What is “Ostinato?” – pt. 2


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(Click here to view the part 1 of the series)

Ostinato – Adding Instruments

Ex. 1-1-C

In Ex.1-1-C, we continue doubling to fortify the sound of our piece. Piano and viola double the cello ostinato, with the viola playing an octave higher. The sharp attack of the piano adds more bite to the staccato strings. Low register woodwinds double the contrabass, adding depth and clarity to the bass line. All these additions in various octaves lend a sense of conviction to our ostinato. 

*The score for Ex. 1-1-C is not provided intentionally. We’d like you to focus more on the difference in the sound rather than reading the score. Our final version (which includes all the doublings introduced in this example) can be seen below in Ex. 1-1-D.

 Final Version with Melody and Percussion

Ex.1-1-D is the culmination of our efforts, resulting in an adventurous orchestral piece built on an ostinato. In this final stage, we added a few new elements. We crafted a slow-moving melody using high register winds. The long sustains of the melody (Flutes/Oboes) complement the busy ostinato underneath (Cello/Piano/Viola). Mid-register horns double the melody for the first three measures before evolving into harmonic support in measures 4-8. The woodwinds and horns all make use of chord tones, neighboring tones, and passing tones.

Ex. 1-1-D mm. 1-4

Ex. 1-1-D mm. 5-8

However, the most evident addition is arguably percussion, which we used to lend rhythmic precision and intensity to our piece. We have three main rhythmic components:

  1. First, the bass drum helps support the 3-3-2 rhythm of the ostinato(❶). Its accented notes help punctuate the downbeat of each measure.
  2. Second, the snare drum and low tom work together to create an intricate layer of 1/8th notes and 1/16th notes spanning four measures. In particular, the snare drum has eighth note rests when the bass drum plays (most of the time). These rests provide negative space(❷), allowing the bass drum to shine on its first two hits.
  3. Third, the gong adds a sustaining texture at the very beginning and the very end of the piece.

Bass Drum Pattern in Ex. 1-1-D (4 Measures)

All this variety in the bass drum, snare, and low tom results in a rhythmic phrase that sounds like four measures in length. If we had four identical measures of rhythm, we might hear them as a one-measure phrase played four times. Therefore, it’s generally advantageous to use variation to create longer phrases to avoid monotonous rhythm.


An ostinato can provide a good focal point for a composition, merely by its repetitive nature. However, we also made an effort to balance that repetition with melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic variation. We started with a simple ostinato pattern, then added supporting elements (bass and violin). We fortified our ostinato with octave doubling. We then built upon that foundation by adding a melody, harmonic support, and percussion. By working in stages, we hope it is clear that you can turn a simple idea into an epic orchestral piece.

View complete editions of music scores (PDF), score analysis (PDF), and HD music examples used in this lesson.

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.