshoot technical issues just before a performance.

End with a Question or Invitation

Encourage listeners to think or engage in a certain way while they listen.

For example, “As you listen, consider how Beethoven uses silence just as effectively as sound.”

Know Your Audience – Speak Directly to Them

The best intro in one setting may flop in another. Ideally, we speak to our audience in a way that they understand, and in a way that is meaningful for them.

While we may be tempted to show off our superior knowledge, the goal of communication is to be understood.

It doesn’t matter what we intend or mean to say. All that matters in communication is what the listener hears and their response.

We can keep them in mind while writing. If we tailor our message so it lands well, everyone benefits. We feel more confident and therefore play better. And the audience gets a better show and feels more at ease.

How Long Should Your Introduction Be?

Intro length depends on the situation. A lecture-recital will call for long introductions (lectures).

Likewise, some players bring a storytelling element to their performances. Here, the speaking may share equal footing with the playing.

Conversely, in an open-mic or song circle context, time may be limited. Here, a short intro gives more time for playing.

The placement of the piece in a fuller program could also inform the length. The first time we speak, we may speak longer. Within a set of music, we may just use a few words as guideposts to show a change of composer or style.

Fluffy vs. Serious Music

If a piece is challenging to listen to, listeners could be well-served with some education or pointers. So a longer intro may be in order. This can keep them engaged instead of lost and confused.

Lighthearted music, popular song arrangements, or cheeky character pieces may need little introduction, so we can keep it shorter.

We speak 140 words per minute

Most people talk at the rate of around 140 words per minute. Some are slower (down to 110), some faster (up to 170). When writing, this number can help you edit your text.

Treat it Like Part of the Performance

We may put months of work into three minutes of music. But then fail to put even a few minutes into introducing it.

On stage, everything is part of the show.

So the best introductions are those we craft, practice, and polish. It takes time, but it puts our music in a better light.

Polishing Your Musical Introductions

How can you polish your intros? We can take a cue from our guitar practice and the methods we use to polish pieces.

Here are some steps to help you ace your introductions:

  1. Write it out, word for word.
  2. Memorize it.
  3. Practice giving the introduction.
  4. Record and video the introduction.
  5. Practice with friends and family.
  6. Do all you can, then release it – let the performance be what it is.

After the Show: Reflect and Improve

After each performance, it’s good practice to journal about what happened. This can help you hone your show and focus your practice going forward.

Recall the faces as you made your introduction. Recall the level of attention during your playing. If anyone mentioned some part of what you said, write it down and keep that bit in there next time.

If you have a video or recording of the performance, listen to your talking and make notes. Find specific ways to improve the text or delivery next time.

As someone said, we don’t get better from experience. We get better by reflecting on experience.

Switching Costs: One Common Challenge of Introducing Pieces

When performing, we rightly go into “playing mode.” This may be a completely different mindset than talking/entertaining mode.

Some players have trouble switching between playing and talking modes. The talking can take them out of the ideal playing state, and vice versa.

Here, it’s very helpful to have prepared introductions. This way, the brain doesn’t need to switch so far between states. The speaking is just part of the show.

Stage Speaking Tips

For your best delivery, follow these tips:

  • Make eye contact – Or pretend to by looking over people’s heads.
  • Smile – Even a small turn up of the corners of your mouth makes you look more friendly.
  • Speak clearly – Don’t mumble.
  • Don’t rush – Give people time to process your words.
  • Be engaging – Vary the pitch, speed, and tonality.
  • Use hand gestures – When appropriate.

Tips for speaking into a microphone

If we don’t often use a microphone, we may feel awkward about it. Here are some mic tips:

  • Speak into the mic – You need to be heard, so point your mouth at the mic.
  • Keep your head forward – Rotating your head can affect the volume and make you hard to understand.
  • Don’t bring attention to the mic – No need to talk about the mic. The mic is not weird for audience members, only you.
  • Touch the mic as little as possible – Touching the mic or stand can cause loud thumps in the speakers.

Conclusion

Musical introductions offer a wonderful opportunity to connect with listeners. We can help people have positive musical experiences and learn new things.

When we put the listener first and aim to engage and entertain, everyone wins.  In service to this aim, we can craft compelling introductions for our pieces.

We can tailor our messages to the specific audience we play for, so they understand and enjoy it.

And in sharing good introductions, we feel more confident as we prepare to play.


Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 


I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.





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