Ostinato. That’s a word you’re going to read more o en in these pages than in the latest issue of Guitar World. The musical principle is the same, though, whether we’re talking about the harmonic cycles of chaconnes in Baroque music from Purcell to Bach, the obsessive mania of a Bruckner scherzo or your favourite guitar ri s and electronic licks from
Led Zeppelin to Da Punk. A large amount of our music is obsessed by these repeated patterns that lodge in our brains with a stubbornly irresistible power. The stubbornness is the clue – that’s what ‘ostinato’ means in Italian – but instead of being annoyed by these never-changing features of symphonies, songs and arias, we’re addicted to them. The way ostinatos get stuck in our consciousness, and the ways composers and song-writers use them, is a defining feature of so much of the music we love.
Which is a strange bio-musical phenomenon. Because unlike the immutable foundations of Pachelbel’s looping Canon, or the ri from Julius Eastman’s Stay On It, built on a single repetitive idea for all of its 24 minutes, our listening bodies are in a constant state of flux. Nothing is ever the same in the chemistry of our brains, and yet we’re consumed by music that’s made from patterns of unchanging ostinatos. Some composers have realised the connection between the stubborn power of the ostinato and a dangerous world of mechanised violence and dehumanised terror. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is a hymn to the ostinato as murderous
terpsichorean machine, driving the Chosen One to her death in a maelstrom of churning ostinatos. Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry takes it further, asking
100 orchestral musicians to eviscerate themselves of their humanity, transforming into spitting, splurting musical machinists, a sounding image of Soviet industrial power, all done through a terrifying ostinato pile-up.
Conversely, in musical worlds made by machines, where ostinatos can be perfectly repeated, these musical machines have become the sounds of pleasure rather than dehumanised pain. In Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, the ceaseless electronic ostinato is what catches the vocal in a vice of pleasure; and in the delirious repetitions of so much dance music, from Strauss waltzes to Ibizan DJS, those ostinatos are designed to extend our pleasure for as long as possible.
A final stubborn paradox: you can use these never-changing facts of our musical life to take us on journeys of emotional and expressive variety. That’s what Brahms does in the passacaglia finale of his Symphony No. 4, finding a tragic trajectory and a dizzying diversity from the repetition of a single bass-line. Which suggests that in order to truly experience change, we need some things to stay the same: just another stubborn philosophical quandary created by the strange world of ostinatos.
We’re consumed by music that’s made from patterns of unchanging ostinatos
The hypnotic ostinato, those repeated rhythms or phrases of music, can both drive us totally insane and take us to states of sheer pleasure, as Tom Service explains