What Is A Riff In Rock Music?Posted by Mike Schumacher
A riff is something that consistently returns as part of a song or piece. It’s like a theme to a song, but much more complex.
A lot of songs use riffs extensively throughout their pieces. For example, look at this music note down below.
It starts off very slowly, then picks up speed towards the middle, and eventually slows down again. This pattern (or sequence) repeats several times until it fades out.
This type of riff is called an octave-up structure because it goes up an octave (an increase by one whole step or tone) within a given amount of time. In this case, the song takes around two minutes to reach its climax, so there are eight seconds between each ascent.
The first half of the song has no significant climaxes, so those eight seconds aren’t used for anything else. But once the second major chord arrives, everything comes together beautifully!
That strong pull forward makes perfect sense because it represents the rhythm section coming into its own and establishing itself as a steady force. The drums keep ticking along, creating a solid foundation for the rest of the instruments to build upon.
At the same time, the bass drops sharply, matching the rising pitch with a descending one. This creates a nice parallel motion that matches the upward climb of the guitar.
Examples of riffs
A riff is any continuous melodic or harmonic tone or sequence that you can play over and over again.
A common way to describe a riff is to say it’s something that gets repeated. Some musicians refer to this as a chunkier version of a melody or theme.
Any section of music with more than two discrete sounds in a short amount of time is an example of a riff. For instance, the first eight notes of the song “Happy Birthday” are a good example of a riff.
There are many types of riffs, but the most well-known type is the pre-existing one. These are usually parts of songs that people know and repeat when listening to the song.
For example, the main riff for The Beatles’ classic song Hey Jude is known by almost every person who has heard the song at least once.
Music theory concepts such as parallel thirds and tritone substitutions (discussed below) make great rifts to use in your own compositions.
What makes a riff interesting is how quickly and easily you can create it. Technically speaking, a riff doesn’t need to be longer than three minutes long, but there should be enough variety to keep listeners interested.
Finding the perfect riff
The first part of writing a song is finding the right riffs! A riff can be a simple note or chord, a drum pattern, a bass line, or any combination of these. It does not have to make sense alone, but when combined it creates a melody or theme that people recognize as an element of the song.
The hardest thing about writing a new song is figuring out what ideas you have stuck in your head that you need to get out. Sometimes, however, you stumble across something beautiful while listening to music, thinking about something else. Then, years later you realize the two things are connected.
This is how most songs are made. There’s usually one main idea that writers add onto for the rest of the song. In this case, it’s the riff.
A good riff will stick around for some time. Even if you don’t fully understand it at the time you write down the lyrics, you can still include small bits of it in the song. This helps create internal cohesion in the piece, making it more valuable.
Knowing which notes and chords are needed to form a riff is also very important. If someone doesn’t know the guitar well, they may not be able to figure out the riff unless you tell them explicitly.
There are many online resources where you can look up riffs to see whether or not they are known.
Recording your own riffs
A riff is just another way to say song pattern. Technically, a song does not have to contain at least one riff, but it should definitely feature some!
The first people to write songs used chords as song patterns. Chords are simply notes or combinations of notes that make up a part of a music scale.
By repeating a chord (or sequence of chords) quickly, you can create a new note combination which makes up a new chord. This process is called harmonic substitution- when parts find their place elsewhere.
Take the first line of the chorus of Taylor Swift’s hit song Shake It Off: “And I wanna be kissed like we’re alone / And I want my heart to stop beating so hard.”
The word “alone” is a root position tritone (also known as an augmented second). In music theory, tritones are most commonly found in dissonance, creating tension and balance. So what do you get when you take the tritone away? An octave!
That means the rest of the verse doesn’t sound right without the tritone. You need to add it back for the bridge – this is how bridges are built! The bridge is usually the longest section of a song, making it important to include a return trip.
In the case of Shake It Off, the bridge begins with the tonic (the main tone) then moves into the dominant before returning home.
Creating a beat around a riff
The next part of creating your own music is figuring out what to put under the riffs. This process is called writing a verse or hook for the song.
You can use this information to write your own songs!
There are many ways to do it, but the main thing is making the melody interesting and catchy.
Toning down the lyrics is also good way to create space for the melodies to shine through.
Chords and their meanings
The chord that is used as the main structure of a song is called the tonic chord. The term “tonic” comes from the word tone, which refers to the pitch class (or note) that makes up this chord.
The tonic chord typically has one major component — either the third or fifth scale degree (see above for definitions). When it only contains the third, then we call it an auxiliary dominant chord. An example of this would be the first line of the Beatles’ classic track Hey Jude – Let It Be (listen at about 2 minutes in)!
Other popular chords with the same name are second-scale-degree dominants like you’ll find in songs such as Eye Of The Tiger by Survivor and Sweet Dreams (Ending By My Father) by Taylor Swift.
When the chord does not contain any notes other than the root, then we refer to it as the root chord.
Know and use your chords
In rock music, riffs are usually made up of discrete chunks of music that flow into each other. These chunks are typically built out of one or more notes, but sometimes they are longer than a note (like a half-note lick). They can be repeated either explicitly or implicitly.
The most recognizable riff patterns in rock are called chord progressions. A chord progression is any order of chords that repeats consistently within a song or sequence of songs. For example, the chorus to Taylor Swift’s famous song “You Need To Calm Down” contains a G major chord followed immediately by an F# minor chord, then back to the G major. This pattern of chords repeats twice in this three-and-a-half minute piece!
Another type of riff is what musicians call a harmonic transition. Harmonic transitions occur when a new tonal center takes over the melody. An example of this would be after the G major chord in the aforementioned song, the music drops down a whole step to B minor before rising back up to the dominant key of D.
This article will go deeper into how both these types of riffs work, why they matter, and some examples.
Practice makes perfect
In music, a riff is a repeated pattern or theme that plays as part of a song. The lyrics usually relate to the pattern or theme directly, but not always!
For example, say you are listening to a new album by your favorite band. You hear a two-minute long guitar solo followed by three minutes of silence.
You begin to get nervous because you don’t know what the next track will be like. Then the guitarist picks up where he left off, and it sounds just like the one before! It is definitely a ruff start to the next piece, so you give up and listen to another song.
After all, practicing is the best way to improve your skills.
The Jam Addict team is a revolving door of writers who care about music, its effects on culture, and giving aspiring artists tools and knowledge to be inspired and keep on creating.
If you have any questions or concerns or just want to drop us a line, don’t hesitate to contact us! We always appreciate the feedback.