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Putting theory into practice

Let’s look at this in the context of some slightly pedantic but nonetheless useful theory:

Let’s start with a simple acid-style riff using just the notes A and G:

In this case the ostinato is in A minor. On a theoretical level, the G is the minor 7th of A, rather than the major 7th which would be G#.

As with nearly all aspects of music there are no hard and fast rules concerning what fits together harmonically, but it’s generally safe to assume that chords built using notes from a particular scale will fit nicely under a melody in that same key.

If we go up a minor scale in 7th chords (ie starting with the root minor 7, then raising the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th of the chord one note up the scale each time) we can work out the ‘safest’ chords available to us for putting under this ostinato.

If you happen to be using an ostinato in a major key, it’s convenient to note that all minor keys have a ‘relative major’ key (and vice versa), which uses all the same notes. The 3rd note of a minor key tells you its relative major, the 6th note of a major its relative minor. Therefore, you can start the same progression above at its 3rd interval, C major 7, to see all the chords available in A minor’s relative major scale, C major.

The chords we have available for our A minor ostinato (if we’re playing it safe!) are A minor 7, B minor 7 flat 5, C major 7, D minor 7, E minor 7, F major 7, G dominant 7 and finally A minor 7 at the top again.

They sound like this:

While these chords’ names might not be so important to us, the chords should fit nicely under the ostinato, and we can play some of them underneath to start building our track. Here, we’re using a chord progression of Am7, Em7, Fmaj7, Dm7:

The applications of ostinatos are limitless, from trance riffs to dubstep melodies via 303 acid lines. Depending on its subtlety or complexity, a simple repeating ostinato can help with anything from ‘gluing’ an arrangement together structurally to just giving a crowd something to point their fingers to.


If you enjoyed this tutorial you might find our book ‘The Secrets of Dance Music Production’ a helpful resource for similar tutorials.

Author Oliver Curry
30th August, 2012

Passing Notes is sponsored by

Spitfire Audio

Spitfire Audio is a British company founded by two film composers looking to revolutionise sampling.

They set about recording the world’s finest players in the best locations in order to capture samples of unrivalled quality. Used across the music, gaming and film industry, Spitfire has become the go-to for producers and composers looking to add truly authentic sounds to their works.

With offices in Central London and a growing workforce of experienced music, film and recording professionals, their revolution continues.

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