I understand that there is a difference between the two, but I'm still confused. Are the terms "ostinato" and "motif" interchangeable?

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    An ostinato repeats multiple times without interruption. A motif can appear basically at any time in any place. Jul 12, 2022 at 10:34
  • Also: "ostinato" has a fairly narrow and concrete definition. "Motif" has a fairly fuzzy and vague one, meaning little more than "a recognizable unit." You could use "motif" in talking about visual art to mean a certain visual element, but you couldn't use "ostinato" except as a metaphor referring to the musical meaning. Jul 12, 2022 at 22:18

2 Answers 2


No. An ostinato is a sustained pattern, lasting many bars. A motif is a particular 'musical idea', that may itself last several bars, which keeps re-occurring during a piece.

An ostinato is particularly a rhythmic pattern that is repeated bar after bar, or in two or four bar sequences. A motif will pop up from time to time to remind us of itself.

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    I think it would be good of you could make the difference between "sustained pattern" and "keeps re-occuring" more precise. (I have no idea what you mean)
    – Emil
    Jul 12, 2022 at 7:02
  • Also, an obstinato brings along the idea that it repeats identically. But a motif (also called a motive) is often developed and lengthened into a more substantial theme later
    – nuggethead
    Jul 12, 2022 at 15:23
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    youtube.com/watch?v=MmzER7X2424 my personal favorite ostinato. Jul 12, 2022 at 22:58
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    @nuggethead - obstinato is maybe a better name!
    – Tim
    Jul 13, 2022 at 6:52
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    @nuggethead - seems comments can't be edited after 5 mins. So either scrap that one and write another, or leave it. I quite like it, thought it was quite clever! Somewhat apposite.
    – Tim
    Jul 13, 2022 at 9:54

No. They serve very different purposes.

A motif starting on a different note of the scale or in a different mode is still the same motif. Motives are defined by their melodic contour.

An ostinato repeats without variation, even when it clashes with the underlying harmony.

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