A riff in a song is usually a short section that tends to be ear-catching. It is a rhythmically-based melody that might appear in the Intro, underneath another song section or featured in a Post-Chorus. Sometimes it acts on its own, a unique part of the song that serves to catch a listener’s attention. Sometimes it imitates the Chorus, perhaps playing the Chorus melody in an instrument to hint at what is coming later.
Riffs often begin the Intro and continue on underneath the lyrics in the Verse or Chorus. No matter the section, it is notoriously difficult to write a melody overtop of a riff when it is so interesting in itself. For this songwriting exercise, we are going to explore the different ways of writing a melody alongside a riff. Try each one until you find a solution that works for you!
1. Write the same melody as the riff
Start with the easiest option: just copy the riff. If the riff isn’t playing the Chorus melody, match some or all of the notes that the riff is doing. See if that matches your intention of your song section; many songs wait to follow the riff melody until the Chorus, since the riff is attention-grabbing.
2. Write around the riff
Presumably your riff has a few spaces, especially if it is rhythmic. Try writing in between the spaces, using short lines or even just a few words.
3. Harmonize with the riff
Maybe you need to actually harmonize a third above the riff in the melody, or a third below. That might work with half the riff and then you sing in the spaces.
4. Do the opposite
Try using a descending melody if the riff is ascending (but watch for dissonance like tritones!), or vice versa. You could also try using the opposite rhythm of the riff for some interesting contrast.
It can be helpful to cut down the number of words you are using or the length of your lines. You could also use a very small range of notes in your melody to balance the riff. Often, you might want the riff to stand out because it expresses the emotion in a way the lyrics may not. Ask yourself what the song is trying to say, whether that is a calm/busy/etc. thought and if the riff and melody support that meaning.