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How do I tell when a riff becomes a melody, or is it even important to know? Can you construct a song around a riff - what are some suggestions on how to construct a song in that manner?

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I gave my account as to the categorization as good as I could in my answer below. As example of songs constructed on a riff: there are many, many examples. I think "Smoke on the Water" by deep purple is actually a very good example. I'd say Jumping Jack Flash is also primarily riff based. – Roland Bouman Mar 20 '14 at 12:24

11 Answers 11

I think you could look this from multiple points of view; many riffs do contain melodic motifs; however they are also in a lot of cases very rhythmic. So given a sliding scale with rhythm at one end and melody on the other, you could place different riffs in different places on the scale.

Looking at genres of music such as the more extreme areas of metal, there are riffs that are very melodic and complex, but because of the cutting nature of them and the way the are muted and picked, sound very rhythmic.

That being the case I would 'hypothesize' that one large difference between a melody and a riff in a lot of cases, is a rhythmic aspect found in the riff.

You can definitely construct a song around a riff; bands have been doing it since the early days; check out Rolling Stones songs like 'Satisfaction' and Jumping Jack Flash. The entire genre and many sub-genres of hard rock and metal are hugely riff based.

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I agree to a large extent. But an important aspect that I think really matters whether you call something a riff: repetition. If you have a phrase that isn't persistently repeated, it can't be a riff in my mind. There is a risk of falling into a wordgame trap here: one can certainly say "can you please play that riff once more". But my point is, we would never call it a riff if it wasn't being persistently repeated in the first place. – Roland Bouman Mar 20 '14 at 11:30
Definitely agree with @RolandBouman. I think the repetition aspect should be edited into this answer. – Meaningful Username Mar 20 '14 at 15:23

There is no rule to absolutely distinguish between them all the time but, the wikipedia article does a remarkably good job. I think the cited definition by Richard Middleton captures it:

"[riffs are] as "short rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic figures repeated to form a structural framework". "

Here are some general characteristics that will typically hold:

  • Rythm vs melos: A riff is generally more characterized by its rhytmic pattern than by its melodic contour, for melody its the other way around. This actually makes up for a really simple test: if you wonder if something is a riff or not, try to play only its rhythm, but without changing pitch (that is, play the rhythm all on the same note). Alternatively, eliminate all rhythm by giving each pitch the same length. Then see which one of these best preserves the feel of the original material. If the material is more melodic, you will find that often the sequence of pitches without any rhythm is enough to invoke a memory of the original material; if the material is a riff then in many cases only the rhytm will be enough to think of the original. I'm not saying that this is a perfect test, but it works remarkably well and is easy to execute.

  • Range: Riffs typically span a melodic range that is more narrow than that of a melody. In a lot of rock music, the melodic range of a riff often does not exceed a fourht, or sometimes even a third. A melody almost always has a range of at least a fifth, often an octave.

  • Length: Riffs are generally just 1 or 2 measures long, melodies are often more longwinded: You can easily find examples of 4, 8, 12, measures

  • Contour: A melody typically has a definite contour, working its way toward some kind of climax before relaxing again. A riff need nog have a very clear contour, and is usually too short to expose the kind of build-up/wind-down action you see in melody. The hinge points of a melody are often the tonic and the fifth. Typically, descending melodies start at the fifth, and gradually work their way down to the tonic, ascending melodies usually start at the tonic and work their way up to the fifth, or even the octave.

  • If you try to harmonize a riff, you'll often end up with one, maybe two distinct chords. That harmonization will more often than not lack a clear cadence. A melody with often follow a more definite progression and include 3 or even more distinct chords. It will also often have a cadence on or around the melodic climax.

  • Repetition: Riffs are very often repeated extensively, with maybe just a little variation. A melody, esp. in a song, will generally have phrases which may be repeated just once (possibly with some variation), but will then move on to a new phrase. The melody itself may be repeated but the effect is more elaborate than with a riff.

Riff example: Jumping Jack Flash:

Rolling Stones, Jumping Jack flash Bar 10 introduces a 2 bar guiter riff, that can be reduced to:

1   2   3   4   1   2   3   4   

It consists of 11 notes, of which 5 are b, 3 a and 3 d. The makes the total range just a fourth. The notes do not follow a very articulate countour, and the most salient part of the line is the repeated a.b.d... pattern. These two bars are themselves repeated most of the song, and make up the verse.

If you now apply the first test I mentioned, you'll find that even tapping the rhytm (no notes involved), will already invoke the drive of the song. This is clearly a riff.

Melody example: Paint it Black

Rolling stones, paint it black Bar 9 introduces a vocal melody line. The first phrase has 13 notes, startning at f and ascending to b-flat, only to descend again back to f, after which the prhase ends with a motive on e and g around f; It has a total of 5 different pitches e(2), f(5), g(3) a(2) b-flat(1). Already you can see that there are more notes that are more balanced than in the jjf example. The rhythm by contrast is way less prominent here - it consists almost exclusively of quarter notes. The phrase is repeated almost identically at bar 13. A new phrase starts at bar 16, where the melody leaps an octave to the f. This is felt as a climax, and the melody then descends down to eventually settle around c, which is not coincidentally the fifth of t.

If you apply the first test, you'll notice that you don't get very far by simply tapping the rhytm. However, once you sing the pitches, you'll find that it even doesn't matter too much in what rhythm you sing it, you'll recognize it as the song. So this is clearly a melody.

Interesting Hybrid: Beethoven, 5th symphony

Sometimes, it's not so clear. Beethoven 5, part 1 is een interesting example. The famous 4-note opening motif could be seen as a riff: it's very short, has a very prominent rhytmic nature, spans only a third, and it is repaeted over and over and over. However, the repetition is combined with constant and systematic variation; the motif itself is constantly changing pitch, and is distributed among many instruments, switching instrument almost every occurrence as if it's a relay race. If this is a riff, it's not a very typical one.

We could try and interpret the constant change of the motif as phrases of a melody, and we can see it has some of the characteristics I mentioned are typical for melodies: it clearly builds towards a climax, and it has a melodic range that far exceeds the third of the original motif. However, if we strip this melody from the rhythm, we find that it retains almost nothin of the character of the original material. So it's not simply a melody either.

I think this is where the term "theme" comes in handy. Theme is a broader term than both riff and melody and it expresses the idea that there is some persistent musical idea without exactly specifying whether that idea is mostly melodical or rhytmic in nature. In that respect we are clearly dealing with a theme, but neither of the terms melody or riff is really appropriate for this music.

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Where do you get your definitions? I see no difference between the songs examples you provide besides the number of notes. Do you have a reference on this? – r lo Mar 20 '14 at 11:51 I see where you may be coming from with this definition. – r lo Mar 20 '14 at 12:00
@rlo, the term melody is very general an can be picked up from any music theory book. However, the term "riff" is probably not part of the traditional theory parlance, so we have to do with more informal notions. However, if you test the list of characteristics and apply them to various pieces of music, I'm quite confident my list will distinguish between what is usually agreed upon as riffs vs melody for at least 80% of the time, if not more. – Roland Bouman Mar 20 '14 at 12:21

Both a riff and a melody are sequences of notes that, at least to the listener, form the centerpiece of a piece of music.

We call such a sequence a riff, if I'm not mistaken, when it is at least partly in the bass or another lower part, offset against higher parts, strengthening the foundations of the chords, and is repeated throughout the song, or at least several times; we call it a melody when it is in a higher part (which then, by virtue of carrying the melody, becomes 'the lead'), and is longer or less repetitive than parts below it, and (often) doesn't just embellish chords but shapes them around it.

So the difference is rather fluid.

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Example: I'd call I was made to love her riff-based, and Yester-me, yester-you, yesterday melody-based. – reinierpost Feb 9 '12 at 14:12
I'd say that since riffs are generally more rhytmically orientedn than melodically, usually aren't very rich in harmony, are typically short etc. etc. that this makes riffs more prone to appear in the lower parts. But this is more a matter of the convention to put salient lines (melodies) in higher parts. I don't agree that this should be part of its definition though. – Roland Bouman Mar 20 '14 at 11:24
Examples to counter your explanation: Both Guns 'n Roses songs "Sweet child of mine" and "Welcome to the Jungle" start with a riff on the lead guitar. When the bass and rhythm guitar enter the song, they play a melody below the riff. In both these cases the riffs happen to be quite rich, but their persistent repetition makes them clearly riffs, and not an independent melody. – Roland Bouman Mar 20 '14 at 11:26
@Roland Bouman: interesting ... I'm not sure the best term for this guitar part is a riff, it's a repeating pattern, but it follows the chord changes; but it does convince me that a riff can be in a higher part. For intros this may not be so rare, but I can't think of an example that continues this throughout the whole song. The best I can think of right now is Chelsea where the organ is more consistent in repeating the riff than the bass guitar is. – reinierpost Mar 20 '14 at 11:53
in SCOM, the changes are marginal, in WTTJ there are are no changes against the chord backdrop. Another example where the riff does recur throughout the song "Living on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi. Another example: many Iron Maiden songs, for example the Trooper. I don't mean the initial riff, but the thing that immediately precedes the first verse. Or the initial riff in Metallica, seek 'n destroy. Just because it's high doesn't make it a melody. – Roland Bouman Mar 20 '14 at 12:17

fun topic.

let's take this famous song as an example. the intro is undoubtedly a riff. it is also a melody. it is repeated throughout, along with slight variations and added 'licks'. it is a compact, isolated and contained series of notes, but with almost no obvious rhythmic function, yet it still is a riff. the primary notes it contains are used in the chord progression by the backing acoustic guitar. in this example, there is no difference between riff and melody.

the spectacular intro is a very special riff, as it is unusually complex. it is highly melodic, harmonic and at the same time very rhythmic. if either the rhythmic or melodic aspects are lost, it just won't work and will be unrecognizable. However, it is not the hook to the song nor does it reappear after its extended use as an intro is over. so it is not the melody to the song at all. It is essential to it though because it is associated with the song, and immediately recognizable. it is a riff, though uncommon in such form, since it obviously isn't anything else.

the actual 'typical' riff starts at 0:45. it's repeated throughout and is mostly rhythmic (it is distinct from the vocal melody of the verses). it certainly isn't a 'melody'

there are chordal progression sections further on without this riff. there are one or two other riffs, purely rhythmic. not to mention a bunch of licks scattered about. ...and your typical J. Mascis solo :)

overall a great example of a song that showcases various musical components.

to me any melody is also a riff; besides, what's the point of not repeating a melody? Many riffs, because they are also melodies, are repeated for this reason. Other riffs, rhythmic rather than melodic are usually persistently employed and repeated. But not all riffs are necessarily repeated, as the intro of the second song shows.

'Smoke on the Water' and many other such crude, tasteless bluesy songs simply need a rythmic riff because they have not much else to make up for it. And since many people -not knowing any better- see this riff as one of the 'definitive' ones, it is no wonder that riffs are popularly identified as rythmic devices and something mutually exclusive to melody. okay, i'm generalizing, but i've seen it happen way too much.

I think the majority of riffs are melodies and serve no rythmic function. it goes for almost every genre. there are genres, however, that rely heavily on rythmic riffs.

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A riff could be the melody, part of the melody, or at least generally recognizable as belonging to a specific song. IOW, if you played a riff in a song it was not written for, it might work perfectly well, but it might make a listener think of the song it actually was written for. As opposed to a lick, which is applicable anywhere it will fit, and does not define any particular song.

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Not important. A riff is contains melodies and could be thought as a compound melody in most cases. Usually a riff is played as a sort of substitute for the harmony rather than for melodic reasons.

There are some songs(many actually) that simply use the same riff throughout with almost no variation(but have other instruments that add variety and contrast).

You really should learn to google, there is a lot of good information out there already.

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Yep, but the point is to write an answer here that can be found with ease for a specific community of viewers... – Anonymous Jan 29 '11 at 16:13
I agree with AttilaNYC, hostility towards the questioner doesn't help. No question is too basic, and the point of StackExchange is to supply reliable information. – neilfein Jan 29 '11 at 20:23
Hostility? You gotta be kidding! The point is that such questions can easily be answered in google. Theres no way we can beat google in answering them. If AttilaNYC is just asking questions to "pre-ask" them then I find that ridiculous and inane. Did someone hire him to pre-ask the questions? Does he know what someone will ask? Is he trying to get google hits for this site? Why should you or I pretend that we can answer such questions better than google? Anyways, to say there is hostility in my initial answer is quite retarded. – Anonymous Jan 30 '11 at 1:11
I did do a quick google search, and I didn't find anything that specifically points out the differences between melody and riff. I found a lot on what a riff is, but not the characteristics of what tells apart riff and melody. You could do a thorough and time consuming research on what the differences are, or ask it here - maybe someone just knows... – awe Feb 1 '11 at 20:41
Abstract: you are a complete Richard Head – Anonymous Mar 8 '11 at 19:39

A melody is song-specific. For a given tune, the melody is always the melody and you always play a series of notes to achieve it. A riff can be anything, it's not song-specific, and it exists on its own. Like a 'lick'. You could refer to a melody as a riff and vice versa, but in the language of music a melody is a paired series of notes that goes with a tune. The theme to Zelda has a melody, After You've Gone has a melody. Me playing anything on my axe is a riff.

Granted, I'm talking about the melody and not a melody, which could be anything in the world (a bird just chirped outside).

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I would disagree with this notion of a riff. For example, I think most people will agree that Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" is entirely riff-based. However, that riff is extremely characteristic for that song. You cannot make another song based on that riff that doesn't inevitably sound like the original. – Roland Bouman Mar 20 '14 at 11:17
'A riff can be anything, it's not song-specific' not sure that's logical. Unless your definition of a riff is a rhythmic pulse. Soon as you add notes you have a melody and that defines the song. – r lo Mar 20 '14 at 11:57

A standard musical stave with Bass and Treble cleff can fully transcribe a melody i.e. the individual notes with all their different pitches and timings which can be played on any musical instrument.

If you buy guitar tablature books however, you are shown how to play a riff i.e. the individual notes with all their different pitches and timings but also a great deal of secondary information of how it can be played specifically on the guitar. For example guitar tablature will provide details of hammer-ons / pull-offs, palm-muting, slides, harmonics, bends / releases. Also, given a set of notes alone, they can be played in many different positions on the fretboard. Recreating a sound authentically will come down to being in the same tuning and playing the notes using specific strings and frets which tablature will also point the reader to. And all this before we discuss recreating which guitar effects are used: light-distortion, tremelo, chorus, compression etc.

A melody is instrument agnostic, you can whistle a melody. A riff is the execution of a melody on a specific instrument and played a specific way. In the domain of this site we talk almost exclusively of guitar riffs. I could whistle the opening to Whole Lotta Love but until it's played on a guitar with distortion using the same finger positioning and technique as Jimmy Page, it's not a riff.

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That really can't be the distinction. Both riffs and melodies can well be played on multiple instruments, though in both cases there will generally be an intention for it to be played on a specific instrument in a specific way. Sure, most "moving through instruments" probably happens for theme melodies in classical compositions, but in e.g. prog rock it's common for e.g. a guitar riff to reappear on keyboards, there still being a riff. Ever heard Whole Lotta Love on cello? Totally a riff. OTOH, most vocal melodies keep very of their character if you just play them on some instrument. – leftaroundabout Mar 19 '14 at 20:55
Agree with @leftaroundabout. His argument works the other way around too: you can't turn a riff into a melody simply by playing it on other instruments. I would agree that "riff" is not a term that can be entirely explained in terms of the musical material, there is indeed a notion that the material that makes up the riff appears in one of the parts and is persistently repeated in that part. If you would distribute the material of a riff over a group of instruments it will typically cease to be what most people would call a riff. – Roland Bouman Mar 20 '14 at 11:34



I think that defines it. I see no difference between a melody and a riff. A riff is a musicians choice of words to describe a melody. Possibly using the word riff as to describe a more rhythmic melody, but still a close definition of melody.

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It's beyond me why you see "no difference". The dictionary definitions are remarkebly apt, and a key characteristic to a riff is: "a short and usually repeated pattern of notes", although I would argue that it shouldn't be "usually repeated", it should be "persistently repeated". – Roland Bouman Mar 20 '14 at 15:38

I see them as related. A riff can function as the melody although a melody can be many things. A melody is usually what catches your attention as the main "hook" of the song. I think of it as a motif, repeating over and over again.

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Interesting topic. Since I come from a punk rock background - I see chord progressions as riffs. And this is what punk has in common with jazz. Melody is where the magic happens in music. But the very rest is a fill in or phrasing. In common sense therms : a riff is never a melody, it can be a hook in a piece or in a song, but the melody is what glues the piece together. In more musical terms : A riff doesn't go anywhere - It's an isolated thing of it's own. In contrast to that, a melody can do whatever it wants. In poetic therms: A riff or chord sequence creates the backdrop for a melodic intervention.

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