What is an Ostinato? Repeated Musical Patterns

An Ostinato is a short rhythmic or melodic pattern that is persistently repeated in the same voice or several voices throughout a composition. 

Ostinatos are often used as an exercise that composers use to first train their students how to improvise melodies and rhythms with repetition, and then how to create their own Ostinatos using their chosen instrument.

Ostinatos are abundant in both classical music throughout history as well as popular musical genres today.

Key Takeaways

  • An Ostinato is a repetitive rhythmic or melodic pattern used throughout a musical composition, often to provide foundation, continuity, and texture.
  • These patterns are not just limited to classical music; they are prevalent across various genres including pop, rock, jazz, and funk.
  • The length of an ostinato pattern can vary significantly, from as short as one beat to several measures long. Shorter patterns tend to generate tension and contrast, while longer patterns provide a sense of stability and motion.
  • Ostinatos can be simple, with just a few notes repeating, or complex, featuring changing rhythms and non-repetitive melodic patterns. Complex ostinatos usually have a slower tempo compared to their simpler counterparts.
  • Overall, ostinatos play a crucial role in music composition and performance, offering a versatile tool for creating texture, tension, stability, and continuity across a wide array of musical styles and genres.

How do you identify an ostinato?

Ostinatos can be recognized by their rather monotonous rhythm pattern. Ostinatos can be found in almost every type of music, including pop, rock, jazz, funk, and more. If you listen closely to many songs on the radio or in your iTunes library you may hear an ostinato hiding somewhere inside the track.

Ostinatos are frequently used in pop music to create hooks, which make the track more memorable for listeners, and therefore more likable for audiences.

Roles of Ostinatos

Ostinatos, or ostinati, can function in a variety of different roles. They are used in pieces to provide foundation, continuity, and texture but they do not have to be rhythmic though; they can also set a certain mood. Ostinatos can also help create contrast by providing stability through periodic accents or greater rhythmic activity.

How many beats is an ostinato?

Ostinatos are usually repeated rhythmic patterns that have a certain number of beats. Ostinatos can be as short as one beat or as long as hundreds of measures. Ostinato patterns with longer durations tend to give a sense of stability and motion, while those with shorter durations tend to create tension and provide contrast. 

Ostinatos with shorter durations tend to be used in styles such as jazz and funk; they are very common in these genres of music. Ostinatos also exist with longer time values for more dramatic effects.

What is a simple ostinato?

Simple Ostinatos are two to four-note melodies repeated over and over again. Ostinatos with a greater number of notes tend to create a more dramatic effect. 

What is complex ostinato?

Complex Ostinatos have rhythms that change, and melodic patterns that do not repeat. Ostinatos with complex rhythms usually have a slower tempo when compared to Ostinatos with simple rhythms.

Why is ostinato important in music?

Ostinatos are often used to create tension, suspense, and interest in the listener. Ostinato can also be used as a form of accompaniment to a soloist or group of singers. This technique is most commonly found in classical music, but it can be found in other genres such as country and folk as well. Ostinato is also known as a ground bass or repeated bass pattern.

History of Ostinato

The musical term originates from the Italian word “ostinato” which means stubborn or persistent. Ostinatos first appeared in Western composition from the 13th century onward like in the Concerto, Opus 38 (first performed 1925), of Paul Hindemith.

Ostinato became particularly popular with baroque composers like Bach, Purcell, and Pachelbel as it is commonly found in their chaconnes (a musical form that consists of a sequence of eight or more phrases).

Ostinato can be used in many different forms. Ostinato can be used in solo, ensemble, or orchestral settings. Ostinato can also be found in other genres besides classical music as it is not only limited to instrumental performances but it’s also used for vocal works as well. 

Ostinatos are also written with different meters and rhythms-it can be in 6/8 form, 3/4 time signature, or even 4/4. Ostinato can be found in many different forms of music: classical, country, folk, rock, and pop.

Why are Ostinatos used in music?

Ostinato can be applied to many genres and styles of music but Ostinatos are most famously used in Latin Music (Salsa, Merengue, etc.). Ostinatos are used in jazz music as well. As your ear becomes accustomed to an Ostinato, you will notice it being repeated throughout various instruments in the different parts of the song. 

Ostinatos are used by music composers to provide a sense of continuity and make sure that all instruments in the piece play a similar pattern. In modern times, Ostinatos have been used widely in Pop Music, Rock Music, and Electronic Music.

In Salsa/Latin music Ostinato patterns are played on the piano. Ostinato patterns are especially popular in Salsa music because they provide an easy way to fill up the more empty space that is typical of this musical genre.

Ostinato patterns can also be the main focus of a piece. In this case, percussion instruments such as maracas, bongos, or congas are often used to create an Ostinato pattern such as a repeated rhythm. Ostinato works well with drums and other percussion instruments because they emphasize the Ostinato rhythm.


Ostinatos are repeated musical patterns that provide support for the other voices in a song or instrumental composition.

Ostinato literally means “stubborn” in Italian, and this term is used to refer to any short sequence of notes which recurs throughout a piece. Often, they are the lowest-pitched melody in a work, but there are plenty of examples that are used in the upper parts.

Ostinatos feature in countless pieces of music, including works by many composers from across history and around the world. In this article, we’ll learn what ostinatos are – how they work, why they’re important, and some examples you can listen to!