In music, an ostinato [ostiˈnaːto] (derived from Italian: stubborn, compare English, from Latin: 'obstinate') is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, frequently in the same pitch. Well-known ostinato-based pieces include both classical compositions such as Ravel's Boléro and the Carol of the Bells, and popular songs such as Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love" (1977), Henry Mancini's theme from Peter Gunn (1959), The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (1997),[1] and April Ivy's "Be Ok" (1997).[2][3]

In RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music), a level 8 theory definition for the term "ostinato" would be referred to as "a recurring rhythmic or melodic pattern". The repeating idea may be a rhythmic pattern, part of a tune, or a complete melody in itself.[4] Both ostinatos and ostinati are accepted English plural forms, the latter reflecting the word's Italian etymology. Strictly speaking, ostinati 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.

If the cadence may be regarded as the cradle of tonality, the ostinato patterns can be considered the playground in which it grew strong and self-confident.

— Edward E. Lewinsky[5]

Within the context of film music, Claudia Gorbman defines an ostinato as a repeated melodic or rhythmic figure that propels scenes that lack dynamic visual action.[6]

Ostinato plays an important part in improvised music (rock and jazz), in which it is often referred to as a riff or a vamp. A "favorite technique of contemporary jazz writers", ostinati are often used in modal and Latin jazz and traditional African music including Gnawa music.[7]

The term "ostinato" has essentially the same meaning as the medieval Latin word "pes", the word "ground" as applied to classical music, and the word "riff" in contemporary popular music.

Classical music

Ostinati are used in 20th-century music to stabilize groups of pitches, as in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring Introduction and Augurs of Spring.[4] A famous type of ostinato, called the Rossini crescendo, owes its name to a crescendo that underlies a persistent musical pattern, which usually culminates in a solo vocal cadenza. This style was emulated by other bel canto composers, especially Vincenzo Bellini; and later by Wagner (in pure instrumental terms, discarding the closing vocal cadenza).

Applicable in homophonic and contrapuntal textures they are "repetitive rhythmic-harmonic schemes", more familiar as accompanimental melodies, or purely rhythmic.[8] 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".[8] Similarly, in modal music, "... relentless, repetitive character help to establish and confirm the modal center".[7] 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".[7]


Ostinato patterns have been present in European music from the Middle Ages onwards. In the famous English canon "Sumer Is Icumen In", the main vocal lines are underpinned by an ostinato pattern, known as a pes:

Later in the medieval era, Dufay’s 15th century chanson Resvelons Nous features a similarly constructed ostinato pattern, but this time 5 bars long. Over this, the main melodic line moves freely, varying the phrase-lengths, while being “to some extent predetermined by the repeating pattern of the canon in the lower two voices.”[9]

Dufay Resvelons nous

Ground Bass: Late Renaissance and Baroque

Ground bass or basso ostinato (obstinate bass) is a type of variation form in which a bass line, or harmonic pattern (see Chaconne; also common in Elizabethan England as Grounde) is repeated as the basis of a piece underneath variations.[10] Aaron Copland[11] describes basso ostinato as "... the easiest to recognize" of the variation forms wherein, "... a long 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, "it might more properly be termed a musical device than a musical form."

One striking ostinato instrumental piece of the late Renaissance period is “The Bells”, a piece for virginals by William Byrd. Here the ostinato (or ‘ground’) consists of just two notes:

William Byrd, The Bells
William Byrd, The Bells

In Italy, during the seventeenth century, Claudio Monteverdi composed many pieces using ostinato patterns in his operas and sacred works. One of these was his 1650 version of “Laetatus sum”, an imposing setting of Psalm 122 that pits a four note “ostinato of unquenchable energy.”[12] against both voices and instruments:

Later in the same century, Henry Purcell became famous for his skilful deployment of ground bass patterns. His most famous ostinato is the descending chromatic ground bass that underpins the Lament at the end of his opera Dido and Aeneas:

Purcell, Dido's Lament ground bass
Purcell, Dido's Lament ground bass

While the use of a descending chromatic scale to express pathos was fairly common at the end of the seventeenth century, Richard Taruskin points out that Purcell shows a fresh approach to this musical heartache.”[13] See also: Lament bass. However, this is not the only ostinato pattern that Purcell uses in the opera. Dido’s opening aria “Ah, Belinda” is a further demonstration of Purcell’s technical mastery: the phrases of the vocal line do not always coincide with the 4-bar ground:

“Purcell’s compositions over a ground vary in their working out, and the repetition never becomes a restriction.”[14] Purcell’s instrumental music also featured ground patterns. A particularly fine and complex example is his Fantasia upon a Ground for three violins and continuo:

The intervals in the above pattern are found in many works of the Baroque Period. Pachelbel's Canon also uses a similar sequence of notes in the bass part:

Pachelbel's Canon
Ground bass of Pachelbel's Canon

Two pieces by J.S.Bach are particularly striking for their use of an ostinato bass: the Crucifixus from his Mass in B minor and the Passacaglia in C minor for organ, which has a ground rich in melodic intervals:

Bach C minor Passacaglia ground bass
Bach C minor Passacaglia ground bass

The first variation that Bach builds over this ostinato consists of a gently syncopated motif in the upper voices:

Bach C minor Passacaglia Variation 1
Bach C minor Passacaglia Variation 1

This characteristic rhythmic pattern continues in the second variation, but with some engaging harmonic subtleties, especially in the second bar, where an unexpected chord creates a passing implication of a related key:

Bach C minor Passacaglia Variation 2
Bach C minor Passacaglia Variation 2

In common with other Passacaglias of the era, the ostinato is not simply confined to the bass, but rises to the uppermost part later in the piece:

Bach C minor Passacaglia variation with ostinato in treble

Late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Ostinatos feature in many works of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Mozart uses an ostinato phrase throughout the big scene that ends Act 2 of the Marriage of Figaro, to convey a sense of suspense as the jealous Count Almaviva tries in vain to incriminate the Countess, his wife, and Figaro, his butler, for plotting behind his back. A famous type of ostinato, called the Rossini crescendo, owes its name to a crescendo that underlies a persistent musical pattern, which usually culminates in a solo vocal cadenza.

In the energetic Scherzo of Beethoven’s late C sharp minor Quartet, Op. 131, there is a harmonically static passage, with “the repetitiveness of a nursery rhyme”[15] that consists of an ostinato shared between viola and cello supporting a melody in octaves in the first and second violins:

Beethoven Op 131 Trio from Scherzo, bars 69–76
Beethoven Op 131 Trio from Scherzo, bars 69–76

Beethoven reverses this relationship a few bars later with the melody in the viola and cello and the ostinato shared between the violins:

Beethoven Op 131 Trio from Scherzo, bars 93–100
Beethoven Op 131 Trio from Scherzo, bars 93–100

Both the first and third acts of Wagner’s final opera Parsifal feature a passage accompanying a scene where a band of Knights solemnly processes from the depths of forest to the hall of the Grail. The “Transformation music” that supports this change of scene is dominated by the iterated tolling of four bells:

Brahms used ostinato patterns in both the finale of his Fourth Symphony and in the closing section of his Variations on a Theme by Haydn:

Twentieth century

Debussy featured an ostinato pattern throughout his Piano Prelude “Des pas sur la Neige”. Here, the ostinato pattern stays in the middle register of the piano – it is never used as a bass. “Remark that the footfall ostinato remains nearly throughout on the same notes, at the same pitch level... this piece is an appeal to the basic loneliness of all human beings, oft-forgotten perhaps, but, like the ostinato, forming a basic undercurrent of our history.”[16]

Of all the major classical composers of the Twentieth Century, Stravinsky is possibly the one most associated with the practice of ostinato. In conversation with the composer, his friend and colleague Robert Craft remarked “Your music always has an element of repetition, of ostinato. What is the function of ostinato?” Stravinsky replied; “It is static – that is, anti-development; and sometimes we need a contradiction to development.”[17] Stravinsky was particularly skilled at using ostinatos to confound rather than confirm rhythmic expectations. In the first of his coincide. "Here a rigid pattern of (3+2+2/4) bars is laid over a strictly recurring twenty-three-beat tune (the bars being marked by a cello ostinato), so that their changing relationship is governed primarily by the pre-compositional scheme."[18] “The rhythmical current running through the music is what binds together these curious mosaic-like pieces.”[19]

A subtler metrical conflict can be found in the final section of Stravinsky’s pendulum."[20]

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