What is “Ostinato?” – Pt. 1


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What is “Ostinato?”

An Ostinato is a musical phrase repeated in succession in a composition. Ostinatos usually display melodic and rhythmic qualities. They appear in a variety of musical genres, usually as a leading or supporting device. When writing music for media, an ostinato can be a valuable tool for creating a piece with a focal point that builds on itself over time. This course will examine ostinatos in the modern epic orchestral genre, where we can use them to create a sense of power and momentum. 

Musical Examples with a Strong Usage of Ostinatos

– Henry Mancini, “Peter Gunn Theme,” from the movie Peter Gunn (1958)

– Bernard Herrmann, “Prelude and Rooftop,” from the movie Vertigo (1958)

– Mike Oldfield, “Tubular Bells,” from the movie The Exorcist (1973)

– Yasunori Mitsuda, “Corridors of Time,” from the game Chrono Trigger (1995)

– Nobuo Uematsu, “Don’t Be Afraid,” from the game Final Fantasy VIII (1999)

– John Williams, “Saving Buckbeak,” from the movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

– John Powell, “Bathroom Titles,” from the movie X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

– Hans Zimmer, “Aggressive Expansion,” from the movie The Dark Knight (2008)

– Danny Elfman, “Alice’s Theme,” from the movie Alice in Wonderland (2010)

– Hans Zimmer, “Gotham’s Reckoning,” from the movie The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

View complete editions of music scores (PDF), score analysis (PDF), and HD music examples used in this article. [ITEM NUMBER – S11B]

This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.

A Single Ostinato Pattern

Over the course of examples Ex.1-1-A through Ex.1-1-D, we will transform an ostinato pattern step-by-step into a full orchestral arrangement. Since an ostinato is based on repetition, we will explore ways to add melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic variety to our piece to maintain interest throughout.

First, let us begin by attempting to create a robust ostinato pattern. Ostinatos may appear in any register with any instrument. However, we have chosen to use a lower register instrument (cello) to help us create a sense of power and weight in the composition.

Ex. 1-1-A Single Ostinato Pattern

We start in Ex. 1-1-A by creating a four-bar ostinato pattern played by a cello section. The first measure alone establishes the essence of this pattern. In measures 2-4, we add a couple of variations to avoid monotonous repetition. Without any other accompaniment, the mood is already clear: energetic and a little foreboding. To understand how this pattern works, let us take a closer look at the rhythmic and harmonic patterns within.

Ex. 1-1-A

Rhythmic structure

The core of this pattern is built upon a 3-3-2 💡 rhythmic feel. Using only 1/8th notes, we create this rhythmic feel by changing the direction of the melody: three (3) ascending 1/8th notes, then dropping to the next set of three (3) ascending 1/8th notes, then dropping again to the final set of two (2) ascending 1/8th notes. In addition, accents are placed above the notes to emphasize the change in direction. As a result, this syncopated rhythm helps provide driving energy.

💡 Tips) Tresillo The 3-3-2 pattern in this example correlates to a rhythmic pattern known as tresillo. The tresillo rhythm is prevalent in Latin American music as well as Sub-Saharan African musical traditions.

Harmonic structure

Over the span of four measures, the pattern moves from the tonality of C minor to D♭ Lydian (more on that below), mainly indicated by the first note of each measure. As we will see, we employed accidentals to add harmonic variety and sophistication.In measure 1, the first two notes (C and G) are the tonic and fifth of the C minor scale. The A♭(❶) is a big clue that our harmony is indeed C minor, as A♭ appears in the C minor scale (and not in the C major scale). In the second measure, we flirt with the possibility of C major by adding an E♮(❷) instead of the expected E♭. In measures 3-4, we hear D♭(❸) on the downbeat instead of C. This simple half-step alteration changes our sense of harmony, allowing us to hear D♭ as the new root. In this new context, the G and A♭ that follow sound like scale degrees ♯4 and 5, respectively, suggesting the D♭ Lydian mode (for more information, see the subsection of the course Applying Modal Color to Your Music – Major Modes).


The rhythmic and melodic pattern established in the first measure serves as a template for the remaining measures. Over time, the pattern builds on itself by using accidentals for variety. At an upbeat tempo, a mere melody can create a sense of urgency and harmonic intrigue. In Now it is time to expand on our idea by adding more instruments! 

Expand with Contrabass & Violin

Ex.1-1-B Expand with Contrabass & Violin

In Ex.1-1-B, we repeat the ostinato, now making our composition eight measures in length. We also expand our sound with new instruments by using an orchestration technique called “doubling.”

Doubling (copying a melody at an interval) is a simple and effective technique for reinforcing the sound. In this instance, Violin 1 copies, or doubles, some of the notes of the ostinato an octave higher. These staggered violin accents enhance the sense of syncopation.

Ex. 1-1-B Expand with Cb. & Vc.

Get a PDF version of this example here.

Meanwhile, we add a contrabass playing low notes an octave below the cello. The contrabass provides a steady pulse on beats 1 and 3 with a bit of rhythmic variation. Throughout the piece, the contrabass moves from C, to D♭, up to E♭, and then back down to D♭. When the cello ostinato repeats in measure 5, the contrabass E♭ blends with it perfectly, since E♭ is a chord tone of the implied C minor harmony.

Furthermore, the contrabass uses non-chord tones 💡, which we will explore below.

💡 Tips) Non-chord tones
If you are not already familiar with non-chord tones, it may be helpful to mention them here. Quite simply, non-chord tones are notes that are not a member of the chord – or in other words, notes that are neither the root, 3rd, or 5th (or 7th when applicable). Non-chord tones can serve as a melodic bridge from one chord tone to another, and they are useful for adding variety and tension. In our piece, the contrabass uses two types of non-chord tones: a neighboring tone and a passing tone.

Contrabass: Neighboring Tones and Passing Tones

At the end of measure 1, the contrabass steps up briefly to D♭(❶), adding a hint of the C Phrygian mode (see the subsection of the course Applying Modal Color to Your Music – Minor Modes). In this instance, the D♭ is a neighboring tone, which is a non-chord tone that is approached by step before returning to the original note. Our contrabass moves from C up to D♭ and then back down to C.

At the end of measure 4, we encounter another non-chord tone in the contrabass (❷). The D♮ is a passing tone or a non-chord tone in between two chord tones. Notice how the D♮ smoothly connects the D♭ to the E♭ in the next measure. 

Both the neighboring tone and the passing tone in the contrabass occur on upbeats (unaccented beats), which are naturally weak beats. For this reason, these non-chord tones do not sound too jarring. Instead, they provide a little melodic variety. We can include them while confidently maintaining a general sense of C minor.

In part 2 of this series, we will continue constructing our ostinato, taking it to new heights by introducing additional sections, doubling certain parts, and incorporating percussion elements. Join us as we embark on this exciting journey of musical expansion. Don’t miss out!

View complete editions of music scores (PDF), score analysis (PDF), and HD music examples used in this lesson. [ITEM NUMBER – S11B]

This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.