An ostinato or repeating riff is a basis of improvisation for everything from Elizatbethan music (Grounde) to classical music (basso ostinato) to jazz and rock. It's quite different from improvising over chord changes.

Aside from the differences in the different musical forms, how do you improvise pleasing lines over an ostinato? Is it just analyzing the ostinato for chord tones and key centers or is it something more? Are there a set of classical music rules for improvising over a basso ostinado?

  • 2
    you are making a million questions... if you provide your understanding of improv for the style so far, you might get some answers. you're kind of asking for a blank check... Aug 8, 2014 at 19:25
  • 2
    I honestly can't win here. If I break up questions into separate questions I get accused of question spam. If I leave it in one big question I get downvoted for "too broad." No wonder this site has such a low QPD.
    – empty
    Aug 9, 2014 at 0:07
  • 2
    Well, you can win here. If you truly want an answer, start with one very specific question and provide what you've researched or know so far. This place gives great answers. If you need to answer a similar question, wait and see your response on the first. Aug 9, 2014 at 0:48
  • 1
    I'm just trying to get the site's QPD up so we can move out of beta. Finally. If noone answers my questions, I'll answer them myself.
    – empty
    Aug 9, 2014 at 1:16
  • 3
    @StephenHazel He is asking perfectly good questions, which are self-contained. I don't see why he giving input of his understanding is expected, it shouldn't be a requirement, it's not needed. The question can be answered without it. Too many people here are way too invested in complaining and closing than in answering perfectly good questions, don't be one of them. The amount of questions asked shouldn't be an issue either. I understand that it is unusual for this SE, but there's nothing wrong with it. I don't see a negative impact that justifies such complains.
    – NPN328
    Aug 9, 2014 at 2:15

1 Answer 1


For jazz and rock, the principles appear to be phrasing and space, and to some degree, implied harmonic movement.

Since the underlying riff is not shifting around the harmony very much (it would produce an unpleasant vertigo effect), the melody can enter and exit when it chooses. But these choices define a larger rhythmic structure. Frenquently, the melody will take a short rest periodically to wait for the beat to turn around. The relative lengths of these rests with their associated melodic fragments evoke some degree of space.

Having no rests at all, especially when syncopated, so that the coda butts up flush to the next anacrusis, like a melodic ouroborous, produces a very closed space. If the melody is being sung, there is literally very little room to breathe. Conversely, long-rest lyrical codas, give a more open space, where the rhythm can be enjoyed more as a separate part (== rhythm must be interesting enough to stand on its own).

If the repeated riff has a sparse harmonic content, dyads or single-notes, then the melody can also make use of implied harmonic movement. For a bluesy minor pentatonic bassline, the melody can play as if a 12-bar blues or other form were being played, because the bassline is simple enough that it can be reinterpreted in the context of the implied chord/key.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.