I believe that one of the most overlooked, yet most important lines in a song is the very first line. Yes, your title is super important and a great setup line before your title lands is crucial. But, the opening line of your song often determines whether or not anyone ever gets to hear that amazing title.
I pitch my own songs a lot. When I’m sitting face to face with an A&R person, producer or artist, I can see in their faces the moment at which they lose interest in my song. I once had an A&R person turn my song off during the intro because he said he had heard that intro a million times. It can be brutal out there! But, I can’t count the times when someone has heard a weak opening line and I saw in their face that this song was not going to make the cut. They are listening to my song in anticipation of something great for their artist and I let them down from the first line. That’s a cold, wet blanket on their hopes of something great.
So, what makes a great opening lines in a songs?
In general, a great opening line is really interesting and it does one of two things – it invites the listener into the song or it makes them want to hear more. Some brilliant opening lines do both. Let’s look at some examples.
One of my favorite opening lines is from a Diamond Rio song called “Two Pump Texaco”. The song starts this way:
“He was wipin’ motor oil off her dipstick
She was pullin’ on the hair that got caught in her lipstick”
When I heard that opening, I HAD to hear the rest of the song! Let’s break down what the writers (Michael Dulaney and Neil Thrasher) accomplished in that one line.
First, they painted a vivid picture. You can SEE what is going on. They also established where the action is taking place without even having to tell us where that is. It’s obviously a throwback full service gas station. They establish the characters involved – a service attendant and a customer. It’s also clear that the woman in the car is disinterested in what the man serving her is doing. She’s paying more attention to a hair in her lipstick. They establish characters, context, and setting which is everything a first verse should do. And they do it in two lines. Plus, they make the listener want to keep listening.
Turns out the song is about a guy who feels forgotten because the city folks who drive through don’t appreciate the way he serves them. ALL of that was set up in that opening. That’s awesome writing!
Here are some other examples of great opening lines in songs
“Oh, Mama, I’m in fear for my life from the long arm of the law” – “Renegade” by Styx. This opening line opens up all kinds of questions that the listener wants to stick around to get answers to. What has he done? Is he calling his mama because this may be his last call? What will he do to avoid the law? Will he live or die? That one line compels the listener to stay tuned to find out what happens.
“A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile…” – “American Pie” by Don McLean. Again, this one opens up unanswered questions. What happened a long time ago? What music made him smile? Why is this such a vivid memory? All of those questions invite the listener to come along for the ride.
And one more example from musical theater:
“Theodosia writes me a letter every day” – “Wait For It” from Hamilton. I hear this and I’m dying to know who Theodosia is and why she is writing him a letter EVERY day. What do they say? Are they in love? Is this an illicit affair? There’s so much to unpack in that one line.
The list goes on of great opening lines in songs
“Hello darkness my old friend.” – “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel
“There must be some kinda way out of here said the joker to the thief” – “All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan
“Somebody once told me, the world is gonna roll me” – “All Star” by Smashmouth
“I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand” – “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon
You get the idea. Opening lines do a lot of work in a song. They give us characters, context, and setting, they make us interested, they leave us with questions, they paint pictures, and they begin to set up our title from the first words of the song. If you want to learn more, Song Building is a great book to learn the jobs of each part of a song.
Consequently, if our opening lines are dull, boring and cliché our listeners probably won’t even stick around to see if the rest of the song is any better. I encourage writers to put a lot of time and effort into their opening lines. If you make your opening lines compelling and you grab the listener there then they will stick with you throughout the song.
Each day I challenge myself to come up with a killer opening line and then keep the rest of my lyric coming at that same high level. When I do that, I write my best songs!