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Sound Structures for Music Improvisation

by Renee Leech

Lesson 3: Ground Explorations with an Ostinato

Combining an ostinato accompaniment with melody often gets an improvisation "off the ground." The ostinato can provide a point of departure, a repetitious pattern to which the improviser can refer, in forming musical ideas.

An ostinato is a repeated sound or sound pattern. It can be verbal, rhythmic, textural, or tonal in nature. It can be used to further a set harmonic or rhythmic structure, in the way a bass pattern or a dance rhythm would be used in early music or contemporary jazz. In its simplest use, it can avoid a set harmonic structure and continue on much like a drone or pedal point, for as long as the improviser chooses. If one accepts all experiments, listening with an "open ear," one can develop a unique musical vocabulary by exploring with melody over a simple ostinato.

In a group, or if one is timid about dissonance, it may be preferable to start using an ostinato in pentatonic mode, which has no half-steps, and therefore, no sharp dissonances. Examples of pentatonic ostinatos are given in Lesson 4.

Procedure suggestions

In this lesson, I give some suggestions for starting to use the ostinato as a springboard for improvising. The examples are simple, and a player's inventions may be easily substituted. The two steps for the following exercises are:

I. Establish an ostinato.
II. Add a melody.

The use of an ostinato would vary a bit with different instruments.

Keyboard Group Solo stringed or wind instruments

(Please make sure the melody has resting points. See Lessons 1 and 2.)


I. Establish an ostinato.

A. Keep the ostinato simple, rhythmically and tonally.

Exercise 1 (See Example 1)

Exercise 2 (See Example 2)

B. Increase the tonal scope of the ostinato.

Exercise 3 (See Example 3)

Exercise 4 (See Example 4)

Summary: You see the idea. The ostinato may be in any rhythmic or tonal pattern, as long as the pattern is repeated over and over. Any melody tones may be used, but the most coherent melodies will use tones from the ostinato, or related by some kind of chordal or tone row structure to the ostinato tones. (Please refer to Lessons 1 and 2 for tone row information. Chordal structure and references may be covered in an as yet undeveloped lesson.)

II. Add a melody.

A. Explore tension between melody and ostinato.

Exercise 5 (See Examples 2-4)

B. Explore the "home tone" effect of an ostinato.

Exercise 6 (See Example 5)

Exercise 7 (See Example 6)

You may particularly find the Open Fifth ostinato of interest, discussed in Lesson 4 on pentatonic improvisation. Additional chapters on extended uses of the ostinato are contemplated.

Historical Perspective.

The ostinato is a structural staple of music. In folk music, we see the ostinato wherever we have a drone or repetitive base line, as in bagpipe music of Scotland, or dulcimer music of the Appalachian Mountains of the U.S.A. Many cultures employ stringed instruments with strings tuned to a drone or pedal point. The ostinato also occurs as a rhythmic constant, for example, in the music of dance forms. The tonal or rhythmic ostinato may be so strikingly a part of music as to allow instant differentiation between music types, as one changes the radio dial searching for a music broadcast. It is this instant recognizability of the ostinato that allows musicians to improvise over the ostinato so freely. The improviser knows it well, bounces ideas off the ostinato base, and derives ideas from it. An ensemble can play together over an extended ostinato, because the rhythmic and harmonic structure is easily anticipated.

Classical musicians have transmuted the ostinato to weave complex material together rhythmically and tonally. It is seen in the repetitive bass line (ground bass) of such early music as Pachelbel's Canon in D, in ornamental conventions such as the Alberti bass of Baroque music, adopted later by Mozart and Beethoven, in repetitively arpeggiated chords of the many musical works entitled "Ave Maria," and in pedal points and repetitive harmonic structures of J. S. Bach's works. It is used to hypnotic effect by Stravinsky in The Firebird Suite, and by Carl Orff in Carmina Burana. One might say that the contemporary composer, John Adams, has broadened the use of the ostinato to actually displace any melodic statement and become the centerpiece in certain of his compositions.

There are many books on the subject of traditional harmony, and methods of improvising using chords and accompaniment types. Many of these books demonstrate use of ostinatos, repetitive patterns. Some such ostinatos merely provide ornamental effects in music "arrangements;" others provide fundamental rhythmic or tonal structure. In popular music, for me, Fats Domino's classic rendition of Blueberry Hill is a notable example of using ostinatos. The bass line and right hand chord repetitions provide rhythmic ostinatos. The standard 12-bar blues harmonic progression, which underlies the main portion of the melody, may be viewed as a harmonic ostinato.

An example of exploratory keyboard improvising purely for personal expression and growth can be seen in Mychael Nyman's piano score from Jane Campion's film, The Piano. The film brings to mind that we most most readily improvise in styles we are familiar with. Nyman worked with the premise that it would be the music of Scotland and the 19th century which the fictional improviser, Ada, would have known. Nyman's pieces demonstrate that, improvising with a style in mind, the ostinato may be played repetitively without becoming tiresome, and may be loosely structured and changed at will, without losing continuity. However employed, it's useful to recognize that any much repeated accompaniment pattern in music, be it a rhythmic or harmonic pattern, be it short or extended in length, may be employed to ground an improvisation, as well as get it "off the ground."

Dominique Hazael-Massieuxweb design/csslayout-howto.html.en,v 1.3 2004
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