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Ostinato: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 What Is an Ostinato?
  • 0:49 Ostinati in the Baroque
  • 2:29 Contemporary Ostinatos
  • 3:23 Popular Music
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
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.

What Is an Ostinato?

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. He repeats it a few times and then a few more until he's playing it over and over again. That's it! The song comes together and you are on your way to fame; thanks to the ostinato.

An ostinato is a melodic phrase that's 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 moved to different voices. The word ostinato comes from the Italian word for obstinate and the technique has been used by composers for centuries.

Ostinati in the Baroque

A few composers dabbled with ostinati as early as the 13th century, but it wasn't until the Baroque period that it became a popular and common technique. Ostinati are most commonly found in the lowest voice or instrument. This voice is commonly referred to as the bass voice, and ostinato patterns in it are often called basso ostinato, or ground bass. During the Baroque period, the basso ostinato served as the foundation for melodic variations composed above it.

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. Many Baroque pieces that use ground bass are extremely popular even today. One such piece is Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel, a piece more famously known as Pachelbel's Canon. This work for strings is a canon over a basso ostinato played by the cello and bass. The poor cellist who performs that work gets to play the same eight notes for 56 measures!

The ground bass of the Baroque led to the development of new more complex ostinato ideas: the chaconne and passacaglia. Both of these forms used an ostinato melodic line in the bass, just like a ground bass does. In a chaconne or passacaglia, however, the bass melody serves 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. Written for solo violin in 1723, 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.

Contemporary Ostinatos

After the Baroque era followed the Classical and Romantic eras and during these periods, the use of ostinati fell out of fashion. A composer might use one for a special effect, but by the beginning of the 20th century, they had nearly disappeared. At the turn of the century, however, composers became interested in the old Baroque forms and the ostinato was rediscovered.

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