Some musical terms are so basic and widely used that we never stop to ask ourselves: “Hey, what is a measure? What is a riff? What is a phrase? What’s the difference between a bar and a measure?” This article should answer all of those questions for you and more.
• Bar = measure
• Phrase = long(-ish) musical idea
• Motif = short musical idea
• Riff = lick
Bars & Measures
A bar is the same thing as a measure. What determines the length of a measure can vary depending on the time signature of a song, but generally speaking you’re going to be able to tell by the snare pattern. For most pop applications, you’ll be dealing with either 4/4 or 6/8 time.
In almost every song in 4/4 time, there will be 2 snare drum hits per measure. These hits indicate beats 2 and 4. This is called a back beat. In addition to the back beat, there will often be snare accents, but they will not feel as strong as the snare hits on beats 2 and 4. The back beat is so universal that it almost seems silly to provide examples, but here are a couple for your reference.
“And Then What” by Young Jeezy:
“Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘N’ Roll” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club:
In the first example, each measure is almost twice the length of time of a measure from the second song. In other words, the tempo of the second song is considered about twice as fast and you can tell because of how often the back beat repeats. For hip-hop, claps and snaps may provide the back beat rather than a snare drum.
In a 6/8 song, the strongest snare hit comes only once per measure, on beat 4. Take D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” for example:
Some people think a measure is just the time in which a chord progression or musical idea repeats, but in fact what they’re really thinking of is called a phrase.
Phrases are mysterious creatures. The most basic definition is a musical idea. Doesn’t really explain anything, does it? Well that’s because a phrase can be just about anything. They don’t even necessarily have to be repeated. Songs can have phrases within phrases within phrases. To understand phrases, you just have to learn by example.
It can be daunting to understand what constitutes a phrase in Classical or Jazz context, but when talking about pop music it’s a little more intuitive–generally we’re talking about a section of a song with a chord progression, usually one that repeats. For example, the introduction to “Learn To Fly” by Foo Fighters uses 4-bar phrases:
If you play in a rock or pop band, using the term “phrases” is often much more useful than talking in measures: “Hey, I love that lick you play at the end of every other phrase” is much more concise and less awkward than “Hey, I love that lick you play at the end of every 8-bar section.”
A motif is any short, repeated pattern. Usually both the melody and rhythm of this pattern are repeated–also known as a lick or a riff. If you have a motif which is purely rhythmic, it can be called a “rhythmic motif”.
“Today” by Smashing Pumpkins uses a 1-bar guitar riff:
During the introduction to “Meant To Live” by Switchfoot, the riff is the same length as the phrases (2 bars):