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How to Sing Runs and Riffs

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Vocal runs and riffs…

They’re exciting and fun but can be challenging to wrap your head around as a beginner singer.

In this guide we’ll describe what they are, how they’re done and how you can get better at these different (but similar) vocal embellishments.

If you already know how to sing runs and riffs but are having trouble really getting good at them, check out these online singing lessons which have some of the best exercises and practice techniques you’ll find.

If you’re completely new to singing, first read our beginner’s guide – it lays the foundation of a great singing voice.

Now, let’s get into singing riffs and runs.

Runs vs. Riffs Explained

Both riffs and runs are vocal embellishments – they’re melodic phrases of a very quickly sung succession of notes, where each note/tone is distinctly heard from one another, but also blend together to form a singular, flowing phrase.

And even though most people use those two terms interchangabley, there are some minor, but important, differences between the two:

  1. Vocal Riffs – very short melodic phrase meant to complement the music and main vocal melody, and not stand out a lot.
  2. Vocal Runs – a longer melodic phrase meant to stand out from the music and main vocal melody. (It’s the “let me show off my vocal skills” type of phrase)

Both types of embellishments have their uses, and both can bring out the emotion within a song.

But as with any type of embellishment, though, they can be overused and become tiring – so be careful not to go overboard.

Learning to Sing Riffs/Runs Effectively

When you hear a singer singing a riff/run, they make it seem so effortless.

But as a beginner, when you first try it out it can end up sounding like a weak, blurry blob of a couple notes – usually only the starting and ending notes of the riff you’re trying to sing.

That’s because you haven’t developed the articulation and enunciation of each tone/note you need to be able to sing it properly.

So how do you do it?

Slow Everything Down

The first step is to just slow everything down.

When you first try out a riff, find out which notes are in the riff and sing each tone slowly and individually.

Don’t try to match the speed of the run/riff yet. It’s more important to practice singing each individual note in succession.

Seriously – this is the most important tip – SLOW IT DOWN TO TURTLE SPEED.

Be deliberate and exaggerated about it, especially at first – sing each note as a completely separate note from the rest.

As you practice each riff/run, you can gradually increase the speed and blending (for lack of a better word) of the notes.

Just make sure the articulation and enunciation of each note is distinct as you speed up.

Practice With Vowels

Trying to add a complex vocal embellishment to the end of a word or phrase while singing a song can trip you up.

You’re trying to sing the lyrics, the note of the lyric, while also ending it with a quick run/riff.

It’s overwhelming when you’re first starting out, so just stick to pure vowel sounds.

Use the sounds of “ah,” “oh” or “ooh” when practicing the notes in your phrase.

“Oh” is probably the easiest sound to start with. Once you’re good with those sounds, you can use other vowel sounds like “ee” or “ih.”

Then, when you’ve got the hang of the vowels, you can start to apply it to actual lyrics or songs you’re practicing.

Start With Descending Phrases

You can sing runs and riffs in both ascending (upwards) and descending (downwards) patterns, but the ones that move DOWN are the easier of the two to do.

It’s just kind of the way we’re built as humans.

It’s easier to go down stairs than it is to go up stairs. And it’s the same with things like vocal work. Moving upwards requires more work from our vocal cords and muscles than moving downwards does.

So when you’re first trying to get better at singing embellishments like these, start with ones that move down in pitch, rather than up.

This will help you get used to the feel of singing riffs or runs

Microphone Month at Sweetwater

Always Start With 3 Notes, Add More Gradually

In addition to slowing things down, you want to make sure you’re breaking things into small chunks.

This is especially true for runs, specifically, since they are much longer phrases of notes than riffs. But it’s true for riffs too.

It’s very difficult to master a medium to long run all in one go.

So start with the first three notes of whatever run you’re practicing. Sing those notes, and only those notes.

Once you’re able to effectively sing those 3 notes as a run, add ONLY ONE ADDITIONAL NOTE to the run.

Now you have a 4 note run/riff. Practice this phrase until it’s second nature.

Then add another note, and keep repeating the process until you’re able to sing the entire run.

You gotta crawl before you walk – don’t rush it.

An Easy Riff Practice Exercise

Now that you know the basics of learning to sing riffs, let’s get into an exercise you can use today to improve your vocal dexterity.

Dexterity (your ability to manipulate your vocal cords) is important with riff/run singing.

This allows you to articulate several different notes quickly and accurately.

To begin to develop your vocal dexterity try this beginner-friendly exercise that uses the common 3-2-1 riff pattern:

  1. Pick a scale – we’ll use C Major
  2. Use a piano to play notes E, D and C
    • these are the notes 3, 2 and 1 of the C Major Scale, respectively
  3. Now using an “ooh” vowel sound, sing the notes E, D, C
    • sing slowly and deliberately – each note should be sung separately with a pause in between
  4. Play the piano notes while singing them at the same time to make sure your pitch is correct (i.e. make sure you’re singing on key)
  5. Repeat step 3, but sing the notes slightly closer together, keeping them separate and distinct.
  6. Slowly and gradually speed up your singing each time you sing the 3 notes.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you’re able to sing the 3 notes together quickly, smoothly, without separation and while keeping each tone distinct and audible.

Want to take this exercise even further? Check out this great video that expands on the 3-2-1 pattern:

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How to Write Your Own Riffs and Runs

Now that you know how to learn riffs and have an example of an exercise to develop your skills, you’re probably itching to start writing your own unique riffs and runs in your music.

It can be intimidating at first, because you may not be sure exactly how to figure out your own melodic phrases.

Here’s how you can get started…

Learn Your Scales (Especially the Pentatonics)

Riffs and runs are quite simply melodic phrases – a series of notes that are sung one after the other.

The reason they always sound good when the pros do it, is because the pros know their musical scales (and have great pitch accuracy, of course).

Every note in a riff/run will be from the very same key/scale of the song you’re singing.

Most riffs and runs are actually sung using a pentatonic scale.

A pentatonic scale is just a 5 note version of your basic major and minor scales (learn more here).

If you know the C Major Scale is C, D, E, F, G, A, B (and each note is given a number form 1-7), then you can figure out the pentatonic version of it:

Simply use the 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 notes from the key you’re in to write your run or riff using a pentatonic scale.

That means for C Major you could use the notes C, D, E, G, A within your riff.

Learn the Art of Melody Writing

Writing great melodic phrases is an art all on it’s own.

The main ideas you need to really grasp when it comes to melody writing is:

  • Great melodies use a balance between step-wise motion and intervallic leaps

Step-wise motion means moving from one note, directly to one of the notes next to it in a scale.

So for example, singing a C and moving to a D (or the reverse – singing D, then C) would be considered stepwise motion.

On the other hand, singing a C and moving to an A (either upwards or downwards) would be an intervallic leap.

The catch is, with runs and riffs you’re going to see a lot more step-wise motion, than intervallic leaps.

The step-wise movement is the ice cream itself, and the intervallic leap is the cherry on top.

There’s more to writing a great melodic phrase, but this is a key point.

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    Final Thoughts

    It’s easy to get overwhelmed and frustrated when you’re trying to learn how to sing riffs and runs, but try to go easy on yourself.

    This can be a challenging skill to get good at. But if you put in the effort and time to develop your vocal dexterity, it will be extremely rewarding.

    Embellishment like runs and riffs are some of the most exciting and fun aspects to singing – for both the singer and the listener.

    Master this art, and you’ll REALLY level up your singing ability.

    Just make sure you’re taking things slowly to start with. To really get good at doing this fast, you have to get good at doing it slowly.

    If you really want to level up your voice and singing ability, I highly recommend you try out 30DaySinger (14 Day Free Trial) – they’ve got tons of great lessons and exercises to make you a better singer fast.

    Thanks for reading!

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    About The Author:

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    Omar Zulfi

    Omar Zulfi is a music producer, rapper, singer, songwriter and digital entrepreneur. He is the founder and head writer at Deviant Noise. Learn more about what he's doing by clicking here.