What Is A Lick In Music? A Complete Guide

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Often, when you listen to songs, certain melodies and chord progressions sound eerily familiar. And the more you listen for them, the more often you hear them, even across different genres of music.

So, what’s going on? And what does Rick Astley have to do with it?

Well, that’s what I want to get into today. Let’s dispel a few common misconceptions surrounding what a lick is and what it is not.

I’ll cover the definition of a lick, where the idea of a lick came from, and provide some examples of famous licks. We’ll find out what makes a great lick and compare licks to hooks and riffs.

Let’s start by defining exactly what a lick is in musical terms.

Definition of a Lick in Music

The accepted definition of a lick is that it is a stock or standard pattern, consisting of a series of notes found in melodies, accompaniments, and solos.

Licks should not be mistaken for riffs, although the terms are often used interchangeably.

Musicians usually learn licks as a way to expand their understanding of music while at the same time increasing and exploring their repertoire.

Although the term is more often associated with popular and jazz music, repeating patterns of notes can be found in many classical compositions.

You will find that Western classical music includes single-line licks referred to as ostinatos.

This brings us to the question of when licks first came into being.

History of Licks

We can find instances of ostinato-like musical scores going back to medieval times, with an example being the well-known English canon “Sumer Is Icumen In.”

‘Sumer Is Icumen In’

So, this musical form has been around since at least the 13th century.

During the late renaissance and baroque periods, a type of variation of brief ostinato motifs providing a repetitive harmonic basis, proved popular with “The Bells,” a piece by William Byrd being particularly noteworthy.

William Byrd – ‘The Bells’

These various forms include ground bass, passacaglia, chaconne, and theme and variations.

Ostinato patterns were evident in the 17th-century operas and sacred works composed by Claudio Monteverdi.

Similarly, Henry Purcell famously deployed ground bass patterns.

Most famously, his skillfully composed descending chromatic ground bass underpinning the aria from the opera Dido and Aeneas, “When I am laid in earth” (“Dido’s Lament”) is a notable example.

Henry Purcell – ‘When I am laid in earth (“Dido’s Lament”)’

The intervals in Purcell’s bass pattern are found in many works from the Baroque Period with Canon in D (Pachelbel’s Canon) using similar sequences of notes in the bass part.

The timeless nature of this pattern is evident in the popularity of this work today as part of regular wedding selections.

Pachelbel – ‘Canon in D’

Examples of ostinatos can be traced through to the 18th and 19th centuries with JS Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach providing us with timeless classics.

In the 20th century, Debussy featured ostinato patterns in his Prelude No. 6: Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the snow).

Debussy – ‘Prelude No. 6: Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the Snow)’

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, popular music genres such as country, blues, jazz, and rock music utilized the lick to great effect.

This brings us to the current day and the more familiar licks.

Examples of Licks

You may be wondering about my reference to Rick Astley and why he’s been linked to licks?

Listen to the video below and you’ll be amazed at the number of songs that utilize this very familiar sequence of repeating notes.

Sing along to that infamous song, “Never Gonna Give You Up” while you listen.

‘The Lick’
Rick Astley – ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’

If you’re like me, then you’ll be astounded to hear the same lick repeated throughout countless other songs.

That’s the power of licks.

What then is it that makes a good lick?

What Makes a Good Lick?

The most important aspect of a lick is that it must be memorable.

Take, for instance, “The Lick” that we looked at above.

This is arguably the most famous lick of all time.

It is a simple yet enticingly memorable sequence of notes that have found their way into so many songs such as Get Mine, Get Yours by Christina Aguilera, Babylon by Lady Gaga, Oye Como Va by Santana, and lots more.

By keeping it simple, a lick becomes ingrained in your consciousness.

And that is what makes a good lick.

Lick vs Hook Vs Riff

Before we finish, you may still be a little confused between the lick, hook, and riff. Let’s break them down for clarity.

The lick and the riff are similar in that they are both short repetitive sequences of notes.

Although the lick cannot stand on its own as it is an incomplete sequence, forming a part of the riff.

The riff is designed in such a way that it grabs your attention and imparts character to the song.

By returning again and again throughout the song, the riff becomes associated with the piece.

This repetition of a sequence of notes becomes a characteristic of the song and provides its identity.

The riff is designed to be the hook.

The hook is the signature style or sound of a piece of music that comes to be associated with the whole composition and makes it memorable.

That’s All We’ve Got For You on Licks

We hope that you now have a better understanding of what a lick is and how it came into existence.

From its humble beginnings in 13th-century music to its place in modern music, the lick has earned its place in musical history.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.