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The ostinato is related to the riff. It’s a short, repeated melodic phrase. The difference lies mainly in how many times you repeat it.


The riff is often used as a hook played a limited number of times at the beginning of the song. It can also be played elsewhere in the song. Its purpose is to draw the listener in, and give them something to remember.



The ostinato is something that can go on for a long time. Its function is to act as an accompaniment to melody or improvisation. It’s used in both instrumental music and sung music.


Here’s an example. The first piano you hear plays the ostinato. Listen for a couple of minutes. It can get kind of hypnotic. Then move to different places in the video; you’ll hear a variation of the ostinato. To hear how it changes, listen to first 10 minutes or so.




Using ostinato in song

A simple ostinato technique is to play the riff during a solo. A more interesting technique is to extend the riff and use that as the ostinato. This creates variety and more interest in general.


You can extend a one bar riff by simply extending it by a bar. Or you can just add a couple of beats of new material. This creates a feeling of surprise. The listener is expecting a continuation of 4/4 and you give them a bar of 4/4 followed by a bar of 2/4.


Time signatures

Here’s a link to an explanation of time signatures if you need it. If not, you can skip this.


The explanation of the bottom number may not be totally clear. In case it’s not…


If the bottom number is a 4, it indicates a quarter note; an 8 is an 1/8 note; a 2 is a half note.


…and back to ostinato

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

This is a riff. Repeat it endlessly and it’s an ostinato.

ostinato riff1


Here’s the same riff (bar 1) with an extension of another bar of 4/4 (bar 1 with a variation).

ostinato riff


And finally, the same riff with an extension of a bar of 2/4. The return to the beginning of the riff comes as a surprise.

riff extension



Experiment with extensions of different lengths: a bar of 3/4, a bar of 5/4, etc. Or shorten the first bar to 3/4 by erasing one of the beats.

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