Y ou know that feeling where you just can’t get a tune out of your head? It might drive you nuts – especially if it’s the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” stuck there yet again (it happens to all of us). Annoying to us, yes, but songwriters and composers collectively say “mission accomplished” when that happens. They even have tools to help make it happen.
One especially effective earworm device started showing up a lot in the Baroque Era.1 It’s called the ostinato, which is basically a ten-dollar music theory word for a short musical idea that gets repeated over and over (and over) again while other things change around it.2 (If that sounds kind of annoying, note that “ostinato” comes from the same Latin root as “obstinate.”) Here’s a charming example from St. Paul’s Suite by turn-of-the-twentieth-century composer Gustav Holst. Listen for the violins – specifically, to how they never change.
The violins play an up-and-down pattern over and over and over again. The rest of the music swirls around it, using the violin ostinato as a sort of backbone to the entire movement.3 The repeated idea is a point of stability, lending a consistent element to a section of music. This consistency helps make sectional changes more apparent as well – if the composer either drops the ostinato as the music changes, or returns to the ostinato when music of an earlier section returns, that recognizable little musical lick helps make these changes very apparent.
Ostinatos can do more than clarify form and add structure to a work. The relentlessness of an ostinato can be used with great effect to create a tense, nervous mood. Take the title theme to the classic Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo. Composer Bernard Herrmann keeps that unnerving arpeggio going through the violin part, creating a feeling of tension and nervousness.
O kay, so classical (and film) composers use the ostinato. But pop musicians are guilty of using these catchy, repetitive lines as well. Here’s an example from Sufjan Stevens – the song is “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” from his 2005 opus Illinois. Listen to the piano, which starts up eleven seconds in.5
That little piano lick is the ostinato. It’s useful to Stevens as an anchoring tool. Because the song goes back and forth between two distinct sections, its presence immediately alerts his listeners when the A section returns later.6
In addition to its usefulness as a structural tool, ostinatos are also really good at creating mood. Sometimes the repeated idea is extremely influential in establishing the character of an entire piece. One good example is the synth line in the intro and choruses to M83’s hit song “Midnight City,” off of the 2011 release Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. We’re introduced to the ostinato immediately – it’s that scratchy four-note lick that repeats again and again. It drops out when the verse begins, but every time the chorus returns, the synth line comes right back in all its anthemic, repetitive glory.
The vaguely sad and regretful tone of “Midnight City” owes a lot to the ostinato and its flexibility as the chords change underneath it. It also strongly emphasizes the chorus (and the sense of arrival that comes with reaching a chorus).
But that’s not its only role here. “Midnight City” also uses the ostinato to play a trick on the listener about halfway through the song. Listen again starting around two minutes in, just as a chorus is about to end. At 2:08, the next verse begins… or so it should. But at 2:13, the ostinato is back, but it sounds weird – this is confusing. We’re in a verse? But with the ostinato? We haven’t seen that before. At 2:18, vocalist Anthony Gonzalez reenters with the verse, sung over the underwater-sounding version of the ostinato that entered just a few seconds earlier. It’s a neat trick. The verse-ostinato association here anticipates the final chorus, when the ostinato will finally return to its original form and help carry the song to its resolute conclusion.
And here you thought repetition was boring.
– Nick Curry
1 The Baroque Era is the period of classical music beginning around 1600 and ending around the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. The distinctions between musical epochs are always a little bit fuzzy, but you might recognize this period as the time when people still thought harpsichords were a good idea. ↑
2 Despite the fact that it sounds like something you might buy from Starbucks, I think I can safely promise that ordering a “caramel ostinato” might not work out for you. ↑
3 Ostinatos don’t have to be a repeated tune – repeated rhythms are fair game too. And there aren’t many repeated rhythms more iconic than this one from another Holst piece, “Mars, the Bringer of War” of The Planets. The rhythmic ostinato is found earlier in the piece as well, but it really comes into the foreground here. And for added “Mars” fun, here’s an amusing scene from Venture Bros., where “Mars” plays/is sung as the henchmen suit up. ↑
4 Okay, you might be thinking “you said an ostinato is a repeated idea, I thought an ostinato wasn’t supposed to change! And this one definitely changes.” Well, like just about everything else in music, definitions are always a little bit fuzzy. A little bit of variation is okay, since the ostinato is still recognizable and the feeling created by the ostinato remains. ↑
5 Regarding the video: I couldn’t pass up the video with this glorious photo. I’m a Kansan; we’re trained from youth to love open spaces. ↑
6 If you listen to the way the pieces of this song fit together, you’ll note that two sections are repeated, creating an ABAB form. You can hear how the meter and key change between the two sections – in the ‘A’ section, the music alternates between 5/8 and 6/8 meter and is in a minor key, while the ‘B’ section features 4/4 time and is in a minor key. ↑
- Gustav Holst, Ostinato, St. Paul’s Suite, performed the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Hogwood. © 2003 by Deutsche Grammophon.
- Bernard Hermann, “Theme,” performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on the original soundtrack to Vertigo, © 1958 by Mercury Records, MG 20834.
- Sufjan Stevens, “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders,” Illinois, © 2005 by Asthmathic Kitty Records, AKR014.
- M83, “Midnight City,” Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, © 2011 by Naïve Records, NV824311.