Ostinato Music Definition

Ostinato (plural – ostinati or ostinatos) is an Italian word meaning obstinate or persistent and is used in music to describe a musical phrase or rhythm that is repeated persistently. The repeated pattern could be a melody, a figure in the bass – called a basso ostinato or simply a repeated rhythmic idea. An ostinato may be played for an entire piece of music or just during one section. The key aspect to remember in the definition of an ostinato is that it is a pattern that is repeated persistently in a piece of music.

Rhythmic Ostinato

A rhythmic ostinato is a rhythmic pattern that is persistently repeated.
It will often be played on an untuned percussion instrument (e.g. snare drum, triangle, etc..).
However, rhythmic ostinati can also be found in parts played on pitched instruments where the note pitch stays the same or where the pitches change as the phrase is repeated.
The key characteristic is that it is the rhythm that is persistently repeated.

In Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” the use of a rhythmic ostinato brings a magical and almost hypnotic feel to the piece as the percussive pattern contrasts with the sweeping and almost improvisatory nature of the flute melody.
Have a look at the pattern below and listen to its use in the audio extract:

Rhythmic Ostinato Example from Ravel Bolero

Bolero by Ravel Rhythmic Ostinato Example

(Berlin Symphonic Orchestra – 1959. Public Domain)

A rhythmic ostinato is an excellent technique that composers use for creating drama and tension.
One of the most famous examples of this is from “Mars” by Gustav Holst.
Have a look/listen to the rhythmic pattern:

Rhythmic Ostinato Example from Gustav Holst Mars

Gustav Holst Mars Rhythmic Ostinato Pattern

This rhythmic pattern is played relentlessly throughout the piece and forms the basis for the intense drama associated with the subject – Mars, the god of war!
Have a listen to this extract of the piece performed by the United States Air Force Band:
Mars by Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst Mars Opening

(United States Air Force Band, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

You can hear how the relentless sound of a rhythmic ostinato is extremely effective at building tension as the music around it changes and develops. This effect is heightened in the extract from Mars as the bass note remains on a G throughout the extract and acts as a pedal point.

Not surprisingly, rhythmic ostinati are used widely in dramatic film music.
Hans Zimmer is a film composer who makes considerable use of this technique across the many film scores he has written.
Have a listen to the opening from his theme for the film “Pirates of the Caribbean” performed by the Auckland Symphony Orchestra:

You can hear that there are a number of different ostinati in many of the different parts that are layered to produce the overall sound.
Here is the rhythmic ostinato that forms the basis of the melody line:

Rhythmic Ostinato Example Hans Zimmer

Rhythmic Ostinato

Melodic ostinato

A melodic ostinato is a repeated pattern where both the rhythm and the melody form the basis for the repeated pattern. These often occur in the bass part where they are called a basso ostinato.

Basso Ostinato

A basso ostinato is a repeated pattern in the bass part of a piece.
This technique became particularly popular in the 17th century where a number of Baroque dances were based upon ostinati in the bass part. In dances such as the passacaglia the bass remained constant throughout the piece whilst the other parts developed. This technique is called “ground bass” and you can have a look at my lesson on ground bass for some examples of this. The most famous example of a basso ostinato is Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

Ostinati Examples in Contemporary Music

Rhythmic and melodic ostinatos have had a massive influence on contemporary popular music across a wide range of genres.
This can be seen in 2 main ways:

  1. Riffs (short melodic phrases) – these are effectively contemporary expressions of ostinato.
  2. Loops – rhythmic and melodic phrases are repeated to create the characteristic sound of contemporary productions.

As a result, you will probably be able to find examples of the use of repeated patterns/ostinati in most contemporary songs.
However, there are some songs where the use of an ostinato provides the clear foundation for the song and these are useful examples to listen to.

Examples of Ostinati Riffs

Seven Nation Army by White Stripes
The guitar riff from Seven Nation Army is one of the most famous modern guitar riffs and is used as an ostinato that plays throughout the song.
It is an excellent example of a melodic ostinato:

Back in Black by AC/DC
The opening guitar riff in this song is another great example:

Examples of Loops

Loops are repeated patterns that are clearly built on the concept of ostinati. They are used widely in contemporary music.
Hip hop songs often use loops as the foundation for the track.

Still D.R.E by Dr. Dre ft. Snoop Dogg
In this song a piano loop plays throughout the whole track and forms the foundation of the song: