As the title states, I always seem to fall in with the routine of laying down an ostinato in every song as a means to convey it to the next phrase or as a static line to play around or as a way to show tension or building intensity.

While ok for a couple of pieces, I have developed a nasty habit of relying on them.. they are sort of a plan "B"  that has become a plan "A".

My question: can anyone suggest some other method for keeping a song moving or building excitement. Any rhythmic or melodic devices I should look into?

I really like Aaron Copland... All of his music has an fun and exciting quality.. that is the sort of sound/skill I would love to get to.

Well, I know the question is a bit vague, but It's hard to put into words. Any help would be appreciated!

Many thanks,

Jeremiah Edward

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  • Hello,

    That is great advice actually. I do tend to be a bit too rigid and systematic when I write.

    It's embarrassing, but I don't know how to compose with paper and pencil.. I've always thought that the people who can do that are the TRULY talented musicians... I'm just an enthusiastic amateur...

    I would love to learn. I've picked up several books on computer orchestration and music composition/theory.. I'm hoping that one of them will start from the ground up and teach me the basics that I've (foolishly) skipped over. Can you suggest any good reference pieces that could get on on the right track.  I"m trying to aviod the "________ for dummies" books, but maybe they are a better reference than i'm giving them credit for?

    At any rate, I'm putting away the DAW for a while as of tonight...

  • Hello again,

    I should have clarified.. I can read music (or use to be able to) as I had played trumpet for several years when I was younger. I understand tempo, time signature, note length, etc.. I can tell the different between whole notes, quarter, eight, etc.  I get those aspects of musics readily.

    That said, I have never tried composing with pen and paper.. I have always been able to (with the DAW) hear each part together in real time. I guess I just wouldn't know where to begin without it. I think it takes a certain talent to be able to sit with pen and paper, write something down... look at it and hear the music in your head. I can do that with one line easily enough, but multiple lines of music going simultaneously would be daunting. I'm amazed that the people who can do that are human beings and not some sort of music processing robot!

    But to write with pen and paper would allow me to slow down and focus on strictly the music.  A draw back with the DAW is that you're ultimately limited to the quality of your sound libraries. You work on writing around the best instrument sounds you have and you tend to fall into the same patterns.

    Same conclusion.. Part with Cubase for a while.

    Chris Alpiar said:

    Well theory and notation are just tge reading and writing aspects of music. It is inherantly the language. Its not reserved for any amount of talent, nor is it any more difficult than operating a computer. But it is the language. I dont really understand how anyone can really consider themself a composer without at least nominal understanding. Its like claiming to be a novelist, even amateur novelist, but unable to read or write in any language. And im not saying it to wag a finger or display any sense of elitism by any means. These words arent intended to depress, guilt, demoralize, etc. But if one is serious about their love for music, enough to take the time to learn a DAW and get involved publicly with composers as peers, well I would expect that yearning to include a basic literacy in the language. :-) What about a night class at your local college? I dont know where you live or what time you have to offer your explorations, but many cities have quite decent community colleges offering basic harmony, theory, counterpoint, class piano/ piano harmony, jazz harmony, etc classes for next to nothing tuition. It sounds to me like you are at that point where you need the next thing to inspire you - why not become literate and through that you will find a myriad of topics to further your music. Best wishes!
    Breaking the Ostinato habit- Help with compostitoin
    Hello, As the title states, I always seem to fall in with the routine of laying down an ostinato in every song as a means to convey it to the next ph…
  • I have another angle to it. Writing with a DAW you'll find that your hands land in the same old places over and over again. I have written some pieces with pen and paper, but in my opinion the pen and paper is just a means to get away from the limitations of your hands, though it offers an unparalleled graphic overview over what you're trying to achieve too. But I think the big point is to allow yourself to think music, instead of just playing it. I do that by singing every melody I come up with into a recorder (my phone) I then choose the best ones and pick them out (they are usually in between the notes since I'm a lousy singer). 

    The key point I have is that if you compose away from your instrument you compose differently. If you then write the melodies down or record them in your DAW is not as important I think. It's more important to separate the composing, arranging and recording processes.

  • To compose on paper and without instrument is surely the best way to avoid this problem. When I am composing with the piano I hear that the result has many "pianistic" elements. I have too much automatic reflexes.

    I'd opened a discussion about this: Has your way of composing any influence on your music

    Has your way of composing any influence on your music?
    Some of us use only DAWs, others prefer to write the score, with a pencil or with the computer... Sometimes we compose on an instrument, other times…
  • Steal, as all composers do. You are stuck in your obstinant pattern because of lack of listening experience - and a willingness to work others' stuff into yours.

    If you like Copland, write some open harmony stuff that doesn't babble. We show intensity in so many ways, here are a few:

    1. Melody - it goes somewhere tense, and then comes back to rest (usually, not always - as with everything).

    2. Harmony and counterpoint (voice-leading). The underpinnings of a clever song use harmony to give direction. Even atonal music has levels of dissonance to express intensity - and the pull-back from that.

    3. Rhythm - have some, or have a little. Or have almost none. Erik Satie showed some ridiculous examples of strings of chords that are just fun to look at. Try odd meters. I wrote in 5/4 for quite a while.


    Invent a system. I once took all the modes (scales based on the white keys of the piano) and wrote pieces adhering to one mode per piece. I transposed them for interest, and was clever with the voice-leading. The result taught me things.

    Look at other systems. How did Messiaen write an accompaniment? How did The Velvet Underground? Elvis Costello? Leonard Bernstein? And all song writers are famliar with most of Schubert's song cycles - just because.

  • I second stealing :) Someone else has already figured out what you are going after, so just listen to a bunch of music until you find it, and then transcribe it. You could get the score, which would be really expensive, but I have found transcribing really gets it in your head.

    I would recommend that you just sit down and practice writing very short themes with pencil and paper. Start off with simple 8 bar themes, until you get the feel for writing by hand. When they are short, you can keep your interest and it won't be too much of a stretch mentally. From there, if you find you like composing by hand keep doing it.

    I recommend a few things in terms of getting the theory down. A good fundamentals book, something like The Complete Musician. It is pretty expensive though, but you can check out your local library. There are others, Harmonic Practice in Tonal Music seemed to be pretty good as well. It was relatively simple and went over harmony, melody, counterpoint, and form.

    Another book I recommend, which really opened up the idea of musical form is Classical Form, by William Caplin. It focuses on strictly the form of composers like Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, but it is so well written I recommend it to everyone.

    Just set some limits on your composing, like "no ostinato" or 8 bar period main theme, ternary form, D major, etc. This will help prevent you from falling into a trap. Worst comes to worst, just erase what you wrote and start over.

  • Thanks for all the replies!

    I have since started writing by hand and have found it completely liberating! I am having a ball..

    Also, I'm glad to hear others say steal  a style (at least in the beginning).  I wasn't sure if that was a faux pas.. so every time I would write something that sounded remotely like anyone else, I would delete it. It's nice to see others encourage it to a point.. so no more same and guilt.

    Thanks Jon, I will definitely check out those books. I learn best by text I think...

  • You can also try to write a practice piece where you make up some rule for yourself.


    1. No ostinatos, your not allowed to repeat a single figure.

    2. You can not repeat the same chord until you have made at least 2 chords in between and no sequencing.

    And so on. Make some more rules for yourself, or completely other rules, it's just for practice. Maybe you will turn out with some new ideas.

  • Ostinatos aren't really bad thing though as from them we get themes and variations! The whole idea that every single phrase has to be different (which isn't saying it's wrong to think that) is ridiculous though!

    It's the same when writing lyrics. This word I'm giving emphasis and wanna give the same emphasis to the word that rhymes. The question then becomes how do I get there? The easiest thing would be to repeat that lyric. Not so much that will get stuck, but you may find another lyric that fits.

    Jam sessions are best for using this techniques.

    Let's say the drummer does a pattern with the kick; he'll then add a hat/snare, etc until he has a definite pattern and play that one until he eventually find another one. Which would be easier than him going: "Okay, I played this X number of times. Let me completely start from scratch to make up something else. Same goes for the other players - especially when who starts a particular ostinate rhythm says: (Bass/Keys, etc) "Follow Me." where they usually do the same thing (identifying there own patterns) This is how songs are built whether in jam sessions (human) or loops (DAW) form.

    And while it's easy to do that with a DAW, if it's "mandatory" to back away, then one may as well beck away from the physical instruments as well. Now, one should leave and come back so one will be able to focus with fresh ears; however, the idea that ostinatos are not good is false.

    I think too many who feel it's not good is looking at it from a "structure" point of view!

    All genres have ostinato in them. It may or may not be as frequent, but it is there. It has to be to remind the listener and composer what the central idea is.

    I was watching videos about chor progressions with the most common one being a 2-5-1 commonly found in jazz music. I also found out that the 2-5-1 can be altered and often times it is. (5-b2/#1-1) That half-step in the middle of the progression is due to tri-tone substitution which I had no clue I had been using for quite some time.

    With the example pieces I heard with the progressions there was an ostinato feel; however, my ear couldn't focus given the quick modulations (tonal centers changing). Yet, I'm actually adapted well enough to recognize what the initial tone center was and know how the song will get back there.

    Don't get me wrong, I agree that it's all too common to have that affect when creating, but music is more auditory than visual, so at some point you'll have to hear something even if it's blatantly an ostinato. If not, that means you are a master of progressive melodies/harmonies/rhythms. Knowing how to effortlessly chain all of this stuff together where every measure sounds different. That's all well and good, but frequently changing "tone-centers" (patterns) to avoid ostinato, isn't really a good idea as you'll confuse yourself.

    How do I make up a breve? (Two whole notes or 8 beats in Common Time) I'd drive myself nuts try to figure out all the combinations! Do you really wanna put yourself though that much agony? If so, you'd never write down or play the first note! Patterns/Runs/Riffs are constructed the same way.

    Also, how would one practice? The ostinate pattern may not be on the page, but one needs to do that until he or she has nailed it down. Heck, even better if the pattern is such because "Hey! I already know how to do that!"

    Another benefit is when you're composing an you dish out the sheet music. The repeat symbol is your very best friend here as you wouldn't need unnecessary extra pages.

    Lots of familiar songs use the ostinato technique and we know because when we analyze the tune, we say: "That's all this song uses!" (The I-IV-V is the standard). Ostinato works if you don't put too much of the negative expect on it!

    The musical scale is ostinate whether chromatic or diatonic! (A-G and G# where's it go back to?)

    Having said this, just wrote! If you end up repeating something, keep going! Music's about going forward. Not taking one step forward and two steps backwards. However, I wouldn't necessarily not look back because what you may have repeated in one section where it didn't work - may work in another section where being completely different would not!

    It's the foundation or composer's playground for conjuring up ideas!!
  • Here is a technique I sometimes use with a DAW to break out of an ostinato rut... negative space. In the DAW, I will lay many random tracks of random lines in random meters on the score layout ( I use Fruity Loops, way fun, way easy). Then sit back, listen and move/remove parts until something starts to come through. No preconceived expectations. Some of it is good, some not so good, but it always gets me into a different space. Buildups can be overlapping parts or instrument effects.


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