Ostinato: The Patron Saint of Musical Repetition
Repetition - as in 'repetitive music' - is more often cited as a vice than a virtue. This is understandable: blatant repetition can very easily lead to drab and dull monotony. We're very familiar with the many ways in which this monotony can manifest: a section in a track may go on for far too long, or a radio station may have too few songs in its circulation.
What if we could turn this fact on its head? Instead of being boring, what if blatant repetition were concentrated & used in a way that created additional interest and ultimately enriched a song as a whole?
It seems like a paradox, but such a device does exist & has been used for centuries. Its entire existence is the embodiment of novelty via repetition: the ostinato.
An ostinato is a musical idea that continually repeats. Ostinatos have a certain perceptual quality to them: the listener is struck by a particular sense of emphasis that's absent in more varied ideas.
Listen to this effect at work in Air’s Alone In Kyoto (1:19).
And the opening melody of Mr. Oizo's Destop:
Not all ostinatos are equal: some are shorter, some are longer; some are more rich & fleshed out in their details, while others can be as simple as a repeating note.
While ostinatos will differ in their content, they can also differ in the extent of their ostinato character: some may have small deviations here & there in order to create additional interest, like in the vocal here for example (3:09).
The farther a musical line strays from strict repetition, however, the less likely it will register as an ostinato to the listener.
Ultimately, it's most beneficial to ask “In what way, and to what extent, is the nature of this musical line like an ostinato?” than to be concerned about whether something strictly meets a certain definition of ostinato or not (of which there are many). Remember: it's about perception.
Ostinatos have a wide array of unique uses and effects, as we'll come to see. There is no shortage of them in the French touch style; we'll explore many going forward to uncover more of the device's potential.
Samples naturally lend themselves to being used as ostinatos for a technical reason: it’s practically impossible to write a continuation to a song that’ll convincingly preserve its audible character.
The audible character of any one song is completely unique & has a countless amount of variables that contribute to it. It’s an incredibly perceptible aspect of the musical experience that should bring immense continuity to the whole. We'll let this fact speak for itself:
While the continuation here works in terms of the musical content, as a whole it fails: we're struck infinitely more by the sudden, inappropriate difference in audible character than we are by the successful continuity in the songwriting. A well-produced track's audible character will sound continuous throughout, even if the musical material is incredibly dynamic.
To write a convincing extension to a sample’s content would mean to completely recreate its audible character: often an impossibly complex task. This typically leads to sampled material simply being repeated - an easy way to create the necessary continuity.
Simple repetition is very boring by itself, however.
No one would want to listen to this music for more than a few seconds. What if something more dynamic were added to make its interest last longer?
The full duration of the idea is much longer now due to the length of the chord progression introduced atop.
The addition of a bassline sees this once-uninteresting sample turned into a French house classic (0:04).
Why not remove the sample if virtually all of the interest seems to stem from the chords & bass? Compare the difference.
The music would be incredibly bare otherwise. While the sample in Club Soda is generally subservient to these more novel elements throughout, it largely contributes by filling in the 'perceptual background'. It's like how the right backdrop can support & even enrich the main figure(s) of interest in a painting. The sample now shines as an ostinato despite hardly being in the spotlight.
Using a sample as an ostinato is a great way to make the most of the practice’s limited nature: it uses what initially seems to be a weakness of sampling as an incredible strength.
A musical line does not always have to express an ostinato. It’s entirely possible for a line to switch up its character throughout a track.
The vocal of Uffie’s Difficult - with the opening phrase, “Don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks” - initially works as an ostinato.
This only lasts for as long as the intro, however. The new section is marked by a shift in her melody’s character, now continually singing new material as it goes forward. This brings the ostinato to an end.
The opposite - an initially non-repeating line switching to the role of ostinato - is possible too. This is a technique that Justice has opted for a fair bit. Listen to how the vocalist in their track DVNO finishes the chorus, only for his last lyric to be continually repeated afterwards (2:09).
They then re-introduce the vocals atop the ostinato, starting the next section of the piece.
Justice’s live album A Cross The Universe features two back-to-back, wildly different takes on the duo’s track D.A.N.C.E. Despite the great difference in character, a common thread between the two acts is established by turning the vocals in the first track into an ostinato that carries over into the second for a successful segue (2:23).
It’s no coincidence that both of these examples use the newly-formed ostinato as a means to transition: such short ostinatos are great palate cleansers. Typically devoid of any substantial character, they pave the way for something more vivid to be introduced.
This technique is regularly found in mixes. An easy way to transition between two tracks is to loop a small fragment of the first song - sterilizing it - for the second song to then enter upon.
Breakbot uses this concept throughout his beloved mixtapes. Let's focus on one found in Bedtime Stories (41:15).
Yesterday isn’t the only thing that our vocalist keeps holding onto: the initial portion of their melody is made to continually repeat the second time around. As we expect, the next track enters atop it immediately.
Whenever a line shifts its character, it's worth asking "Why the change? What does it accomplish now that it didn't before?" It lets one get inside the head of the musician behind the decision a bit more.
While the pitches and rhythm may repeat, the timbre of a line can be greatly animated to ‘obscure’ its ostinato nature.
This often happens in vocals, where timbral animation naturally occurs with changing lyrics. The last portion of the vocals in Daft Punk’s Something About Us conclude with an ostinato (1:55). Listen to how the melody stays the same underneath the new lyrics.
The 303 ostinato in Daft Punk’s Da Funk starts out rather subdued timbrally, but intensifies as it progresses through time (2:26). This development is especially noticeable due to the line’s static melody: with no novelty in the tune to draw attention to itself, the spotlight is instead entirely on the line’s timbral animation.
Last but in no way the least: this is by far the melodic ostinato’s most interesting and enriching use. We’ll first have to learn a few things about harmony before we’re able to explore the topic in detail.
A harmony is a plane of musical color.
A piece of music can go through different harmonies for different colors.
A melody can express harmony; it can be thought of as ‘animated harmony’ in this sense.
All melodic lines in a song tend to express the same harmony at any one point; together, they all reinforce the current ‘harmonic plane’. Any one melody does this by centering around at least one of the current harmony’s key notes.
As part of their repetitive nature, ostinatos are harmonically static: they will continually express the harmony intrinsic to their repeated figure.
As it goes through its motions, an ostinato can at times find itself at harmonic odds with the more dynamic material around it. This sort of harmonic friction is a sound in & of itself; a rich assortment of sonorities is unveiled as a result.
Going back to the same ostinato from Da Funk as above, listen to it now in the context of SebastiAn’s remix of Sexual Sportswears (4:41).
Here's Sexual Sportswear deduced to simple chords to more clearly demonstrate the harmony that it expresses.
The harmonic interaction between the two has instances more intense than others. The effect is especially rich near the end of Sexual Sportswears' cycle; there is a definite, unique sensation that manifests as the two coincide.
DatA's remix of Tepr's Minuit Jacuzi, as played by Justice in some of their mixes, features a similarly rich interaction (0:07). Listen to the lead melody with the bass; the former is the ostinato while the latter expresses the changing harmony.
The track has quite a few ostinatos going on, in fact: the lead, the vocal sample, and the 'pulse' at the beginning of each instance of the lead melody. The harmonic progression is left entirely up to the bassline to express (more on that later).
Kavinsky's Blizzard features two prominent ostinatos (0:08). With the harmonically changing material not having any notable rhythmic character or general animation to it, the interest of this section of the song comes largely from the ostinatos being showcased in different colors.
Harmonic Effects Continued: The Tonic
In the previous article How SebastiAn Writes Dark Melodies, we learned the concept of the ‘tonic’ - the note of most resolution. The tonic has no tension or sense of continuation to it; it is perfectly stable and at ease.
A sense of a melody being 'grounded' manifests when an ostinato is based in the tonic.
SebastiAn himself uses a lot of tonic-based ostinatos: one of his favorites is a rhythmically active, muted guitar strumming away. Hear it feature prominently in his track Jack Wire (0:41)
Tetra as well (0:32).
Notice how the bassline in Tetra is a tonic ostinato too. This brings us to our next point.
The bassline has a special characteristic: it’s the melody with the most influence on the perception of the harmony. The bassline strongly reinforces both harmonic identity and harmonic direction; the pillars of harmonic perception.
Like any musical line, the bassline can be ostinato too. This brings even stronger harmonic effects due to its unparalleled influence on the harmony. A tonic bassline ‘grounds’ a harmonic progression.
It can be as simple as repeatedly pounding on the tonic as in Thomas Bangalter’s Outrage (2:50).
Listen to if the bass expressed the harmony above, then compared to its original tonic ostinato character.
Opting for the tonic bass as Bangalter does reinforces a certain type of emphasizing power that doesn't let the listener get away from the pounding anxiety of the song. It works perfectly for, and even augments, the track's tone.
The bass can also be more ornamented, as in Justice’s Waters of Nazareth (2:17).
The musical line expresses two melodies: the bassline in the lower register & the repeated two-note figure higher up in pitch; both are ostinatos. Again, listen to an alternative where they first adapt to the changing harmonies then compared to the ostinato version that actually appears.
Note the difference in sensation. Though diluted some due to its ornamentation compared to the Spartan nature of Outrage's bass, the emphasizing power of tonic bass is very much present in Waters of Nazareth as well.
Ostinatos, as we've come to learn, are simple yet powerful: they have their own set of implications that can be used to enrich a track in only a way that they can. What we've covered - the use of samples, alternating characters, timbral animation, and harmonic effects - is not exhaustive. You will become more sensitive to the full realm of the nature of ostinatos as you spend more time with them.
As always, the best way to truly grasp these concepts is to play with them yourself. Here's a few exercises I leave to you, in order to aid understanding:
1) Keep your ear out for ostinatos as you listen to music. Again, ask “In what way, and to what extent, is the nature of this musical line like an ostinato at this point?”
2) Take your favorite songs & change the character of the ostinato(s) found in it. What's the result?
3) Write a little song that uses an ostinato, being cognizant of how it contributes and behaves at every step of the way.
Send me what you find/create on Twitter or via e-mail, I'd love to hear it!
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See you next time,