How to begin and end your song (and how to write a riff)

When creating a piece of music, whether it is a cover song or an original piece you wrote yourself, there comes the question of how to begin and end it. In this lesson, I will cover several ways you can begin and end your songs. This lesson assumes you have studied Level One of this music course, and so have a basic handle on understanding a score and how to create songs in GarageBand. If you haven’t already, go and do Level One then come back here.

You’ll also need to know what a chord progression is. If you don’t, check out this lesson here and then come back.

In music, the beginning of the song is usually referred to as the ‘intro’ (short for introduction) and the ending is usually described as the ‘outro’. They are each sections of music in addition to the main verses and choruses that appear in your song.

Beginning your song

The beginning of the song is a chance for you to ease the listener in to the music and give a simplified taste of what is to come. During a song, typically the energy of the song builds, perhaps dropping down for a bit before building up again, so that at the end the final chorus is the highest-energy point of the song. A song becomes more energetic by using faster shorter notes, more instruments, and a louder volume. The percussion track has the biggest influence on how energetic a song feels. Knowing that songs typically build, the intro is generally the lowest energy point of the song (aside from perhaps the outro). If we start the song with high energy, we may have nowhere to go in terms of building the energy!

There do exist songs that start with a bang, all instruments playing and vocals beginning at the very first bar, but they are quite rare as it is considered challenging to make them work in terms of maintaining or further building the energy of the song.

A bass and/or drum intro

A simple and commonly used approach for an intro to copy the bass you have entered for the verse, and paste it into the introduction. It is typically played through twice before the first verse starts, though that’s up to you.

You can vary this introduction with a number of options:

  • You could simplify the bass by changing it to single long tonic notes for each chord, where each note plays for a whole bar (or the duration of the chord).
  • You could have the bass play tonic notes the first time through, and the verse rhythm the second time through.
  • Use the bass from the chorus instead of the verse – this is considered a higher energy way to begin.
  • You could copy the drums used during the verse and have them come in at the point that the bass plays for the second time through.
  • You could use the same drums but have them come in along with the bass at the beginning of the song.
  • You could have the drums start by themselves at the beginning, and then have the bass come in after four or eight bars.
  • You could make the drums simpler, perhaps removing hi-hats or only playing them half as often. Or you could remove some of the kick drum or snare drum hits. This could be done just for the first four or eight bars or for the entire introduction.
  • You could make a feature of the drum, playing a more complex rhythm during long tonic notes of the bass (or the main bass rhythm), so that they are spotlighted in a way that would get lost if played during the verses or choruses.

By using the above ideas in combination, you have a great many ways to start a song that are commonly used in Western music.

A melodic intro

The intro can be used to showcase a unique instrumental part, which could be played on a piano or guitar or other instrument. This melodic part could be used instead of the above bass/drums intro, or as well as it. You could bring it in first and then add the drums and bass, or let the drums and bass start first then add the melodic part, or let them all start together at once.

One simple method of creating an instrumental part is to take the last four bars of the melody of the verse, and play it on a guitar or piano.

Another is to play an instrumental riff.

How to write a riff

A riff is a short repeated musical phrase. It might be as short as two notes, or as long as two or more bars. Because it repeats, it can feel catchy.

Examples of a riff

For an example of a riff, the song, Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns n Roses starts with a very memorable guitar riff. This section shown here plays twice through before the verse starts.

The song, Blue Monday by New Order, also uses a riff in the introduction:

In this example, the riff plays for two bars, then an altered version with a varied rhythm plays in the next two bars. This entire sequence is played five times in a row.

How to write a substitution riff

One type of riff is a substitution riff, which you saw an example of with Sweet Child O’ Mine. I will show you how to write a substitution riff. In a substitution riff, the first note of each bar is substituted with the root note for that chord.

In this case we’ll say the our verses have a chord progression that goes, I IV V I. We’ll take that progression and use it as the basis for our intro. The score below shows the chord progression. The 1, 3 and 5th note of the chord are shown above the bars for convenience. These are known as the chord-tones.

Now we’ll create a melody in the first bar. The most important thing about this melody, is that the first note is the root note of the chord.

Now this same melody can be used in the second bar, over the top of the F major, but we change that first note C and substitute in the new root note F.

And so on, repeating the riff over and over, but changing the root-note on the first beat of each bar.

Putting the root note on the first beat, the strongest beat of the bar, ensures that the melody feels connected to the chord progression.

To create your own riff, start by copying this snippet of melody:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is song-structure-2c.png

If you are not using the key of C major, you will need to change the melody to use the notes of the key you are currently working in.

To make the riff uniquely yours, you can change the above melody in numerous ways:

  • The melody is comprised of entirely eighth notes. Change some to half notes, quarter notes or sixteenth notes.
  • Change some of the notes to different pitches, taking care to ensure you only use notes in the scale you are working in.
  • Try changing the order of the notes so that the melody rises and falls in a different pattern.
  • Make the melody only half a bar long and have it repeat in the second half of the bar.
  • Make the melody longer so that it extends for four bars, perhaps using a varied version of what you have in the first two bars.

Try a change, listen to it and see if you like it. To listen to the riff play over and over, while only having created one bar of this melody, you can use the ‘repeat’ function in Garageband. To do this, first click the repeat button at the top of the screen:

Now you can select which bar(s) to play on repeat. For this song, we just want to play bar 3 on repeat. So drag your mouse in the area highlighted in orange below. You can do this in the top window or the bottom window:

The bar that will be played on repeat is now highlighted orange. When you no longer want that selection to repeat, click the repeat button at the top of the screen again to turn off this function.

Keep playing around until you come up with a snippet of melody that appeals to you. Then turn it into a substitution riff by copying it into the remaining bars, and changing the first note to match the root note of the chord.

This is another example of a substitution riff with a melodic phrase that has been altered from the previous example:

Other types of riffs

You don’t have to substitute. You could simply repeat the same melodic phrase over and over without substituting the first note.

Another option is to move the entire melodic phrase with each chord. If your melodic phrase consists of four notes, and they are the 1, 5, 3 and 5 of the first chord in the progression, you could then move them so that they play the 1, 5, 3 and 5 of the second chord, and move them again so that they play the 1, 5, 3 and 5 of the third chord and so on.

Using your riff

When you have created your riff, you can incorporate it into your introduction in multiple ways. You could have it play by itself for a while, and then add the bass and/or drums. Or you could begin with the bass and/or drums and then add the riff on top of it.

You can also repeat your riff later in the song, in an instrumental section. You can use it exactly as it appeared in the introduction, or you can vary it. To vary it, say you created the intro with a riff using the verse chord progression, but you have an instrumental section later in the song that uses the chorus chord progression, you could alter the riff to suit the chorus chord progression. Then it will have its own unique sound but feel like a familiar reprise of earlier material. You could also vary what is played with the riff. In the introduction, typically the drums and bass might be pared back, compared to how they are later in the song. By changing the drums and bass during the instrumental riff, you change the energy of it.

Thinking about genre

The genre of the song can influence your choice of introduction.

Typically, pop songs have short introductions.

Folk, country and ballads (ballads are a type of song that tell a story, and occur in many genres) may have a longer intro to give the listener time to settle in to the feeling.

Rock songs can go either way, either straight to the vocals, or starting the song with a longer instrumental intro, often with a catchy melodic part or riff, or a drum-beat to entice the listener.

Ending your song

With the outro you can choose whether you want to wind down gently or build up and finish with a bang.

Although musical phrases are often created in groups of four bars, when it comes to the outro, there is nothing that says you need to finish precisely at the end of four bars. You can finish in the middle of a bar if you want. You might have the four bars repeating and then tack a final bar on the end where you have a big crash or a long final note on beat one of the last bar.

Often the outro will follow the same chords as the chorus of the song, as it gives an opportunity to use the song’s hook again. The hook is the part of the song that feels the most catchy and goes around in our head after we’ve finished listening to it. Usually the hook is the chorus of the song, though it could be in an instrumental part such as a riff, or it could be the last line of the verse.

The outro may include a repeat. For example, the same final four bars plays four times in succession, to really get it stuck in the listener’s head.

The gentle wind-down

For a winding down outro, one strategy is to subtract instruments. Here are some options for subtraction:

  • Remove the kick drum or the snare or the entire percussion track.
  • Remove the guitar and piano but leave the bass line.
  • Remove the bass line and have a guitar or piano play an instrumental section from earlier in the song – this could be a riff, or the melody of the chorus, or the melody of just the hook from the chorus.
  • Finish with vocals only, perhaps the singer singing the chorus again but really slowly, or slowing down as the chorus progresses.
  • Finish with vocals only, with the singer singing the melody of the chorus but using the words ‘la la la’ or ‘oooh oooh oooh.’ Again, the singer could sing it slowly or slow down as the chorus progresses.

For the final note that is played on the bass and melody, it is typical to play the tonic note of the key the song is in. So if a song is in D minor, you would finish the song with the note D. If the song is in C major, you would finish on the note C.

Often the final note may be held for longer than usual and can fade out. You could extend it to hold for an entire bar or two. Some instruments have a sound that naturally fades away, while other instruments maintain the full intensity of the sound for the entire duration of the note. For the latter type of instruments, you might like to use the automation track to fade out the song.

One frequently used strategy is to play the chorus on repeat, perhaps as many as four times, while turning down the volume to gradually fade out. When you do this, you don’t need to finish at the end of the chorus – you can finish anywhere you like.

How to fade out volume in GarageBand

To create a volume fade out, click the Mix menu at the top of the screen, then click Create Volume Fade Out on Main Output. You will then see an extra track appear in your song, the master track, which can be seen at the bottom in the image below. The white line of this track indicates the volume. You will see how GarageBand has automatically created several points at the end of the song, gradually bringing the volume down to zero. If you like, you can drag the points forward or backwards, to allow the song to fade out more slowly or quickly. Experiment with this, listening to different options for the ending of your song, to see what you like. Note: to see the volume on the Master track, as per the image below, you need to ensure that you have ticked ‘show automation’ on the Mix menu.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screen-shot-2022-07-07-at-11.24.48-am.png

If you like you can lower the volume of the entire outro section.

You can show automation at any time, and double-click anywhere on the white line, to create a new point. Once you have created two points, you can drag the line between them up or down, to change the volume for that section of the song.

If you just want to change the volume of one instrument, but not the entire song, you can click on the subtle red line that runs through each instrument track. I double-clicked just after the guitar region started to create a point, and the line became yellow. I then clicked at the end of that region to make another point. And I made a final point at the very end of my final region. This way I could chose how the guitar would fade out, while leaving the bass and percussion at their original volumes.

After you have finished manipulating the volumes for your song, you can click the Mix Menu and then untick Show Automation, and you will no longer see the volumes.

How to slow down a song in Garageband

You can use the tempo track to slow the song down. To do this, click on the Track menu at the top of the screen and select ‘Show Tempo track.’ You will see a new track is added at the top with a blue line running through it which represents the current tempo (speed) of the song.

By clicking once on the blue line, I can create a point. In the image below, you can see I created three points, by clicking in three places. Then between each of the points, I dragged the blue lie down a little, to make the song slower for that section. You can see that at bar 111 the song slows down a bit, then at bar 112 it slows down even more, and again at bar 113.

Experiment with slowing the song down, creating points and moving the blue lines up and down, until the song sounds good to you.

When you have finished, click the Track menu then Hide Tempo track, to make the tempo track invisible again.

Finishing with a bang

For an outro will build and end with lots of crashes leading into a final big bang, the drums are often key, and finishing on a drum fill have a dramatic effect.

For this type of ending, usually the volume increases. One strategy to increase the volume is to duplicate tracks that are already occurring. For example, create a new track with the bass instrument, and copy the bass line into that, so it is as if it is being played by two basses at the same time. You can do this with all instruments, and it makes everything feel thicker and stronger.

You can increase the volume a little with the automation track.

If you are using hi-hats, you could swap them for crash cymbals, which ring out for longer and are louder and more dramatic.

As with the gentle wind-down, you can repeat the chorus multiple times, or you can finish with an instrumental section, which could be a riff or repeat of some melody from earlier in the song. You can also end with just the bass and drums if you prefer, perhaps duplicating the bass on a guitar as well.

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