What is Ostinato?
Have you ever asked yourself… What is Ostinato?
Like it or not, music theory is a jargon-rich discipline. Lots of lingo to learn. Let’s learn another word today.
Ostinato is defined in Piston’s Harmony textbook as “a melody that is repeated over and over again.”
The term ostinato is Italian for obstinate (meaning stubborn, determined).
It is simply a short, repeating melodic phrase.
A similar concept in rock music is the riff. In jazz, a vamp. In hip-hop or dance music, a loop.
A Little More about Ostinato
An ostinato is often repeated throughout a piece of music, as a theme or motif.
In some cases, the repeating melody will be slightly varied, perhaps shifting pitch or rhythm.
Trust me, you probably already know what an ostinato is intuitively, you just might not know it has a fancy name. Music theory is all about fancy names!
Before we dive into 8 real life examples… if you are a songwriter, make sure you check out the free accompanying PDF I created for this article, entitled “5 Ostinato Tips for Songwriters.”
In this PDF file, I go over 5 solid tips to use the ostinato concept to write a better song. Click the big yellow box to download:
1. Smashing Pumpkins “Today”
Smashing Pumpkins – Today
Here is a classic example of an ostinato.
The very simple melody in the guitar is repeated over and over throughout the introduction, once per measure. It is the “hook” of the song.
The ostinato in the guitar melody gives the song a very major, upbeat and uplifting feel.
In fact, the San Francisco Chronicle called the song “downright pretty.”
If you listen to the lyrics, however, you will notice that the song is actually quite dark and depressing – as songwriter Billy Corgan was struggling with depression at the time.
This contrast was widely written about and the song was reviewed very positively.
This simple ostinato plays a key role in contributing to this contrast.
Let’s move on to another very simple example…
2. Semisonic’s “Closing Time”
Semisonic’s “Closing Time”
This was a reader suggestion from PMT reader RuDee Sade which prompted me to write this article.
In this example, listen for the repeating melody in the piano. That is our ostinato. Notice how the notes B and G are repeating, interrupted by alternating D‘s and C‘s. Slightly more complicated than our previous example, but still very simple.
Even though we are only 2 examples in out of 8, hopefully you are already seeing a pattern:
Ostinato’s are often used to create and present a classic, iconic melody.
Since these melodies are repeated over and over, by definition, they really get into the heads of the listeners. (more about this in the songwriter’s tips)
Think the iconic string melody in The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” On second thought, why didn’t I put that song on this list!?
Are you starting to see what an ostinato is?
OK, great. So let’s step things up a little, and get slightly more advanced…
3. The Pixies – “Where is my Mind”
Pixies – “Where is my Mind”
OK, here we have another guitar ostinato like we heard during the song “Today” in example #1.
The difference here is that the repeating phrase is longer – two measures instead of one.
The first half of the phrase uses the first and third scale degrees, just like “Closing Time” in example #2.
The second half varies things up a little by introducing the seventh scale degree.
Unlike “Today,” the guitar lick is repeated beyond just the introduction and actually into the verse. (another example of that coming up in #4)
Try to imagine any of these songs without the ostinato. Impossible! Just too classic.
Let’s move on to another similar example.
4. The Afghan Whigs – “Fountain and Fairfax”
The Afghan Whigs – “Fountain and Fairfax”
Finally, some minor key action. The awesome Afghan Whigs album entitled Gentlemen is full of tons of good music.
This is another longer phrase – 2 full bars – taking a whole 5 seconds or so to get through the repeating melody.
Notice how powerful the ostinato is as the chords are moved underneath the repeating melody.
Also notice the tonic (an E note) is constantly doubled underneath the melody. This is most easily heard in the first 20 seconds, before the lyrics come in.
And now let’s move into some more advanced ostinatos.
5. Coldplay – “Clocks”
Coldplay – “Clocks”
In this Coldplay song, an ostinato is being used to create the chord progression.
The chords are being arpeggiated (the term arpeggio refers to when notes of a chord are played individually rather than at the same time).
This is taking advantage of the concept mentioned in my article about intervals, where we discussed how harmony can be created over time.
This is ostinato on advanced mode, as the piano notes are not only creating a compelling and memorable melody, but they are also the primary indicator of the chord progression.
6. Tyler Twombly – “Our Nature”
Tyler Twombly “Our Nature”
Check out the awesome ostinato in this clip from independent artist Tyler Twombly.
The synth notes are presented in a downwards sequence, with the notes varying slightly each time. The whole shabang repeats every third beat (until the chord change at 0:08).
Most importantly, notice that, although the song is in a 4/4 time signature, because the synth sequence is repeated every third beat – this creates a 4-3 polyrhythm. Really cool stuff!
(Are you an independent artist interested in getting your song featured on Pop Music Theory? Contact me.)
For our final two examples, we are going to move in a different direction…
7. Usher – “Yeah!”
Usher – “Yeah!”
Can an ostinato be the centerpiece of a song which makes millions of dollars? The answer is “Yeah!”
It doesn’t really get much simpler than this.
Think of modern R&B, hip-hop, dance music…
Rather than using full blown tonality, as the previous 6 examples do, this song, as well as others in the genres mentioned above, are often based around a loop. (Full article on this topic coming later at some point.)
Often times these loops only hint at a chord progression or may use none at all.
For those of you who are hooked on harmony and tonality, these types of songs may not be your cup of tea.
But, songs like “Yeah!” are literally some of the most popular songs in the world, so understand there’s more to music than a compelling chord progression. Many other factors such as style, danceability and lyrical content are important as well.
8. Queen – “Another One Bites the Dust”
Queen – “Another One Bites the Dust”
In the introduction of the article, we talked about how there were concepts similar to ostinato, such as the loop and riff.
We just gave a quick example of a loop in #7 above. This queen song is a great example of a riff. (I am planning to do a whole post on riff’s as well.)
What is a riff? A typical riff is a short, memorable musical phrase, often played low on the guitar. Think “Smoke on the Water,” Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” or, well…. this queen song.
Side note: Notice the awesome anacrusis in this song. Check out this article for 13 more examples of anacrusis…
Well, I hope you now have a good idea what ostinato is.
One last thing, if you are a songwriter, make sure you check out the companion PDF file I created for this post, which goes through 5 great tips for using ostinato to write a better song. Click the big yellow box to download: