Riffs vs. Runs

If you’re a vocalist or you just have been in awe of some at some point in your creative journey, then surely you’ve witnessed those jaw-dropping musical moments where the vocalist hits a series of almost indistinguishable notes - it truly appears like the cream of the crop when it comes to talent - and there’s a few reasons for that. These sets of notes are known to many as either a riff or a run and they aren’t exactly the easiest thing to produce and produce beautifully. 

Quora fills us in with the bare definition. “By pure musical definitions, a “run” and “riff” are officially different: a “run” being a spontaneously created “run of notes” (generally pentatonic) used as an embellishment to the melody, and a “riff” being a repeated melodic idea. 

For a vocalist to be able to sing a multitiude of riffs and runs, they quickly become considered as highly regarded. These are almost akin to a guitar’s solo during a stadium show - both of these elements defer from the traditional melody within the piece and almost go off on a “sonic tangent”. These little vocal hacks are some of the most difficult and almost always leave the audience in awe for that reason, whether they realize it or simply register it as sounding beautiful. If you’re a singer yourself or you’ve attempted to mimic one of those melodic alternatives, then you can truly appreciate how difficult they actually are. 

When attempting to separate the two, Quora describes how “In music, a riff is a repeated sequence of notes or chords that appears in a piece of music. A guitar riff is often catchy and helps give structure and character to a piece of music. Riffs most commonly appear in rock, funk, jazz, and Latin music, though they can be found in almost any genre of music. A run is when a player of any instrument plays a long stretch of notes (that many times ascend or descend chromatically). A vocalist can do the same thing- but it is specified as a run when they do not take a breath.”

So, now that we know what riffs and runs are, how can we partake and attempt to sharpen our ability to accomplish these musically? First things first, accept the fact that mastering these particular talents does not come quickly or easily. You first must get the basics of vocals underneath your belt. Do not get discouraged when you find that your first rounds are messy and completely blended together. 

Coming from experience, our very first tip is to mimic. Have fun with it. Dance around by yourself or with your friends, play some of your favorite singers and try to sing every single note that they do. This may take hours, days, weeks until you truly get it down. 

The second element that we strongly advise towards is slowing it down. There’s an incredible power in breaking things down into pieces so that it’s manageable for the brain. The more small batches that you’re able the process, the easier it will be for your processing to imagine a batch of notes as one, so that it begins to not feel so complicated. Once you master the slowed down version, speed it up consistently and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. 

Finally, stick to it. You should truly be practicing or at least singing for fun for at least 30 minutes a day. There are so many muscles involved, including your muscle memory that must retain the process of physically being able to create these sounds at the crisp level of quality that you’re looking for. So, make use of that time sitting in traffic. Take it easy and realize that it could be years until you’re truly able to master this, but when you do, it’ll be worth it.