In music, an ostinato (derived from Italian: "stubborn", compare English: obstinate) is a motif or phrase which is persistently repeated in the same musical voice. An ostinato is always a succession of equal sounds, wherein each note always has the same weight or stress. The repeating idea may be a rhythmic pattern, part of a tune, or a complete melody in itself. Both "ostinatos" and "ostinati" are accepted English plural forms, although the latter better reflects 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.
Ground bass or basso ostinato (obstinate bass) is a type of variation form in which a bassline, or harmonic pattern (see Chaconne) is repeated as the basis of a piece underneath variations. Aaron Copland 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 that, "it might more properly be termed a musical device than a musical form."
Ostinati are to classical music what riffs are to popular music. Although the term "riff" can refer to any short series of notes that create a melody within the melody of the song, it doesn't necessarily have to repeat to become a riff, unlike ostinato. They have a large role in improvised music such as in jazz and Baroque music. A "favorite technique of contemporary jazz writers", ostinati are often used in modal and Latin jazz, traditional African music including Gnawa music and Boogie-Woogie.
Applicable in homophonic and contrapuntaltextures they are distinguished as "repetitive rhythmic-harmonic schemes", the more familiar accompanimental melodies, or as purely rhythmic. 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 functionalchord progressions to shape phrases and define tonality". Similarly in modal music "relentless, repetitive character help to establish and confirm the modal center". 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".
Basso ostinato by Rodion Shchedrin, contained in his Polyphonic Notebook, twenty-five preludes (1972).
A good example of ostinato in popular music can be heard on "Day Tripper" by The Beatles. The opening 11-note motif is heard consistently throughout the majority of the track in a number of different keys to fit the song.
Another example for understanding the procedure is the famous tune from ABBA, "Take a Chance on Me". In its video, we can see each of the four members in a different corner of the screen; during the verses, Benny and Björn sing repeatedly "take a chance, take a chance, take a, take a chan-chance", while Agnetha and Frida sing the lyrics.
American drummer Terry Bozzio has made extensive use of the ostinato as a drumset technique. Many examples can be heard on his instructional videos Melodic Drumming and the Ostinato Vol. I, II, and III, as well as his CDs Solo Drum Music Vol. I and II.
"Stupidly Happy" from XTC's Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) offers a variety of melodic excursions over an ostinato guitar riff which elaborates only a tiny bit over the course of the song.
"The Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin features a bass and guitar ostinato on an F# octave throughout the song.
David Brackett (1999) defines riffs as "short melodic phrases," while Richard Middleton (1999) defines them as, "short rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic figures repeated to form a structural framework." Rikky Rooksby  states that "A riff is a short, repeated, memorable musical phrase, often pitched low on the guitar, which focuses much of the energy and excitement of a rock song."
The term riff entered musical slang in the 1920s , and is used primarily in discussion of forms of rock music or jazz. "Most rock musicians use riff as a near-synonym for musical idea." .
The etymology of the term is not clearly known. Some sources explain riff as an abbreviation for "rhythmic figure" or "refrain" . Use of the term has also misleadingly been extended to comedy where riffing is used to mean the verbal exploration of a particular subject, thus moving the meaning away from the original jazz sense of a repeated figure over which the soloist improvises, to instead indicate the improvisation itself: that is, improvising on a melody or progression as one would improvise on a subject by extending a singular thought, idea or inspiration into a bit, or routine.
More recently the term rift has entered usage as a mistaken pronunciation of riff. (See also misuse of tact for tack) .
The riff from Charlie Parker's bebop number "Now's the Time" (1945) re-emerged four years later as the R&B dance hit, "The Hucklebuck". The verse of "The Hucklebuck", which was another riff, was "borrowed" from the Artie Matthews composition, "Weary Blues". Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" had an earlier life as Wingy Manone's "Tar Paper Stomp". All these songs use twelve bar blues riffs, and most of these riffs probably precede the examples given .
Neither of the terms riff or lick are used in Classical music; instead, individual musical phrases used as the basis of classical music pieces are called ostinatos or simply phrases. Contemporary jazz writers also use riff- or lick-like ostinatos in modal music and Latin jazz.
The term riff driven is used to describe a piece of music that relies on a repeated instrumental riff as the basis of its most prominent melody, cadence, or (in some cases) leitmotif. Riff-driven songs are largely a product of jazz, blues, and post-blues era music (rock and pop). The musical goal of riff-driven songs is akin to the classical continuo effect, but raised to much higher importance (in fact, the repeated riff is used to anchor the song in the ears of the listener). The riff/continuo is brought to the forefront of the musical piece and often is the primary melody that remains in the listener's ears. A call and response often holds the song together, creating a "circular" rather than linear feel.
The slang term vamp comes from the Middle English word "vampe" (sock), from Old French "avanpie", equivalent to Modern French avant-pied, literally "before-foot".
The term vamp has another meaning in music, which is "to improvise simple accompaniment or variation of a tune." Outside of music, the noun vamp means "something patched up or refurbished" or "something rehashed, as a book based on old material." Similarly, outside of music, the verb "vamp" means "to put together, fabricate or improvise": "With no hard news available about the summit meeting, the reporters vamped up questions based only on rumor." These other meanings are related to the musical meaning, in that a musical vamp is a "fabricated" or "improvised" "rehash" of standard, stock musical phrases.
In jazz, fusion, and related genres, such as latin jazz, a background vamp provides a performer with a harmonic framework upon which to improvise. A vamp at the beginning of a jazz tune may act as a springboard to the main tune; a vamp at the end of a song is often called a "tag".
The music from Miles Davis's modal period (c.1958-63) was based on improvising songs with a small number of chords. The jazz standard "So What" uses a vamp in the two-note "Sooooo what?" figure, regularly played by the piano and the trumpet throughout. Jazz scholar Barry Kernfeld calls this music "Vamp Music." This period of Davis' music has also been called "Impressionist jazz," because it uses some of the same musical features and devices as the so-called "Impressionist" style of classical music of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.
In gospel and soul music, the band will often vamp on a simple ostinato groove at the end of a song, usually over a single chord. In soul music, the end of recorded songs often contains a display of vocal "pyrotechnics", such as rapid scales, arpeggios, and improvised passages. For recordings, the sound engineers will gradually fade out the vamp section at the end of a song, to make the transition to the next track on the album. Salsoul singers such as Loleatta Holloway have become notable for their vocal improvisations at the end of songs, and they are sampled and used in other songs. Andrae Crouch extended the use of vamps in gospel, introducing chain vamps (one vamp after the other, each successive vamp drawn from the first).
1970s-era funk music often takes a short one or two bar musical figure based on a single chord that would be considered an introduction vamp in jazz or soul music, and then uses this vamp as the basis of the entire song (Funky Drummer by James Brown, for example). Jazz, blues, and rock are almost always based on chord progressions (a sequence of changing chords), and they use the changing harmony to build tension and sustain listener interest. Unlike these music genres, funk is based on the rhythmic groove of the percussion, rhythm section instruments, and a deep electric bass line, usually all over a single chord. "In funk, harmony is often second to the 'lock,' the linking of contrapuntal parts that are played on guitar, bass, and drums in the repeating vamp."
In musical theater, a vamp, or intro, is the few bars, one to eight, of music without lyrics which begin a printed copy of a song and which the orchestra or other accompaniment repeats during dialogue or stage business, to provide musical accompaniment for onstage transitions which are of indeterminate length. The score will provide a one or two bar vamp figure, and indicate "vamp till cue" by the conductor. The vamp gives the onstage singers time to prepare for the song or the next verse, without requiring the music to pause. Once the vamp section is completed, the music will continue on to the next section.
The vamp may be written by the composer of the song, a copyist employed by the publisher, or the arranger for the vocalist. The vamp serves three main purposes: providing the key in which the song will be sung, establishing the tempo, and scene design, or providing emotional context for the song about to be sung. The vamp may be as short as a bell tone, sting (a harmonized bell tone with stress on the starting note), or measures long.
The rideout is the transitional music that begins on the downbeat of the last word of the song and is usually two to four bars long, though it may be as short as a sting or as long as a Roxy Rideout.
Electronic music, especially that of the dance variety, has relied on ostinato-like basslines, especially that of tunes from the genre relying on the Roland TB-303 synthesizer (which was originally developed in 1982 by Roland as a "bass-player substitute" for guitarists, but gained more favor in later years as a bassline synthesizer in its own right). Since the 303 also has a pattern sequencer as well and can be controlled to play back at various speeds, it is very easy to create ostinato basslines with it, and genres of electronic dance music such as acid house consist of such, created by the 303 and similar synthesizers.
Indian Classical Music
In Indian Classical Music, during Tabla or Pakhawaj solo performances and Kathak dance accompaniments, a conceptually similar melodic pattern known as the Lehara (sometimes spelled Lehra) or Nagma is played repeatedly throughout the performance. This melodic pattern is set to the number of beats in a rhythmic cycle (Tala or Taal) being performed and may be based on one or a blend of multiple Ragas.
The basic idea of the lehara is to provide a steady melodious framework for rhythmic improvisations. It serves as an auditory workbench not only for the soloist but also for the audience to appreciate the ingenuity of the improvisations and thus the merits of the overall performance. In Indian Classical Music, which is drawn from the ancient vedic traditions, the concept of 'Suum' (pronounced as 'sum') carries paramount importance. The Suum is the target unison beat of any rhythmic cycle. The second most important beat is the Khali, which is a complement of the Suum. Besides these two prominent beats, there are other beats of emphasis in any given taal, which signify 'khand's (divisions) of the taal. E.g. Roopak which is a 7 beat rhythmic cycle is divided 3-2-2, further implying that the 1st, 4th, and 6th beats are the prominent beats in that taal. Therefore it is customary, but not absolutely essential, to align the lehara according to the divisions of the Taal. It is done with a view to emphasize those beats that mark the divisions of the Taal.
The lehara is usually played on the Harmonium, Sarangi or even the Violin. The playing of the lehara is relatively free from the numerous rules and constraints of 'Raga Sangeet' which are upheld and honoured in Indian Classical Music. The lehara may be interspersed with short and occasional improvisations built around the basic melody. It is also permissible to switch between two or more disparate melodies during the course of the performance. It is essential that the lehara be played with the highest precision in Laya(Tempo) and Swara control; which requires years of specialist training (Taalim) and practice (Riyaaz). It is considered a hallmark of excellence to play lehara alongside a recognised Tabla or Pakhawaj virtuoso. While there may be scores of individually talented instrumentalists, there are very few who are capable of playing the lehra for a Tabla / Pakhawaj solo performance.
Other instruments like Sitar and Sarod have also been used to play the lehara, but very sparingly. E.g. Pandit Ravi Shankar has played a 12 beat lehara on the Sitar for Ustad Allah Rakha during his solo performance in 1967 at the Monterey Music Festival. Similarly Ustad Ali Akbar Khan has played numerous leharas on the Sarod with Pandit Mahapurush Mishra. There maybe other notable artists who may have also played the lehara on other unconventional instruments like Santoor, Shehnai, Bamboo Flute, Mohan Veena, etc.
Some historical uses
As a very accessible frame that allows improvisation, the ostinato was heavily used in the Baroque epoch. For about a century and a half (starting around 1770), the technique was almost abandoned. It suddenly revived in the dawn of the 20th century with the development of jazz music and also became "perhaps the most typically twentieth-century accompanimental device" used in classical music, in part because of its neoclassical appeal. By the end of the 1910s, the first records featuring jazz music were released. While most of the performers were not able to notate music, mainly the surviving records prove that early jazz music used a technique similar to ostinato.
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^ Copland, Aaron and Rich, Alan (2002). What to Listen for in Music, p.117. ISBN 0-451-52867-0.
^ abcd Rawlins, Robert (2005). Jazzology: The Encyclopedia ow of Jazz Theory for All Musicians, p.132-133. ISBN 0-634-08678-2.
^ abc DeLone, Richard (1975). "Timbre and Texture in Twentieth-Century Music", Aspects of 20th Century Music, p.123. Wittlich, Gary (ed.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-049346-5.
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^Fast, Susan; et al (2001). In the house of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the power of Rock Music (1 ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 33. The song (Black Dog) represents a defining moment in the genre of hard rock, combining the elements of speed, power, an artful and metrically clever riff. ISBN 0-19-511756-5.