Riffs vs. Runs Revisited

Lots of us have heard of music lovers fawning over a musician's fancy riffs or runs, but do we really know the difference, if there is one after-all? Can any instrument produce a riff and a run or is this strictly for the vocalist? Let's explore this speciality a little further.

We must first fully understand what each of these concepts entails. A riff is often referred to as “a short repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, typically used as an introduction or refrain in a song” states Oxford Language. Meanwhile, Merriam Webster suggests that when used within the context of jazz, a riff is considered to be “an ostinato phrase typically supporting a solo improvisation”. 

So far, we’ve learned that any instrument is able to play its very own riff, simply by producing a short, preferably iconic or memorable phrase, often repeating at different times throughout the piece, so now how about the run? Quora states “a run is a very fast sequence of notes, sometimes called a glissando or "gliss" for short, usually going up or down in sequential pitches. It is usually comprised of chromatic pitches, though it may imply a mode, like a major or minor key or Dorian mode, or a scale, like an Indian raga scale.” From this new knowledge, we now know that the musical run is not strictly orchestrated by the vocalist, but this can be done by any instrument that is able to produce a pitch at an accelerated rate. 

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Now that we know that riffs and runs are not specifically for the singer only, we can get into the nitty gritty of their differences and similarities. The main similarity lies in the fact that the two musical elements are often considered separate from the main melody and supporting instrumentation. Both the riffs and runs, albeit very different, are both almost met with a spotlight when they come into play within the piece. The riffs and runs are both typically showcased and presented as an extra special element of a musical piece. 

When it comes to the differences that lie between these two gorgeous characteristics within a song include the fact that a riff is typically repeated multiple times within a song, while a run will typically only occur once, as well as the pitches within each phrase. A run will often contain chromatic pitches, which is where each note is divided by the interval of a semitone. The tempo is also important to take into consideration, as a run is often quite quick and impressive, while a riff’s tempo is often not the defining factors within the phrase, as that is typically the melody of the riff that provides the memorable phrasing, despite the fact that the rhythm can certainly play a definitive factor. 

If you’re at the point where you’d love to get good at this incredible element of musicality, we suggest starting slow and small. Find the riffs and runs that give you inspiration and slow them down. Keep them on repeat when learning and don’t worry yourself if you don’t make each and every note. The more you practice, the easier and second nature it will become.