Have you ever been watching a singing performance and heard someone say, "you better sing that run," to which you agree that the vocal phrase was nice but don't exactly know what made it pleasant? You know the singer sounds good, and you know they did something cool with their voice, but you're like, "what is a run?"
Have you ever heard someone sing a crazy vocal part and you reactively start scrunching your face up like, "whew, that was nasty!" (but in a good way)? It was likely them singing a killer run. You've heard runs throughout your life, and you just don't know it. You probably have even seen someone throw something like a shoe at the singer because their run or riff is so good. Riffs and runs are vocal acrobatics that can be performed when singing.
You may have also heard of the synonym for a run, called a "riff" that a singer performs and people react well to. Some people like to call riffs the shorter versions or runs, while others say riffs can go up and down while runs go straight down a scale only.
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A run or riff is a series of at least three notes close in pitch, sung consecutively, and very fast. Think of someone running down steps, where the person running is the voice, and each step is each note or pitch that they hit while singing downward.
Note how stairs are different from a slide, so sliding down a scale vocally is not running. Each note needs to be crisply hit.
Here's an example of me singing a run with three notes. The notes, E, D, and C, or also Mi, Re, and Do, go straight down the major scale.
Here's one where I sing two runs put together, totaling six notes. Their paired 3 and 3 with E D C, then D C A, or Mi Re Do, then Re, Do, La.
Here's an example of a run where I hit five consecutive notes really fast. The notes are E D C A G, or Mi Re Do La So.
My examples are of me running in a descending direction, but you can also do upwards runs. I personally find upward runs a bit harder to do, and to back up my point, I rarely hear people do them!
Runs are best used when you're freestyling on a song, also known as adlibbing. The longer the run, the more impressive it is. You will often hear runs in intros, outros, and the adlib part where a singer is freestyling over the hook of a song. Runs are also often used in the climactic point of a verse or chorus to emphasize a key phrase.
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You can really throw a run anywhere in a song as long as it isn't overkilled. Short, three-note runs can fit into so many places in a song that many singers subconsciously do it.
In terms of the style of song for runs, long runs are most often pulled out for gospel and soul tracks. As you can imagine, as a soul and gospel singer, I've done my fair share of work solely on perfecting the run or riff, as it's a massive part of the way I learned the ropes in singing while growing up.
Now go ahead and try to run yourself! It's pretty hard, but mimicking what you hear the pros do is how I learned to do them. All it takes is good practice and consistency, and you'll be a runner in no time. Here's an excellent course I recommend if you're serious about learning how to do runs.
As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 200 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, features, nursery rhymes, and DJ drops, she currently spends her time engulfed in creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Her most recent creative collaborations include work with PBS Sound Field, Tribe of Noise, and the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Check out Yona’s latest music releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share the music if you like it!
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