It's something I now hear everywhere, once I heard it a few times.

Take a song like Papa Roach - Between Angels And Insects. As the chord progresses in the first few riffs, there is a repeated melody fragment during each chord - F E G F E F. So you get a Dm overall chord plus this fragment, then Bb plus this fragment and so on until it starts repeating. In other songs the respective fragment doesn't stay the same throughout the entire progression.

To give an example in a completely different genre, take Мария ft. X - Сто нюанса розово - it introduces a melody fragment in the first chord, then reuses it verbatim in the second and fourth chord, but uses something else in the third chord, so it mixes the formula a bit.

It doesn't seem that the melody itself matters, only that it goes well with each chord in the progression. The overall feel is that repeating a melody fragment in several chords makes the melody feel more salient. The usage of repeated melody fragments while the bass changes seems to be a common occurrence in popular music and is apparently commonplace in "hooks" and choruses.

I want to find out what this trope is called and why it works.

4 Answers 4


The term Ostinato is usually used to indicate a repeated melodic phrase in classical (and other more "formal") music. In rock, you'd usually just refer to it as a riff. To me, the guitar riff in the Papa Roach example fits; but I don't quite hear the melodic aspect in the Russian(?) example. Here's a piano example.

Here are some more rock based examples of involving a prominent ostinato

  • Your piano example does not really include changing the changing harmonies described by the OP. Otherwise, nice find of the term "ostinato".
    – 11684
    Commented Nov 9, 2015 at 22:43
  • The piano example most definitely changes harmonies... first chord I, second chord IV 6.4 and so on Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 0:33
  • A classic example, youtube.com/watch?v=CvXXm4RkLP0, with the ostinato in the bass (in this case, also known as a ground).
    – user16935
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 6:50

I don't know if there is a name for it, but I can explain why it works. (EDIT: Dave's "ostinato" seems plausible.)

The notes you describe (FEGFEF) seem to center around the F. Excuse the awkward english phrasing, I mean that all notes except the F are some kind of embellishment. In classical music terminology we would simply call them 'neighboring notes', since that's what they are.

If the Gs and Es are embellishments, that means we can ignore them as far as the harmony (or chord, in more popular terminology) is concerned. When we do this, it becomes clear that the F is a chordal tone in both D minor, and B flat major (extremely non-exhaustive list); that's what makes this 'trope' work.

Of course, this only works if the Fs are supported by the context, for example by the meter (all Fs on downbeats). I can also think of a case where the central note would be the E, in the same motive. In this case, though, you describe the motive as sounding well with two chords containing an F and not an E, so I think my assumption in the second paragraph is correct.


It seems that repetition is one of the factors that makes music in general sound "beautiful".

As a counterpoint to this argument, Scott Rickard presented the "World's ugliest music" piece, (repetition-free, that arguably only a mathematician could write), while challenging the audience "to find something beautiful about this piece and revel in the fact that you can't".


The commonly-held rule of thumb describing predictability in music goes along the lines of, 'most people like music that is predictable half the time'. Then there's the corollary, 'sophisticated listeners like it less predictable and the more philistinic crave more predictability. Whether cultural variables are taken into account I do not know. Recent research, using an android phone app by Ekeus et al http://webprojects.eecs.qmul.ac.uk/hekeus/stuff/papers/SMC.pdf appears to support the rule of thumb, if not necessarily the corollary. My Life Coach/Financial Adviser/noted tin ear/wife needs to hear a song three times before she can decide if she likes it or not. All this is by way of saying that predictability in terms of melody, rhythm and tone colour will counteract dissonance in the harmony of your example-for most people. Of course, repetition is the key to acceptance; how else could we accept stiletto heels or flared pants?

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