Riff vs Lick vs Motif vs Ostinato (Explained With Examples)

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  • Learn the difference between a riff and a lick
  • Learn the difference between a riff and a motif
  • Find out what an ostinato is

In this article, we will clearly define the riff, the lick, the motif, and the ostinato. We will investigate the areas where they bleed into each other, and we will gain a better understanding of these commonly used musical terms.

A riff in music is a short phrase that is easy to sing, sticks in your head, and is usually not the song’s central theme.

The Riff

1. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers – Mary Jane’s Last Dance

The following iconic riff occurs in the song “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” by Tom Petty.

Notice that it is not a part of the melody in the lyrics, and it only occurs twice in the entire song: once at two minutes and forty seconds from the beginning and again towards the end.

Even so, when people think of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” they often sing or hum this short melodic phrase.

Now I will play the same riff on my synth.

This melodic idea meets the criteria for a riff. It is easy to sing or play on any instrument. It is not the central theme of the song. And it can easily become an earworm.

2. Christopher Cross – Ride Like The Wind

Now let’s consider a vocal riff from the song “Ride Like The Wind” by Christopher Cross.

Now let’s listen to the same riff on my synth.

This riff doesn’t begin until one minute and forty seconds into the song and occurs again toward the end. So it is not the main theme of the song. It is easy to sing and can get stuck in your head.

3. C&C Music Factory – Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)

A vocal riff has no lyrics. It is either sung on “ahh,” or “ooh,” or it is scatted like in the following example, “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” by C&C Music Factory.

I have transcribed what I feel to be the main riff, although Martha Wash sings a few variations as she is scatting.

Riffs can be a bit complex, as in this example, but they still have the potential to become an earworm. Licks, conversely, can’t become earworms because they are not typically melodic.

4. Aerosmith – Walk This Way

Here is one more riff before we move on to the lick: 

Most will immediately recognize this iconic riff from Aerosmith’s song “Walk This Way.”

If you compare the riff section with the verse and the chorus, you will probably agree that the riff is the most melodic element of the song.

The Lick

What makes a lick different from a riff is that it is impossible (or very difficult) to sing, it is difficult to learn and play, and it won’t get stuck in your head.

1. Journey – Don’t Stop Believing


Most will recognize this iconic guitar lick at the beginning of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”

While you won’t hear people walking down the street singing this musical idea, it is still very recognizable to most pop and rock fans.

A guitar student must be advanced to pull off this lick. Most of this lick is just four notes of a descending scale repeating repeatedly. Fast repetition of notes is typical in licks.

Most riffs, on the other hand, are usually easier to learn. Many guitar students start out by learning their favorite guitar riffs.

Let’s listen to a keyboard lick performed by the great Chick Corea. 

2. Return To Forever: Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Al Di Meola, Lenny White

Even though this solo only lasts for thirteen seconds, it consists of four distinct licks put together in rapid succession. This is how improvisation works.

Chick Corea teaches that most of what musicians play during an improvisational solo are licks they have played before, but they are just putting them together in new and different ways.

3. Rush – Spirit of the Radio

In Rush’s “Spirit Of The Radio,” the opening guitar lick repeats during the band’s progressive-style opening.

The opening is so creative and counter-intuitive that without the repeating guitar lick, the listener wouldn’t know where the beat is.

I hope you can see the distinction between a riff and a lick. They are very similar, and a musical idea can certainly be in the gray area between the two.

To further define the riff, let’s clarify two more musical ideas that can be mistaken for a riff.

The Motif

A motif is a riff developed throughout the song by slight variations in pitch, rhythm, and timing.

So to clarify, if a riff is altered or developed throughout a piece of music, it becomes a motif.

1. Beethoven – Symphony No. 5

The most famous example of variations on a motif is “Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5.”

The motif is three short notes on the same pitch followed by a longer note on a lower pitch. Then it is repeated using different chord tones in the key.

The motif is then repeated in every conceivable manner throughout the first full minute of the piece.

For a modern example of motif development throughout a piece of music, consider the band Yes. The Close To The Edge album is full of examples.

Let’s take a look at another motif.

2. Chuck Mangione – Feels So Good

Listen to how many different ways Chuck Mangione modifies the motif during this YouTube clip. Sometimes he will alter a note.

Sometimes he will alter the rhythm. But it will always be a variation of the original motif.

3.  Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street

Saxophone player Raphael Ravenscroft starts each phrase with these same four notes and then resolves it differently each time to create brilliant variations of this four-note motif.

Whether Gerry Rafferty wrote it that way or Raphel played it that way, I’m not sure, but it is wonderfully executed either way.

The final concept often brought up when defining the riff is ostinato.

The Ostinato

An ostinato is a repeating pattern that continues persistently throughout an entire section of a musical piece or sometimes even through the entire song.

1. Maurice Ravel – Bolero

This snare drum ostinato repeats throughout the entire movement. An ostinato is always a percussion instrument or a musical instrument playing one note repeatedly.

A kick pattern that hits every half note is not an ostinato because it is too regular. An ostinato must be a pattern with some variety, even if it is minimal.

2. andhim – Hausch

In this YouTube clip, you can clearly hear the cowbell repeating this pattern. This is a perfect example of an ostinato.

An ostinato doesn’t have to be very complex. It just has to be a unique pattern that remains consistent throughout an entire section or the whole song.

3. Santana – Oye Como Va

This YouTube clip of Santana is a perfect example of an ostinato played by a non-percussion instrument.

Notice how the organist plays the same note using the above pattern throughout the vocal section of the song.

Final Thoughts

Even though it’s true that the terms “motif” and “ostinato” generally apply to classical music, I have heard many musicians on modern shows and tours using this type of vernacular.

It’s because a large percentage of on-stage hired guns have received their training at the Berkeley School Of Music or some other traditional institution.

My goal is for you to recognize the difference between a riff and a lick, between a riff and a motif, and between a riff and an ostinato.

When you appear at your next cover band audition, have the riffs and licks down pat. Sometimes they are the most iconic and essential parts of the song.

And please comment below if you have any further thoughts or insights. We’d love to hear from you!

Before you go, check out our post on The Forbidden Riff: Why Stairway To Heaven Is Banned In Guitar Stores!