\ ˈrif How to pronounce riff (audio) \

Definition of riff

 (Entry 1 of 3)

1 : an ostinato phrase (as in jazz) typically supporting a solo improvisation also : a piece based on such a phrase
2 : a rapid energetic often improvised verbal outpouring especially : one that is part of a comic performance
3 : a succinct usually witty comment
4 : a distinct variation : take a disturbing … riff on the Cinderella story— Daria Donnelly


verb (1)
riffed; riffing; riffs

Definition of riff (Entry 2 of 3)

intransitive verb

: to perform, deliver, or make use of a riff


verb (2)
riffed; riffing; riffs

Definition of riff (Entry 3 of 3)

: riffle, skim riff pages

Keep scrolling for more

Synonyms for riff

Synonyms: Noun

interpretation, take, variation

Visit the Thesaurus for More 

Examples of riff in a Sentence


He stole that riff from another song. a mock news program with humorous riffs on current events

Recent Examples on the Web: Noun

Such riffs on pop-culture creations are a key part of Donnelly’s visual language. Sarah Medford, WSJ, "A Furniture Collaboration That’s Irresistible," 4 Dec. 2018 Quinn's intimate riffs on that struggle find their integrity through nonconformity, through blur and torque, through sensual tumult and honest contradiction. Leah Ollman, latimes.com, "Like song sampling as painting: Nathaniel Mary Quinn's puzzle-like portraits of personhood," 6 June 2018 There are zillions of permutations, and one especially notable riff came courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Jessica Leigh Hester, WIRED, "What Ecologists Can Learn From Memes," 7 May 2018 In the Pre-Fall 2019 collections, designers offered playful riffs on marabou feathers too, ranging from sultry to sweet. Madeline Fass, Vogue, "Step Up Your Valentine’s Day Style With This Flirty Trend," 25 Jan. 2019 Much of it is devoted to painstaking (and often mind-numbing) analyses of accident data, comparisons between biking cultures in the U.S. and elsewhere (or between U.S. cities), and riffs on what should and shouldn't be a matter of public policy. Maya Dukmasova, Chicago Reader, "Why I loathe bicycle helmets," 21 June 2018 The duo — English brothers who merge White Stripes-ian blues-rock with stoner rock riffs and a knack for catchy songwriting — has come a long way since opening its first U.S. tour at Tremont Music Hall for less than 100 onlookers four years ago. Courtney Devores, charlotteobserver, "7 buzzworthy concerts coming to Charlotte in the next week," 6 June 2018 The songs are strictly post-punk with intricate guitar parts that toggle between heavy riffs and arpeggios, high-energy drums, and low-key vocal hooks. Aaron Carnes, sacbee, "Sacramento rock band explores weighty issues of loss, death and innocence," 1 June 2018 The results include a coat of arms by James Prosek, a Technicolor riff on a traditional stag’s horn chandelier by Richard Jackson and an installation by Subodh Gupta in a private dining room. Jay Cheshes, WSJ, "A New Hotel From the Hauser & Wirth Art Dealers," 3 Dec. 2018

Recent Examples on the Web: Verb

Per The Hollywood Reporter, the number was inspired by the long-running San Francisco musical revue show Beach Blanket Babylon, in which performers dress up as characters and perform satirical songs riffing on contemporary pop culture. Emma Dibdin, Harper's BAZAAR, "Why the 2019 Oscars Don't Have a Host—And the Disaster That Ensued Last Time It Happened," 24 Feb. 2019 No, this isn’t riffing on the classic joke that when two women start seeing each other, the second date involves renting a U-Haul to move in together. Sophie Saint Thomas, SELF, "9 Things to Know Before You Try Strap-On Sex," 2 Mar. 2019 Meanwhile, Cuarón and his older brother Carlos — with whom he co-wrote the screenplay — take advantage of their scoundrel antihero’s job and proclivities to riff on TV commercials, and to document yuppie life in early 1990s Mexico. Noel Murray, The Verge, "The first film by Roma director Alfonso Cuarón is streaming on Netflix," 23 Nov. 2018 For years comedians, creators, writers, social media commentators, and the new ways of entertainment have only proved MST3K's central thesis—watching and riffing on films is a pastime best spent with friends. Bryan Lufkin, Popular Mechanics, "Can Mystery Science Theater 3000 Thrive in an Age of Snark?," 14 Apr. 2017 Not to be missed: the Art Tea, served in the grand drawing room, which riffs on the hotel’s extensive collection of 19th- and 20th-century Irish paintings. Amy Tara Koch, Condé Nast Traveler, "How to Plan a Family Trip to Ireland," 12 July 2018 Cinema has become a fairly recent reference point for Raf Simons’s collections, with the designer riffing on Jaws, The Graduate, and Twin Peaks while at Calvin Klein. Steff Yotka, Vogue, "Laura Dern Was on the Clothing—And in the Front Row—at Raf Simons," 17 Jan. 2019 In a December 2016 Secret Santa exchange, his teammate Jacob Herbers, riffing on Coffey’s nickname, bought a sledgehammer at the Home Depot, gift-wrapped it and gave it to him. Pat Borzi, New York Times, "A College World Series Filled With Hog Hats, Hammers and Championship Belts," 23 June 2018 Her jokes often riffed on that identity, skewering her mother's disappointment over her lack of a husband not unlike Midge does. Chloe Foussianes, Town & Country, "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," 16 Dec. 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'riff.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

See More

First Known Use of riff


1935, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Verb (1)

1948, in the meaning defined above

Verb (2)

1952, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for riff


probably by shortening & alteration from refrain

Verb (2)

short for riffle

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about riff

Dictionary Entries near riff



rife with




riffle file

Statistics for riff

Last Updated

3 Apr 2019

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for riff

The first known use of riff was in 1935

See more words from the same year

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for riff



English Language Learners Definition of riff

music : a short and usually repeated pattern of notes in a song
US, informal : a short set of comments on a particular subject

More from Merriam-Webster on riff

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with riff

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for riff

Comments on riff

What made you want to look up riff? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


an act or instance of returning to life

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Words from Greek and Latin Quiz

  • roman forum
  • Which of the following months comes from a Latin word for “ten”?
Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!

Word Winder's CrossWinder

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!