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?
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.
There is no rule to absolutely distinguish between them all the time but, the wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostinato#Riff 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:
b...b.....a.b.d...a.b.d...a.b.d. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.