In music, a riff is an ostinato figure (a repeated chord progression, pattern, or melodic fragment), often played by instruments in the rhythmic section, such as the guitar or keyboard, that forms the basis or accompaniment of a composition. A riff can be as simple as a single, exciting note or a more complex arrangement, as long as it is catchy and hooks the listener's attention within the context of the song without distracting him or her from the overall piece. Riffing on a melody or progression can be perceived as similar to how one would riff on a subject by extending a singular thought, idea or inspiration into a bit, or routine.
Riffs are often used, and re-used, to create full compositions. For example, The "Night Train" riff used in Duke Ellington's number "Happy-Go-Lucky Local," had been recycled from Johnny Hodge's earlier hit, "That's the Blues, Old Man." Another example is the riff from Charlie Parker's bebop number "Now's the Time" which re-emerged four years later in the R&B dance hit, "The Hucklebuck." Also, Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" had an earlier life as Wingy Manone's "Tar Paper Stomp." It is even possible that these riffs, which are all twelve bar blues riffs, precede the song examples given.
Music professor, David Brackett defines them as "short melodic phrases," (Brackett 2000). while songwriter, Richard Middleton, defines them as "short rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic figures repeated to form a structural framework." (www.richardmiddleton.net). Though Rikky Rooksby admits that there is no "water-tight" definition, he gives a "working description" for riffs in rock: "A riff is a short, repeated, memorable musical phrase, often pitched low on the guitar, which focuses much of the energy and excitement of a rock song." (Rooksby 2002)
A riff is different from the related concept of a lick in that riffs can also include repeated chord progressions; licks are usually associated with single-note melodic lines rather than chord progressions. However, like riffs, licks can be used as the basis of an entire song. Neither the term "riff" or "lick" are used in Classical music; instead, single-line riffs or licks used as the basis of classical music pieces are called ostinatos. Contemporary jazz writers" also use riff- or lick-like ostinatos in modal music and Latin jazz. A riff can be a hook, if the riff meets the definition of a hook: "a musical idea, a passage or phrase, that is believed to be appealing and make the song stand out," and "catch the ear of the listener" (Covach 2005, 71).
The term riff entered musical slang in the 1920s (Rooksby, Ibid), and is used primarily in discussion of forms of rock music or jazz. "Most rock musicians use riff as a synonym, almost, for 'musical idea.'" (Middleton 1990, 125). Some sources explain riff as an abbreviation for "rhythmic figure," however, the musical use of the term derives from its use in comedy where a riffing consists of short clever remarks () on a subject.
The artist's employment of the riff has been valuable in connecting the overall mood, theme, and sound of the piece to the audience through its ability to act as a microcosm of the song as a whole, and due to the fact that it is catchy and thereby immediately engages the listener. Thus, the riff can be used as a hook to pull the audience into the entire atmosphere of a song.
The term riff entered musical slang in the 1920s (Rooksby, Ibid), and was used primarily in discussion of forms of rock music or jazz. "Most rock musicians use riff as a synonym, almost, for 'musical idea.'" (Middleton 1990, 125).
Some sources explain riff as an abbreviation for "rhythmic figure," however, the musical use of the term derives from its use in comedy where a riffing consists of short clever remarks () on a subject. Thus riffing on a melody or progression is related to how a comedian would riff on a subject by extending a singular thought, idea or inspiration into a bit, or routine.
The popular website DigitalDreamDoor has compiled a list  of what they believe to be the "100 greatest guitar riffs."
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