Learning to Riff: Why most people find it hard & why it can be easier than you think

I was having a conversation with a client recently about riffing: what it is, why it’s useful, and why it seems difficult to many.

For the ease of discussion let’s say that anything that extends the melody beyond the original for dramatic/musical effect is a ‘riff’, and that riffing is therefore the act of extending the melody in such a way.

I’d say that most singers want to get better at riffs/riffing, but that they find it hard to do. I’d also say that a lot of singers who think they are good at riffing are not as good as they think they are, and typically repeat the same old basic tricks over and over. But why is it hard to do? And could it be made easier?

The simple answer is yes, but there’s some important logic and understanding behind that answer. Let’s break it down.

Part One: What does it take to sing a melody?

Let’s start with the melody of a song. Singing a melody is a matter of:
a) singing the right notes;
b) in the right order; and
c) at the right time.

(Side-note: Let’s leave out tone/timbre for the time-being.)

Remember: the ability to sing notes without strain or physical difficulty is a matter of technical facility. If one struggles to sing particular notes (as per parameter (a) above) then one will always be battling that song – and one cannot sing a song well if they are battling it.

If strain/difficulty is present then ensuring the right order and right timing also tends to suffer, and often getting one difficult note right is at the expense of the notes surrounding it.

The critical point I’m trying to make here is that even to sing a basic melody, we’ve got to have sufficient technical facility such that whatever arrangement of notes we are trying to sing, we can execute. We need there to be no physical impediment or lack of facility obstructing the execution of that phrase.

Part One (continued): Riffs

Let’s consider the definition of a riff: the act of extending the pre-existing melody. A riff, therefore, is also simply an arrangement of notes with a pre-determined order and a particular timing. Therefore, riffing is a matter of:
a) singing the right notes;
b) in the right order; and
c) at the right time.

Huh. Will you look at that.

Singing a melody OR singing a riff is all a matter of technical facility.

It’s all about an arrangement of notes falling under a voice in such a way that there is there is no physical impediment or lack of facility obstructing the execution of that phrase.

Ergo, if we build a voice properly, the facility to riff is the exact same facility we need to sing the basic melody. If you want to riff, you’ve got to build your voice from bottom to top. When you can think about a note and there’s nothing obstructing your ability to execute it, then whatever melody you think of you will be able to execute. Our ability to riff arises as a by-product of technical facility.

Which leads us to the next component…

Part Two: Where things get a bit more complicated

So far we’ve talked purely about technicality. We’ve not yet discussed the complexity of most riffs or looked at the enhanced level of musicality that they demand. The issue most singers face is a lack of musicality, specifically in relation to melodic extension, ornamentation and improvisation.

If a melody is essentially a pre-existing script, then riffs require one to go ‘off-script’. Most singers who can riff even a little tend to have just 2-3 tricks they can trot out, and that’s typically about it. Maybe they chain them together to make a few more combinations, but their vocabulary is inherently limited. It’s much the same as most bedroom guitarists have a handful of blues or rock riffs they can trot out on demand, or when your travel-shy uncle goes on holiday and knows the words for ‘Beer’, ‘Toilet’ and ‘Thanks’. It’s enough to get by on, but that’s about it.

Of course, if one’s technique is limited or incomplete, then the number of phrases one can acquire is inevitably limited by this fact. But even once you build your voice to handle all kinds of melodies across a wide range, we’ve still got to devote time to building our musical understanding to acquire a wide (or at least wider) vocabulary of phrases and musical fragments. It’s no different than learning a language.

Part Three: Fluency, like a language

When people first start to learn a language, it’s really just acquisition of a big list of stock phrases. At the beginning the phrases seem unconnected, then as the library of phrases grows we start to see similarities and overlapping components, then we start to play around with tiny parts of the expressions, modifying the meaning subtly but not changing it so much that we lose the meaning.

At some point though, there’s a threshold of vocabulary that is crossed. You find you can suddenly start to improvise with the language on-the-fly. Not in all areas but it can seem like an invisible line was crossed, and what first seemed like an just a list of stock phrases, imperceptibly becomes a living breathing language in it’s own right. It can seem like a miraculous moment, when the conscious becomes unconscious. Developing your riffing ability is a very similar process.

Summary

Here’s a short break-down of what we’ve just covered:

Step 1: We build the voice so technical facility is not in issue
Step 2: We start to build our musical vocabulary and library of ideas
Step 3: Connections build between those phrases until fluency of ideas and execution is achieved.

The key point I want to make is you can’t skip to step 2 or 3 without cutting yourself off at the knees. These steps seem impossibly hard without the work that needs to go into step 1. Build your voice and the riffing becomes remarkably easy.

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