What Is A Riff In Music? A Complete Guide

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Whether you love Bach or Chopin, ACDC or Pachelbel, there’s always something particular about a song that brings music to mind. Invariably, it’s a repeated phrase or a background beat that grabs your attention and comes to represent the music in your memory.

That is not an accident, it’s a very deliberate technique on the part of the composer or performer to stamp a mark of originality on their music.

Riffs are not something new. Composers going back through the ages have made use of riffs or ostinato as they are referred to in classical music theory.

So, let’s have a look at what exactly is a riff in music and how you can better understand this interesting and integral style in musical composition.

Definition of a Riff in Music

A riff is a pattern of notes that are repeated throughout a piece of music.

This definition can also be attributed to the classical music term, ostinato.

However, ostinato refers more precisely to a pattern of repeated notes that make up a background accompaniment to the melody.

This pattern of background notes or a particular repeating tempo is in contrast to a riff that is more melodic and is very much at the forefront of the music.

Riffs do not repeat immediately and are usually found at the end of the verse in a song or in the chorus.

However, they can appear right at the start of a song too.

Guitar Riffs

In contemporary music, the song’s hook is usually but not always a riff.

The chords and note patterns provide the song’s identity and are repeated as a distinct characteristic of that piece.

Riffs have become the basic components of modern rock and pop music, providing a structure that evokes strong emotion when heard, even if it is just a small part of the original song.

Designed to grab your attention and impart character to a song, the riff returns time and time again to remind you and carry you through to its conclusion.

In a way, this is similar to a hook but, a hook is different from a riff in that it doesn’t repeat.

Are There Riffs in Classical Music?

The terms “riff” and “lick” are not found in classical music theory.

As mentioned earlier, classical musicians refer to licks and riffs as ostinatos but what is the difference between an ostinato and a riff, you may ask?

They both contain repeated note patterns but an ostinato accompanies the music as a background pattern rather than being the main attraction.

Riffs are typically rhythmic repeated patterns but will often have a melodic element and comprise a tune.

History of Riffs in Music

While rock music of the ’70s and ’80s is well known for its riffs, its history stretches much further back to Mozart, Bach and Beethoven and even further back in time to ancient ballads and folk songs.

Jazz music is well known for its improvisations, including licks in solos and in accompanying the solo chorus.

The difference in jazz licks is that they are usually short phrases of original music set in a way that they can follow a song’s changing harmonic progressions.

The riff can be a particular chord pattern, recognizable as a tempo as well as a melody.

Rock music developed a formula for introducing licks and riffs with riffs, including chord progressions repeated at set intervals.

These standard formulas are then developed through variations, blending, and developing the riffs during solo performances.

What Makes a Good Riff?

What is considered to be a good riff?

In a word, repetition.

All great riffs return at least twice in composition, with many songs including the same patterns multiple times to great effect.

Consider for a moment these two famous performers and composers, two centuries apart:

Chuck Berry

Considered by many as the primary influence on the riff in popular music, Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode has influenced many professional guitarists.

Chuck Berry – ‘Johnny B. Goode’

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

A genius by any measure, Mozart’s riffs aren’t new.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, penned in 1787, has stood the test of time and remains a firm favorite today, more than 200 years after it was first performed.

These opening bars are as memorable today as they were then.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’

Examples of Riffs

Examples of riffs in classical music as well as popular and rock music abound.

We’ve found some of the more well-known examples for you to listen to and enjoy.

If you write your own music, use the following examples to inform your musical creations.

After all, this technique has been around for many years and is still as popular as ever.

1. Pachelbel Canon in D Major

‘Pachelbel Canon in D Major’

2. J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in F minor (WTK, Book II, No.12)

J.S. Bach – ‘Prelude and Fugue in F minor (WTK, Book II, No.12)’

3. Chopin – Fantaisie-Impromptu (Op. 66)

Chopin – ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu (Op. 66)’

This is an excellent example of the left hand repeating the pattern throughout.

4. AC/DC – Back In Black

AC/DC – ‘Back In Black’

For lovers of rock music, this is perhaps one of the most famous riffs in rock music history.

5. Mozart String Quartet in D K575

Mozart – ‘String Quartet in D K575’

A fine example of the cello providing the repeating sequence of notes and tempo.

6. Vivaldi Four Seasons: Spring (La Primavera)

Vivaldi – ‘Four Seasons: Spring (La Primavera)’

7. Deep Purple – Smoke on the Water

Deep Purple – ‘Smoke on the Water’

And finally, no list of famous riffs would be complete without Deep Purple’s, Smoke on the Water, played by Ritchie Blackmore.

Making use of the G pentatonic scale, this simple song can easily be learned by beginner electric guitar players.

The Riff vs Hook vs Lick

You know that a riff is a repeating sequence or pattern of notes.

The riff is designed to be a hook that becomes the signature style or sound of a song or piece of music.

The lick forms part of the riff but is an incomplete part and cannot stand by itself.

In Closing

The riff has been around for many centuries and exists in many forms.

Classical music, jazz, pop, and rock, amongst many other types of music, utilize riffs to engage their audience and create memorable songs.

I hope that we’ve helped you in your understanding and enjoyment of this important component of music construction.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of 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.