[os-ti-nah-toh; It. aws-tee-nah-taw]
ostinato: see ground bass.
In music, an Ostinato (derived from Italian: "stubborn", see also oscillation) is a motif or phrase which is persistently repeated in the same musical voice. The repeating idea may be a rhythmic pattern, part of a tune, or a complete melody. Both "ostinatos" and "ostinati" are accepted English plural forms. Strictly speaking, ostinatos should have exact repetition, but in common usage, the term covers repetition with variation and development, such as the alteration of an ostinato line to fit changing harmonies or keys.

Ground bass or basso ostinato (obstinate bass) is a type of variation form in which a bassline, or harmonic pattern (see Chaconne) is repeated as the basis of a piece underneath variations. Aaron Copland describes basso ostinato as, "the easiest to recognize" of the variation forms wherein, "a short phrase—either an accompanimental figure or an actual melody—is repeated over and over again in the bass part, while the upper parts proceed normally [with variation]." However, he cautions that, "it might more properly be termed a musical device than a musical form."


Musicologist Robert Rawlins defines an ostinato as "any clearly defined melodic or rhythmic pattern that is repeated persistently". In this usage, "pattern" implies recognizable rather than exact recurrence. The general concepts may be applied to quasi-ostinato or ostinato-like techniques lacking rhythmically "symmetrical" or regular repetition, and some have considered the twelve tone technique an extension or specific example of ostinato.

Ostinatos are to classical music what riffs are to popular music. They have a large role in improvised music such as in jazz and Baroque music. A "favorite technique of contemporary jazz writers", ostinatos are often used in modal and Latin jazz, traditional African music including Gnawa music and Boogie-Woogie.

Applicable in homophonic and contrapuntal textures they are distinguished as "repetitive rhythmic-harmonic schemes", the more familiar accompanimental melodies, or as purely rhythmic. The technique's appeal to composers from Debussy to avant-garde composers until at least the 1970s "lies in part in the need for unity created by the virtual abandonment of functional chord progressions to shape phrases and define tonality". Similarly in modal music "relentless, repetitive character help to establish and confirm the modal center". Their popularity may also be justified by their ease as well as range of use, though "ostinato must be employed judiciously, as its overuse can quickly lead to monotony".

In popular music, many bass guitar riffs can be regarded as a modern version of the ground bass. Three examples are Pink Floyd's "Money" and "One of These Days" and Black Sabbath's "Planet Caravan". In retrospect, one can consider many repetitive bass patterns in popular music ground basses.

In jazz, arguably the two most famous and recognizable ground basses were penned by Miles Davis in his "All Blues" (from the album Kind of Blue) and by Wayne Shorter in his "Footprints" (became famous from the album Miles Smiles).

Music education

The Orff-Schulwerk approach is built on a style of elemental music created by Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman. This approach makes extensive use of ostinati, in addition to drones (more simplified ostinati that establish the meter and tonal center). Students, beginning quite young, play ostinati, often through body percussion or upon xylophones. These drones and ostinati can then be improvised upon, either vocally, with xylophones, or using a Recorder. The Schulwerk is a very popular approach in music education throughout the world.

Notable examples

Popular music

A famous short piece of Ostinato can be found in the theme music to the movie Jaws composed by John Williams. It used the two notes in the bass section of the scale, repeated in various tempos to express the different activities of the killer shark. The two note ostinato is perhaps the most recognisable film music in history.

Akira Ifukube's work for Gojira and other Japanese science fiction films makes extensive use of ostinati, to the point that an album of his music with the title, Ostinato appeared in the 1990s.

Danny Elfman's theme for Men in Black is an ostinato on bass guitar.

Another example for understanding the procedure is the famous tune from ABBA, "Take a Chance on Me". In its video, we can see each of the four members in a different corner of the screen; during the verses, Benny and Björn sing repeatedly "take a chance, take a chance, take a, take a chan-chance", while Agnetha and Frida sing the lyrics.

American drummer Terry Bozzio has made extensive use of the ostinato as a drumset technique. Many examples can be heard on his instructional videos Melodic Drumming and the Ostinato Vol. I, II, and III, as well as his CDs Solo Drum Music Vol. I and II.

American Progressive metal band Symphony X often uses the melody as an Ostinato, while having the bassline act as a moving line.

American Progressive metal band Dream Theater showcases harmonized guitar-keyboard Ostinatos in songs such as Learning to Live and In the Name of God, and Bass and Chapman Stick in the songs New Millennium, Burning My Soul, and Home.

Also, "Seasons of Love" from the broadway show Rent features an ostinato in the beginning.

We Can't Live Together from Joe Jackson's Big World album has an ostinato fretless bass which relents only for the bridge.

Stupidly Happy from XTC's Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) offers a variety of melodic excursions over an ostinato guitar riff which elaborates only a tiny bit over the course of the song.

Operation Ground and Pound, Cry For Eternity and Black Winter Night by English power metal band, DragonForce all have harmonized ostinato guitar lines during their openings.

Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin features a bass and guitar ostinato on an F# octave throughout the song.

Many third-wave ska songs utilize an ostinato as a brass melody.

Jazz music

In jazz, a vamp is simply a repeating musical figure or accompaniment. The equivalent in classical music would be an ostinato. A background vamp provides a performer, or perhaps the pianist's right hand, a harmonic framework upon which to improvise. A vamp often acts as a springboard at the opening of an improvisation.

Classic examples in jazz, include "A Night in Tunisia", "Take Five", "A Love Supreme", "Maiden Voyage", and "Cantaloupe Island".

Classical music

Some famous examples of ostinatos are the basso continuo part from Pachelbel's Canon in D and the military 5/4 rhythm in Gustav Holst's "Mars" from The Planets. The ostinato in the Confutatis movement of Mozart's Requiem is another example. Other notable examples include Holst's St. Paul's Suite Mvt. II (in which the subdivided second violins play a repeating pattern of eighth notes), the rhythmic pattern in Ravel's Boléro, the second section of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony, Mvt. I (called the "inexorable march", or "an unstoppable machine," and darkly symbolizing the German Army's advance on Russia), and the harmonic pattern in Chopin's Berceuse. In Anton Arensky's Orchestral Suite No.1 in G minor (Op. 7), the Basso Ostinato theme introduced with low brass and contrabasses convey the Theme Russe very elegantly. Wagner's Das Rheingold features prominent ostinatos on the "anvil" leitmotif in its third and fourth scenes, which build to inexorable climaxes. Ostinatos are used in 20th-century music to stabilize groups of pitches, as in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring "Introduction" and "Omens of Spring". Composer Chad Twedt has also written 4-movement "ostinato suites" that showcase the ostinato technique.

Electronic music

Electronic music, especially that of the dance variety, has relied on ostinato-like basslines, especially that of tunes from the genre relying on the Roland TB-303 synthesizer (which was originally developed in 1982 by Roland as a "bass-player substitute" for guitarists, but gained more favor in later years as a bassline synthesizer in its own right). Since the 303 also has a pattern sequencer as well and can be controlled to play back at various speeds, it is very easy to create ostinato basslines with it, and genres of electronic dance music such as acid house consist of such, created by the 303 and similar synthesizers.

Indian Classical Music

In Indian Classical Music, during Tabla or Pakhawaj solo performances and Kathak dance accompaniments, a conceptually similar melodic pattern known as the Lehara (sometimes spelt Lehra) or Nagma is played repeatedly throughout the performance. This melodic pattern is set to the number of beats in a rhythmic cycle (Tala or Taal) being performed and may be based on one or a blend of multiple Ragas. It is customary, but not absolutely essential, to align the lehra according to the divisions of the Taal. It is done with a view to emphasize the key junctions of the divisions of the Taal. The quintessential idea is to provide a steady melodious framework for rhythmic improvisations, and is relatively free of numerous rules and constraints honoured by Indian Classical Musicians.

The lehra is usually played on the Harmonium, Sarangi or even the Violin. The lehara may be interspersed with short and occasional improvisations built around the basic melody. It is also permissible to switch between two or more disparate melodies during the course of the performance. It requires years of specialist training Taalim and practise Riyaaz to be able to play Lehara with the required Laya(Tempo) and Swara control. It is considered a hallmark of excellence to play lehara alongside a recognised Tabla or Pakhawaj virtuoso. While there may be scores of individually talented instrumentalists, there are very few who are capable of playing the lehra for a Tabla / Pakhawaj solo performance.

Other instruments like Sitar and Sarod have also been used to play the lehara, but very sparingly. E.g. Pandit Ravi Shankar has played a 12 beat lehara on the Sitar for Ustad Allah Rakha during his solo in 1967 at Monterey Music Festival. Similarly Ustad Ali Akbar Khan has played numerous lehras on the Sarod with Pandit Mahapurush Mishra. There maybe other notable artists who may have also played the lehara on other unconventional instruments like Santoor, Bamboo Flute etc.


As a very accessible frame that allows improvisation, the ostinato was heavily used in the Baroque epoch. For about a century and a half (starting around 1770), the technique was almost abandoned. It suddenly revived in the dawn of the 20th century with the development of jazz music and also became "perhaps the most typically twentieth-century accompanimental device" used in classical music, in part because of its neoclassical appeal. By the end of the 1910s, the first records featuring jazz music were released. While most of the performers were not able to notate music, mainly the surviving records prove that early jazz music used a technique similar to ostinato. During the New Orleans era (which ended in the late 1920s), the rhythm section concept crystallized and determined collective improvisation to turn into an "individualised" style, which became a definitive characteristic of the swing style.

See also


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