What is an “ostinato”?
In classical music, an “ostinato” is a motif or phrase that keeps persistently repeating in the same voice throughout a composition or part of a composition.
The plural of ostinato is ostinati.
This Italian term means: “Stubborn”
I like to make the distinction with contemporary music, where very often the ostinato becomes the driving foundation of a song.
I think that following description better defines the term “ostinato” in contemporary music:
A repetitive, short and to the point, poignant rhythmic/melodic phrase that is so catchy and memorable, that it’s used as the foundation to build an entire song or song-section on.
Songs with Ostinatos
Here are a couple of examples of songs that have ostinatos.
- Bolero (Ravel, a rhythmic ostinato repeating through the whole song)
- With Or Without You (U2, the synth-y loop at the beginning of the song keeps repeating throughout.)
- Another One Bites The Dust (Queen, probably the single most well-known ostinato and one of the catchiest ones ever written.)
- Under Pressure (Queen and David Bowie)
- Life’s What You Make It. (Talk Talk )
- Hot hot hot (The Cure)
- Rapper’s Delight (Sugar Hill Gang).
- Superstition (Stevie Wonder)
- Thriller (Michael Jackson, the synth bass part that carries the whole song.)
- Hit It and Quit It. (Funkadelic)
- Sign O The Times. (Prince)
- Iron Man. (Black Sabbath)
- Creep. (Radiohead)
- You Really Got Me. (The Kinks)
- Money. (Pink Floyd)
You can hear some of these ostinatos in the below video.
Is A Riff an Ostinato?
In a strict theoretical sense: an ostinato must have exact repetition.
The term ostinato however also covers repetition with variation and development.
An example of this, would be where you need to adapt the ostinato to fit with a modulation to another key, or with changing harmonies.
A great example of this would be the bass lines in blues music, where the melody line and rhythm keep repeating consistently, but move up or down along with the chord changes.
As you can tell in following example: the 1-bar bass line in constant 8th notes, repeats for 12 bars in row, with exactly the same rhythm and melodic shape, but changes its starting point when the chords change. The line starts on a G note over the G chord, on a C note over the C chord, and on a D note over the D chord.
You can listen to this in following video:
All the above might beg the question: what is the difference between an ostinato and a riff?
Is the main guitar part to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” an ostinato or a riff?
Most theory and songwriting books that discuss ostinato, will tell you that ostinato and riff are different names for the same thing.
The main distinction seems to be that the term “ostinato” is primarily used in classical music, and the term “riff” is used in contemporary (jazz, rock, etc.) music.
More importantly though: how can you use this knowledge to enhance your songs? How can you use ostinatos to write songs?
How To Use Ostinatos in Songwriting?
Well… one of the things that is so cool about ostinatos, is that their repetitive nature automatically adds a hook to your song.
As an example: the repetitive bass line that runs through the verses and choruses of Thriller plays an important role in making the song so memorable.
Without that very distinctive bass line, the verses in “Thriller” would not be half as memorable or catchy.
As a songwriter, you can either write a song around a catchy ostinato you came up with, or you can add an ostinato to a song you’ve already written.
In “Another One Bites The Dust”, this really feels like the bass line came first, and the song was written around it.
Same with Pink Floyd’s “Money” or Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It”.
In “Sign O The Times” or “With Or Without You” on the other hand, there is more of a feel that the ostinato was added to the song afterwards as part of the arrangement.
Check the following video to see examples of how to use ostinatos in songwriting.
Have fun with this! 🙂
I want to hear your songs with ostinatos. I want to hear from you if you have any questions about ostinatos.
Share your songs with us, post links to your ostinato songs in the comments section below.
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