Sunday, October 2, 2011


I wrote a post about endings, so I should write one about beginnings. How a piece starts is important, because in the world of digital media, it is all too easy to turn it off and go on to something else. This isn't true in the concert hall, but we probably listen to more recorded than live music these days. A while back I did a post called "The One-Minute Test" in which I listened to the openings of several different pieces. The test was, if something didn't grab me in the first minute, that's it.

Sometimes a composer comes up with a brilliant opening:

That's one of the best. Or this:

Of course, that was a bit of a miscalculation, because if you start with something that dramatic, it is hard to follow. Better to start with something ambiguous and there are few beginnings more ambiguous than this one:

Sometimes it is best to just jump right in:

What about pop musicians? True, they are working within simpler forms, but on the other hand, they are in most danger of the listener switching off. Here is an interesting pop intro:

But the absolute best pop intro I have ever heard is this one:

Unfortunately, like the Richard Strauss, the song doesn't quite live up to the intro. Here is a famously good song beginning:

In fact, the Beatles were masters of how to begin a song (sometimes with a little help from their friends, especially George Martin). He suggested starting this one with the chorus:

That one did pretty well... I just read that for a while during the heights of Beatlemania, 60% of ALL singles sold in the US were by the Beatles, who at the time had the #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5 top singles. The next one is an exceptional intro, even for them. Just listen to the chords John is playing--pretty much as chromatic and ambiguous as the opening of the Mozart quartet above:

Lately a lot of the pop songs I have heard have all fallen into the rut of having four or eight bars of treading water before much actually happens:

Sure, you can start with just eight bars of the accompaniment, but it's not exactly creative now is it? Here's another one:

I think that there should be something either intriguing or attention-getting up front. Like this:

Or you could just start with something magnificent:

Or riveting:

Well, that really wasn't fair, was it?


Anonymous said...

Koopman is fine (especially as an organist) but I prefer Herreweghe. Let it be said for the record of this fine blog that we're talking here about the finest 10 minutes of music ever written by any human.

Bryan Townsend said...

You know, I don't think I have heard the Herreweghe performance. I will look for it. There are some pretty strong competitors for the title "finest 10 minutes of music ever written", but many of them are also by Bach! The Dona nobis pacem from the B minor mass?

Anonymous said...

True enough. But the monumental contrapuntal construction in the last 3rd has, I believe, no match anywhere in both complexity and utter perfection.

Bryan Townsend said...

Except maybe in the Art of Fugue?