In the latest instalment of our dance music theory column, we take a look at how repeating melodies can be used to create hooks and provide continuity.
The name may sound grand, but in musical theory an ostinato is simply a melody line or riff that repeats throughout prolonged sections of a track, typically over chord changes. As well as potentially creating a catchy and memorable hook, an ostinato can provide continuity and help keep a track moving, linking different sections together nicely.
In this instalment of Passing Notes we’ll examine some tracks which use this technique effectively, then we’ll have a look at writing an acid-inspired ostinato of our own.
Can You Feel It?
To start off, let’s have a listen to Mr Fingers’ 1986 Chicago house classic ‘Can You Feel It’:
The Larry Heard-produced track uses the minor and major 7th chords we discussed in a previous Passing Notes, but this time we’re focusing on the simple riff that repeats throughout the track. Here’s how it sounds on its own, and how it looks transcribed in a piano roll:
The riff uses just two notes, A and E. These notes form the 1st and 5th notes of an A minor or major scale. We can hear from the track how versatile this simple riff is in A minor, fitting over the chords A minor 7, F major 7 and E minor 7 (all these chords are constructed using notes from the natural A minor scale).
The lack of a major or minor 3rd in this particular ostinato means that it could just as easily fit over an A major 7 chord, as we can hear below:
Another effective example of an ostinato is the Nightrider-esque riff that repeats throughout The Chemical Brothers’ 1999 hit, ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’:
When the bassline changes from a D to a G at 0:53, the ostinato continues, keeping the track moving and simply linking these two sections of the piece together.
Now let’s look at a slightly more complex example, Spor/Feed Me’s track, ‘Mordez Moi’, this version of it taken from Noisia’s Fabriclive 40 set:
Below is the riff in F# minor that starts at 0:28. (The G, highlighted in red is not actually in a natural F # minor scale, but isn’t prominent enough to affect the key.)
At 0.58, we hear how it builds anticipation over the ascending bassline, (also in F# minor) F#, A, B, D, before continuing over the drop at 1.12.
As well as adding hugely to the movement and ‘groove’ of the track, the repeated melody provides continuity and helps link the different sections of the track.
Next, we’ll take a look at how to put some of this theory into practice…