The value of introductory “riffs”

A few of my piano students have been playing songs lately that have what I’d call “introductory riffs.” Short, repeating phrases marked by a catchy rhythm or melodic fragment. The “riff” repeats during the intro and then continues as background under the melody for a while.

These introductory riffs serve several purposes. For one thing, they catch the listener’s ear right away, even before the melody begins. Secondly, they give the song a unique “groove” that sets it apart from others in its genre. Take the classic song “The Way You Look Tonight” by Jerome Kern, for example. It’s basically a beautiful melody in a style typical of the Great American Songbook era. But Nelson Riddle, who arranged the song for Frank Sinatra, wanted his version to sound different from the countless others already recorded. So what did he do? He came up with a catchy introductory riff that we as listeners will remember when we hear the song again, after just a few notes.

Here are a few examples of songs that use introductory riffs. We can learn a lot by taking a topic like this and finding examples in various musical styles. When we notice artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Led Zeppelin using the same musical device, the usual stylistic boundaries come tumbling down and we see the connections not only between historical genres but between individual musicians as well.

Check out the beginnings of these songs:

Dizzy Gillespie: “A Night In Tunisia

Frank Sinatra: “The Way You Look Tonight

The Drifters: “On Broadway

Tracy Chapman: “Fast Car

Led Zeppelin: “D’yer Maker

Do you know any other songs that use introductory riffs? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll check them out!

Here are some free piano improv lessons for you to enjoy.

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