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Ostinato: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

The ostinato is a compositional technique from the Baroque period that is enjoying a modern revival. Today we'll discuss the definition of ostinato, how it is used, and look at some specific musical examples.

A Writer's Block

It's Friday night, your psychedelic funk band has a big gig tomorrow, and you can't seem to get this one song quite right. You fuss with the lead guitar. The keyboard player tries a new chord or two. But no dice! What is your band going to do? Then the bass player says, 'Let's try this,' and plays a new riff. That's it! The song gels, and you are on your way to fame - thanks to the ostinato.

Baroque Beginnings

The ostinato, from the Italian word for obstinate, really found its first foothold in the Baroque period, 1600-1750. A few composers dabbled with it as early as the 13th century, but it wasn't until the Baroque period that it became a popular and common technique. An ostinato is a melodic phrase that is repeated over and over throughout a musical composition. It usually occurs in the same voice and at the same pitch, but it can be transposed and move to different voices. It is most commonly found in the bass voice or instrument, and then is called a basso ostinato, or ground bass. The ground bass served as the foundation for melodic variations composed above it.

Henry Purcell
Portrait of Henry Purcell

English composer Henry Purcell used the ground bass to great effect in his opera 'Dido and Aeneas.' The aria 'When I am Laid in Earth' has a descending melodic bass ostinato that is repeated under Dido's vocal line. A much-heard piece today that uses the ground bass is 'Canon in D' by Johann Pachelbel. The poor cellist who performs that work gets to play the same eight notes for 56 measures!

Two important forms derived from this ground bass: the chaconne and passacaglia. Both of these forms used an ostinato melodic line in the bass. This bass melody served as the harmonic underpinning for the entire composition. Continuous variations were composed in other voices to complement the ground bass. Possibly the greatest chaconne is by Johann Sebastian Bach, composed in 1723. Written for solo violin, the 'Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D minor' has a four measure basso ostinato that is repeated 64 times with beautiful variations and ornamentations throughout.

Manuscript of Bach Chaconne
Manuscript of Bach Chaconne

Contemporary Ostinatos

Ostinatos were not fashionable in the Classical and Romantic periods. A composer might use one for a special effect, but they had nearly disappeared. With the dawn of the 20th century, composers became interested in the old Baroque forms and the ostinato was rediscovered.

Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel at the piano

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