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Steve_A's avatar

What is the difference between a riff and a melody?

Asked by Steve_A (5120points) April 27th, 2010

I often hear people I have played with or other musicians throw these words around.

Like maybe “He/she plays very melodic.” or “That was a sick riff.” things like that..

But a riff and a melody are basically the same thing right? Or is there a difference?

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7 Answers

Ame_Evil's avatar

A riff is a few bars of music which repeats and needn’t have anything to do with the melody itself. Such as bass/guitar riffs.

Steve_A's avatar

@Ame_Evil Ah ok I figured it was something like that, just wasn’t sure…

But this might be a dumb question like lets say I have a main riff and drop it out then keep using the melody to enforce an idea does it kind of become a riff?

A melody from what I understand is like a phrase?

chamelopotamus's avatar

Musicians who use technical language would either call a musical part a: melody, harmony or rhythm. A riff is probably thought of as an in between melody between the main melodies.

Ame_Evil's avatar

@Steve_A I believe it stays the melody :). Unless if you decide to keep repeating it, it doesn’t become a riff.

I wish I could explain more, but I am not that great with music theory etc.

Cruiser's avatar

Think of the opening “riff” to Pretty Woman…that is a classic killer riff…which then sets the stage for the melody and openeing lyrics to the song. That and all melodies are the heart and soul of all songs. The riff can be part of this melody but often will stand alone as a signature calling card of most is not all songs.

I know when I write a song it almost always will come from a “riff” that simply pops up when noodling around on my guitar. From there I will build a melody and the rest of the song. Riffs rule Rock & Roll!

wundayatta's avatar

In my improvisational work, someone will often start with a riff and then everyone else works off of that. What that means it whoever starts (and it could be the bassist, the keyboardist or the drummer—sometimes even a melodic instrument) noodles around until they find a short phrase that they like. This, when repeated over and over, becomes the riff.

Everyone else then slowly chimes in, supporting the riff until a melodic instrument starts developing a melody over the top of everything. When you use the riff, there is basically little chordal sophistication to the music. It’s pretty much you stay in the same key all the time.

In order to get more changes in, you really have to work harder—probably starting with the melody line, and then working from there to find the chords that support each bar of the melody. That takes a little longer to figure out, so it’s not something that you usually improvise unless you’ve got a really good rhythm section (counting bass as rhythm here).

It’s easy enough to improvise melodically on top of an existing chord structure, but it’s much harder to improvise a chord structure that supports an existing melodic line. Still, it’s doable.

But riffs are the easiest of all. They’re simple—maybe two or four bars long. They repeat over and over. It’s easy to hop on them, no matter what you’re playing, and they can develop a lot of power pretty quickly. Actually, that’s their main drawback, too. It’s too easy to turn it into an out of control train that can’t be reigned back. You need really good musicians to be able to learn to listen for the energetic changes and to be able to modulate the dynamics and even to allow the melody—and sometimes the riff—to change. If you have musicians like that, you’ve got something worth holding onto.

mcbealer's avatar

For me, the riff is that part of the melody that floats above everything else, and usually sticks in your head.

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