How To Sing Runs and Riffs

(Last Updated On: April 12, 2021)
A singer is singing jazz song.

Most aspiring R&B singers generally look up to the likes of Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Christina Aguilera. These three awesome ladies sing riffs and runs masterfully, and they could embellish a song with remarkable riffs and runs. Other outstanding singers who belong to the pop R&B genre like Justin Timberlake and James Ingram are likewise known for exceptional vocal embellishments that make their styles distinctive.

Hence, if you are an aspiring R&B singer, you would surely ask how these popular R&B singers learn to embellish their singing styles with riffs and runs. However, they have been prominent in gospel and jazz singers long before these popular singers popularized such embellishments. Though popular singers have created their own singing styles by utilizing runs and riffs. However, these skills have long been a staple embellishment used by previous artists like those of Bonnie Raitt, Eta James, and Aretha Franklin, though these said artists had used these embellishments in a much simpler way.

Understanding Riffs and Runs in Singing

Runs, vocal riffs, and embellishments, as mentioned above, have long been used in Gospel and Jazz Music. Riffs and runs are melodic notes used by singers as an enhancement to their expression of emotional intensity. The most outstanding vocal riffs are usually done to deepen the expression of emotion within a song. They are not designed to show off.

Moreover, the ability to sing riffs and runs necessitates expertise in precisely sing every note. You would be amazed at how some professional singers were able to make it with ease. For this reason, if you really want to improve in this particular singing skill, you should frequently listen to those who are experts in this art and try to emulate them.

What Is Vocal Runs?

Vocal runs are fast-moving melodic lines that necessitate great skill in cleanly singing a song. It requires being always in the right tune. Popular singers who are fond of making runs generally show off their impressive musical ears and flexibility of voice. To name a few of these singers, I would like to mention Stevie Wonder, Jill Scott, John Legend, and Prince. You can readily learn the art of making vocal runs by listening and singing with your favorite artists who are fond of vocal runs. Runs may be difficult because they are fast. But you should not worry about this, for you would surely get the hang of it with continuous practice and by learning the different tips on the runs and riffs techniques.


Singers Who Can Perform Clean Riffs & Runs with Powerful Vocal Agility


Things You Must Know On Using Riffs and Runs In Your Singing Performance

Everything that is constantly practiced is often perfected. Similarly, the art of singing riffs and runs can only be mastered by constantly practicing. There are tips. However, that could facilitate the process of learning the art of singing riffs and runs and here are some of these brief tips:

1) You Should Know Your Notes

Before you can even embellish a song with riffs and runs, you need to know the notes embedded in a song. Riffs are usually short and may include two to four note patterns. There are longer riffs, however, but these longer riffs are generally just short riffs that are strung together. At the onset, you should listen intently to the melody of the song and don’t give much attention to the words or vowels used in the lyrics. Once you learn the melody thoroughly, then you can proceed with learning the vowels and words. It is crucial that you know which notes or pitch you are going to sing in a riff. If you are unsure of the pitch, you may end up sounding pitchy. The reason behind this is maybe due to your inability to break down the notes and the order of the notes likewise. Hence, it is important that you first know the notes.

Furthermore, you should break down the melody into fragments or segments. As you figure out the primary few notes, you can then figure out the succeeding few notes until you have figured out the complete melody. Begin slowly and try to sing every section, sans the accompaniment. Make sure that you are aware of the right notes and that you are singing the right notes. As you progress in singing the right notes, you can then sing the entire melody with the correct note and speed up your singing tempo. You’ll notice along the way that if you speed up your tempo, there is a strong likelihood that you would fail to sing the right notes correctly. Make sure that you sing the right notes even if you speed up the tempo.

2) Figure Out the Right Tempo

After figuring out the right notes and learning to sing them together, you can then figure out the right tempo. Tempo refers to the timing, punctuation, etc. You can determine the tempo by simply tapping or clapping the notes out, or by simply playing the notes out on the keyboard. You should ensure that you figure out the tempo correctly so that you can sing the vocal riff correctly. In doing this, you’ll be able to emphasize certain notes, and you’ll know on what part to punch intensely and on what parts to go lightly. You should run through the riffs often while also focusing on the tempo that you are using.  

3) You Should Also Know the Rhythm

It is also a prerequisite to know the rhythm before you can even sing riffs and runs. You should learn the rhythm of the song. Without perfectly learning the notes, however, it is often impossible to know the rhythm. Hence, you should first master the notes before proceeding to determine the rhythm. You can learn the rhythm, however, by listening to the rhythm or pulse of the music. By listening intently, you can figure out how the riffs would fit into the beat. You should also figure out if there are notes that are emphasized and take note of these notes.

4) You Should Learn and Know the Vowel Sounds

After learning the notes, tempo, and rhythm, you should then proceed with learning the vowels used. Sounds may often switch from one vowel sound to another just like in the case of Ah to EE. Make sure that you know the vowels used in a particular part of the riff so that you can enhance the sound of the word or phrase much easier. When singing riffs, you can employ the vowel sound of a specific word or lyric by thinking of it as an immediate extension of the phrase or word. On the other hand, you can also use vowel sounds without the use of words to emphasize emotion.

5) You Should Also Be Aware of Your musical Cues

There is a cue in the musical accompaniment that usually signals the starting note. Every riff has this, and for this reason, you should be aware of this. You should practice learning how to be aware of this cue. This cue usually comes with the specific rhythmic pattern that happens right before you should sing. After figuring out the complete riff, you should be aware of the rhythmic and musical cues to ensure that you would be singing at the right time and on the right note.


Additional Tips on Practicing Runs and Riffs

Practice makes perfect! The more you practice, the faster you will become the master riffs and runs singing techniques. Here are some simple tips when practicing:

1) Engage in Speed Up and Down Training

The idea behind singing runs is to slow it down up to zero. You should, therefore, practice every note with the help of the piano until you can readily sing each note without the aid of the piano. Playing each note on the keyboard would be good. Then, figure out the note and remember it. Then, you move on to the next note, until you know all the notes. You should do this practice until you can sing them without the piano. Try to pick out notes in random or out of the sequence, and then begin to practice those notes. Once you know each note by heart, you can then speed up the singing of each note. You can run the line slowly at first, and then speed it up. 

Remember, at this stage, your ultimate aim is not to speed up, but your main goal is to speed up with quality. You should do this until you are sure that you have already mastered it and until your pitch and tone are already perfect. Afterwards, do it a cappella.  

Once you feel that you can do it without music, you should repeat doing it in the acappella a dozen times. Your goal is to speed up a bit faster than your previous speed. Make sure that you don’t increase your speed until you have perfected the present speed and until you are already perfect in tone, pitch, and other musical aspects.

2) You Should Practice with “Mm” and “Ng” for Increased Flexibility

If you feel that you can’t sing smoothly through vocal riffs and that your voice lack flexibility, you should begin practicing using “Mm” and “Ng.” You should practice with “Mm” and “Ng” over and over until you get better in your flexibility. With this practice, you can improve your vocal cord’s closure and improve your vocal flexibility. The main reason behind vocal cord closure is the lack of flexibility and the wrong utilization of vocal register. With the use of “Ng” and “Mm,” you can then sing the riff comfortably without experiencing the feeling of breaking or cracking along the vocal riff.

3) Practicing Using the Piano

You can improve your runs and riffing skills by practicing with the piano. At the onset, it would be good to select a short run from one of your favorite singers. If you know how to play the piano, you should accompany your singing with the piano. As mentioned above, you should begin slowly and then gradually increase your speed after perfecting the run at a particular slower tempo. You should also use a metronome to help you figure out the right tempo. You should then increase by 3 to 5 bpm every time until you have perfected the riffing and running at a specific tempo. You should sing the run in all of the twelve keys likewise. Using the piano, you can readily practice the run in all of the major and of the minor pentatonic scales. Training is definitely crucial at this point to enable you to shift between scales while you sing in a specific key.


Caveats that You Should Heed

There are some valuable pointers and rules that you should take heed of when singing riffs and runs. Some of these simple rules include the following:

1) Develop Vocal Flexibility and Agility

This simple tip means that you should sport a certain ability to shift from one note to another with ease and agility. This ability is only achieved via constant practice. Remember, nothing is gained without sacrifice. So, you need to exert effort and time in developing your vocal flexibility and agility, and this would help you achieve the perfect singing of riffs and runs.

2) Improve your Musical Ear for Riffing and Running

Familiarization with the existing R&B riffs and runs would surely help you become a better R&B singer. However, you should not only limit yourself with the contemporary R&B singers but should expand your repertoire of R&B influences by listening even to the original R&B singers and originators. Listen to the likes of Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin so that you can further deepen your grasp of R&B. You can develop a better grasp of R&B by going back to its roots, and eventually, you will surely develop enough flexibility to riff and run in your own style.

3) Do Not Be Rigid but Learn to Have Fun and be Creative

One of the prerequisites in becoming a creative and unique R&B singer is creativity and the lack of inhibition to experiment with music. Hence, at the onset, you should sport a frame of mind that is not limited by restraint and convention. You should try new things and experiment with riffs and runs. Just start practicing and wait for what will happen. Play around with the notes until you develop that confidence in performing it. Always remember that running and riffing necessitate improvisation. Lastly, you should never hesitate to improvise until you build your own style.

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