Opening Lines: How to Give Your Song the Best First Impression

The first line of a song has an important job. It is an invitation to the listener. Lyrically, it’s the first taste of what is to come in the next 3 minutes. The listener is faced with the question of whether or not they want to spend their time with the rest of the song. 

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But what makes a strong opening line in a song? And, how do we write that impactful first line? We talked to pro songwriters, Byron Hill, Mark Erelli, and Eliot Bronson to learn about their favorite first lines, how they approach crafting them in their songs, and advice on how we can make the best first impression on our listeners.

What are some of your favorite first lines in songs you haven’t written?

Byron Hill, songwriter of “Fool Hearted Memory” by George Strait, and “Born Country” by Alabama:  

  • “See her how she flies / golden sails across the sky”
    (“The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress” by Jimmy Webb)
  • “Tonight, you’re mine completely. You give your love so sweetly”
    (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” by Carole King)
  • “Well, I woke up Sunday mornin’ / with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt”
    (“Sunday Morning Coming Down” by Kris Kristofferson)

Mark Erelli, Americana Award nominated singer/songwriter: 

  • “Eight years old with a flour sack cape tied all around his neck”  
    (“The Cape,” Guy Clark)
  • “Rows and floes of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air” 
    (“Clouds,” Joni Mitchell)
  • “He opens his eyes, falls in love at first sight, with the girl in the doorway” 
    (“The Curse,” Josh Ritter)
  • “When I think about dying, I think about children” 
    (“Now You Know,” Anaïs Mitchell)

Eliot Bronson, roots singer songwriter with albums produced by Grammy winning producer Dave Cobb: 

  • “Outside another yellow moon/ Has punched a hole in the nighttime”
    (Tom Waits, “Downtown Train”)
  • “She wore faded jeans and soft black leather/ She had eyes so blue they looked like weather” (Tom Petty, “It’ll All Workout”)
  • “Nobody feels any pain/ Tonight as I stand inside the rain”
    (Bob Dylan, “Just Like A Woman”)

What do you love about these opening lines? What makes them effective?

Byron Hill: They set the situation very well, and though it may take the follow-up lines to complete the thought, the listener is hooked.

Mark Erelli: Some of these lines, like the Guy Clark and Joni Mitchell ones, are so vivid and sketch an immediate picture in your mind’s eye, with just a handful of words. Others, like Ritter and Mitchell lines, have an almost jarring sense of mystery, a feeling that the narrative of the song is going to go in an unexpected direction.

Eliot Bronson: I love a first line that anchors me in a time and place. These are all visual. You can almost see that moon, or her blue eyes. They’re also observations. But, they’re not the obvious ones. They make you sit up in your seat. You’re in. You wanna know what comes next. 

How important is the first line when you’re writing a song?

Byron Hill: So very important. 

Mark Erelli: I don’t think first lines are that important when writing a song because you can always revisit the song after the initial inspiration wears out, or after you struggle through a first draft…and change it! The first line I write when I begin a song is not very often the actual first line of that song. Often times I drop in in the middle of the narrative and have to figure out, in time, how the story should begin.

Eliot Bronson: It’s almost impossible to overstate how important the first line is to me in my songwriting.

What are you looking for when you’re writing a first line?

Byron Hill: If the song has a lot of visual references, the first line is an opportunity to start painting the setting in the listener’s mind immediately. Similarly, the first line in a song about feelings or emotions, can do the same. Sometimes it’s situational.

Mark Erelli: I am always looking for a vivid image and a sense of possibility in a first line, the sense that the writer could take me down any number of unexpected roads as the song unfolds.

Eliot Bronson: I’m looking for something that grounds the listener. And the first listener is me. I have to be curious and excited about what’s coming next. Like it’s the most important thing in the world at that moment.

What advice would you give songwriters about writing better first lines?

Byron Hill: It doesn’t always have to be profound, it just has to captivate the listener for the lines that follow.

Mark Erelli: I think the best first lines are the ones that paint a picture while simultaneously making the listener a little curious about where the song will go from there. A little feeling of mystery or, perhaps more accurately, a sense of possibility, is always a good idea for the opening of a song.

Eliot Bronson: Don’t settle. It can be exciting to have a new song. Sometimes we push through the writing too fast. There’s almost always some initial spark that gets us going. A good rule is to try and make sure that everything else in the song is at least as good as the line you fell in love with. Let that be your benchmark for quality.

Your first line can set the stage and create the tone for the rest of the song. It can be clear or mysterious. It can be long or concise. It can be the first line you write or you can get to it after the rest of the song takes shape. But one is for sure, the first line comes first for the listener. So however you craft it, a great first line makes a strong case for the lines that follow it. Unless, your song is “Around the World” by Daft Punk, in which case your first line is the same as your second, third, fourth, fifth etc. 

About the Guests:

Byron Hill is a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. His songs have been recorded by George Strait (“Fool Hearted Memory”), Alabama (“Born Country”), and Gary Allan (“Nothing On But the Radio”). Byron’s songwriting is also showcased on his own album “Stay A While.

Mark Erelli is an Americana Award nominated singer/songwriter and go-to sideman for Lori McKenna, Shawn Colvin, and Josh Ritter. His latest album “Lay Your Darkness Down” explores uncertainty following his diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. 

Eliot Bronson creates his brand of atmospheric american roots music. His award winning songwriting is showcased on albums produced by Grammy winning producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile). His latest album “Talking to Myself” is out now.

About the Author

Dean Fields Songwriter

Dean Fields is a singer, and songwriter, as well as a mentor at American Songwriter. His songs have been No. 1 on the Texas radio charts, featured in film/tv and commercials, recorded by Lori McKenna, and produced by Garth Brooks. 

Dean is also director of American Songwriter’s dynamic Membership Hub where members can pitch their songs to industry gatekeepers, submit to jobs, gigs, and briefs, and connect and collaborate with a community of songwriters.

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  1. As someone who is new to songwriting this a very helpful read. I’ve been reading more of the articles to get a better perspective from more experienced songwriters . My first song I learned to sing on my guitar was an Americana song. I really enjoy hearing each of there takes on what do you look for in a song? What are your favorite first lines? How important is that first line? Thank you for writing it Dean Fields.

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