The Ostinato

© 2005 Chad Twedt

Not only is the ostinato greatly underexplored by history's composers, naturally, it is also underexplained by music textbooks and websites. In fact, as the first composer to explore the ostinato in any significant depth, I've even found it necessary to coin some terms (indicated in bold yellow) to help with complete understanding of the ostinato. Since the proposal of an "ostinato recognition week" national holiday probably won't fly, I felt the next best thing would be to inform visitors of my website about the ostinato.

Root, Meaning, and Usage

The word ostinato comes from the Latin root obstinatus, which means "obstinate" (stubborn, firm, resolved, and/or staunch). The musical ostinato refers to any short musical pattern that repeats itself for a significant portion of a composition. An ostinato pattern can be as short and simple as a repeating single note or drum tap, or as long and complicated as the bass note sequence in Bach's Passacaglia. However, this word "passacaglia" is a more fitting term to describe ostinatos of this length since listeners can sometimes finish an entire passacaglia without being aware that there was even a pattern in the bass at all. I would define "passacaglia pattern" to simply be a "long ostinato pattern".

Also, it is important to note that the word "ostinato" can refer to both a repeating musical pattern as well as a composition that contains a repeating musical pattern. For example, each of the movements of my ostinato suites can themselves be called ostinatos.

Every composer in history has probably used the ostinato technique at one point or another. The technique often appears over a duration of one or two lines of music. Fewer (but still numerous) composers have used the ostinato technique throughout an entire piece of music.

Ostinato Types

The ostinato can be broken down into four categories:

Drone

A pitch or set of pitches that are either sustained or repeated for a significant portion of a composition. The drone is almost always in the bass, and it is most characterized by harmony above it that creates dissonances and resolutions with the drone. "The Old Castle" from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition has a G-sharp drone in the bass at all times. Some of my own ostinatos have a drone effect, such as Outburst, Spellbound, Nocturne, and Chinese Tea Dance).

Rhythmic ostinato

An ostinato pattern that is most clearly identified by its distinctive rhythm. The most famous example of a rhythmic ostinato would be Ravel's Bolero, a 15-20 minute musical experiment in which Ravel clearly explores what can be done within the limitations of a constant rhythmic pattern. Holst's Mars also contains a famous rhythmic ostinato in 5/4 time. Ragtime and waltzes can also be considered a form of the rhythmic ostinato, since the left hand usually offers constant regular rhythmic support. Most music with regular percussion usage (such as popular, jazz, etc.) utilizes the rhythmic ostinato.

Harmonic ostinato

An ostinato pattern that is most clearly identified by its distinctive harmonic progression. Pachelbel's "Canon in D" is the most famous example of a harmonic ostinato (I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V), and Chopin's Berceuse is a harmonic ostinato that repeats a very basic I-V7 chord progression. My own ostinatos Spellbound (i7-iv-i7-iv) and Merciful Cry (i-VI-VII) are also harmonic ostinatos.

Melodic ostinato

An ostinato pattern that is most clearly identified by its distinctive melody. Pachelbel's "Canon in D" could be seen as a melodic ostinato if the bass line is also considered a melody. My own ostinato Grand Ostinato would be a melodic ostinato consisting of a descending major scale.

Most ostinato patterns are a combination of more than one of the above.

Alternate Classification of the Ostinato

It is also useful to think of ostinatos as either "open" or "closed":

Open ostinato

An ostinato pattern with vague harmonic implication. All drones and rhythmic ostinatos would be considered harmonically open.

Closed ostinato

An ostinato pattern with specific harmonic implication. Harmonic ostinatos and some melodic ostinatos would be considered harmonically closed.

The open ostinato is by far the easiest type of ostinato to write, and therefore the most common technique used. Famous examples already mentioned above would be Ravel's Bolero, Holst's "Mars" from The Planets, Mussorgsky's "The Old Castle" from Pictures at an Exhibition. My own ostinatos Outburst, Mother Nature's Clock, Victory Bells, Chinese Tea Dance, Nocturne, and Grand Ostinato would all be examples of open ostinatos.

Naturally, the closed ostinato is more restricting for a composer to write. Chopin's Berceuse is perhaps the most limiting of all closed ostinatos, constantly restricting Chopin to nothing but tonic and dominant chords. Chopin was surely using such a horribly limiting ostinato pattern to prove his skill as a composer to write a variety of right hand gestures to keep the audience's interest, which he does successfully. My own ostinatos Spellbound and Merciful Cry would be other examples of closed ostinatos.

What About Minimalism?

The ostinato technique is not to be confused with minimalism, since minimalism seeks to make music out of "minimal" musical ideas. An ostinato pattern itself may be a "minimal" musical idea in itself, but in a typical ostinato piece, the primary musical material is merely accompanied by the ostinato, which means the ostinato serves only a secondary purpose. In minimalism, the "minimal" musical ideas are the primary musical ideas.

New Ostinatos

What sets my ostinatos apart from the ostinatos that other various composers have written? Two things: arch structure and melodic/harmonic content. Structurally, every piece I write has a clear emotional peak, and every piece is built around maximizing the emotional impact of this peak. Sometimes I spend more time on the structure of a piece than I do coming up with actual melodies and harmonies, such as with Grand Ostinato, which took me weeks to finalize the order in which each thematic idea would be presented.

As far as harmonic content is concerned, judging by what I see in other ostinatos written by past composers, I believe I spend more time coming up with a variety of themes that are all compatible with each ostinato pattern I use. I also believe the real beauty in a well-written ostinato lies in keeping the listener from becoming too aware of the repetition of each ostinato pattern. What happens on top of the ostinato makes all the difference.

Many of the greatest compositions are written with self-imposed limitations. Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn limited themselves to following a structural pattern in sonatas, rondos, concertos, etc. Shakespeare limited himself to 14 lines of iambic pentameter in the many brilliant sonnets he wrote. Scott Joplin mostly limited himself to the same jumping left hand bass pattern throughout his rags, just as Chopin did with most of his waltzes. It is wrong to say that one of these techniques is inherently flawed. Obviously, every composition must be judged on its own creative merit.

© 2005 Chad Twedt