Songwriting Exercise: Write a Riff in Five Minutes or Less

A riff is a great way to start off your song. It can hook your listener in immediately and establish the emotion of a song before you’ve sung the first word. Riffs can be slow and subdued like “Drops of Jupiter” by Train, or quick and upfront like “Senorita” by Shawn Mendes and Camillo Cabello. Riffs are not necessary for your song, but they certainly help to get in the groove of writing.

If you’re looking to write a riff for your next song, it really can take no time at all. You can use a timer, but chances are, you’ll probably find a few riffs in five minutes or less that you really like. Keep in mind: the most important part of your riff is going to be the rhythm, so try your best to focus on that.

First, pick a time signature. The most common are 4/4 or 6/8.

Second, consider what kind of song you would like to write (if you already have an idea of this). Think of the emotion behind the song and try to find a tempo that matches it.

Next, try these options:

1. Find a chord progression and change your transitions

Say you’ve found a chord progression you like. Try changing the way you’re transitioning between the chords. You can extend or truncate the length of each chord. You can use staccatos on one chord to make it “jump”. This can be as simple as the piano in “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith.

2. Change the transition between just two chords

Similarly, just use two chords and transition between them quickly. Find a rhythm that you like and fits your song. Even two chords can sound like a riff – check out the beginning of “What a Time” by Julia Michaels and Niall Horan.

3. Use several chords in succession

“What a Time” also does this in that riff. Choose a succession of chords, usually leading up or down the scale, and transition quickly through them. 

4. Try a new pattern

If you’re playing the piano, this might be switching up if you’re playing the chords in broken or solid form. On guitar or ukulele, you can try a new strumming pattern or picking pattern. You can even use your favourite song for ideas.

5. Use a melody

This can be the most difficult, especially if you’re just starting out on your instrument. Still, you can try playing a melody as a riff. Some melodies are very simple, like in “cardigan” by Taylor Swift. Some melodies can be a little more drawn out, like in “Without You” by Oh Wonder. Some melodies actually result at the top of chords, depending on your inversions; to hear this, listen to “Belong” by X Ambassadors.

I find that if I sit down for five minutes and play around on my instrument, I can get several riff ideas recorded on voice memos by the end of this exercise. Whether you write a riff in five minutes or not, this is a great exercise to do if you’re feeling stuck getting started on writing the next song.

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