Teaching Ostinatos with GarageBand

According to the Grove Dictionary, “ostinato” means “a persistent musical phrase or rhythm.”

Fun fact:  The word “ostinato” is linguistically related to the word “obstinate.” 

GarageBand – and a lot of popular music, for that matter – has another name for these “persistent phrases” – it calls them “loops.”  And these loops are the building blocks used by GarageBand – and popular music—to build everything from hip hop tracks to alternative music.

Here are some great examples of fun songs that use prominent ostinatos:

Animated gif files are great visual representations of ostinatos, since they repeat the same motion over and over.  Here are some fun gifs (click them to view the animation):

You can use GarageBand to create and manipulate and emphasize the concept of ostinatos in many ways:

Example of a “looped” file.  (Note the sausage-link-like divisions in the track — each “link” is one incarnation of the ostinato):

  • Get to know the loops provided by GarageBand.  Drag the loops into a playing track, use the looping tool (upper right hand corner of the loop–your mouse will change into a circular arrow) to drag the end of the loop to the right to create the loop/ostinato effect.  Students can then perform songs they already know or improvise over these ostinatos.  (Hint:  start with percussion loops if you want students to perform other songs over your ostinato.)
  • Create an ostinato out of existing music (that is not an ostinato).  Select an audio file (preferably mp3) that contains a portion you want to make into an ostinato.  Drag the file into a playing track.  Split the portion of the file you want to “ostinato-ize” apart from the rest of the track by highlighting the track, placing the cursor where you want to split, and pressing command-T.  Then delete the extra portion of the track.  You can fine tune the length of your segment by dragging the right and left sides.  (Hint:  “zoom in” on your track by using the “view slider”).  Then, loop your segment the same way you’d loop a GB loop to create your ostinato.
  • Record your own non-musical ostinato.  Record some sound effect or spoken word using Garageband recording tools.  Then loop that sound to create an ostinato.  (Hint:  play with the exact length of the piece you are looping by dragging the right and left sides)
  • Record a musical ostinato.  Create a short rhythm, melody, or phrase.  Record it using Garageband Recording tools, and loop it.
  • Save your ostinato as a GarageBand loop.  Click on your new loop to highlight it.  Then select “Add to Loop Library” from the Edit menu so your loop can be used over and over again.
  • Layer Ostinatos.  Use the multi-track feature to experiment with multiple ostinatos at once.   Some will work well together, and others will fight.  (Ex:  Bb experiment page:  http://www.inbflat.net/)
  • Ostinatos Live.  Create an ostinato you can perform live.  These could be rhythm, instrumental, vocal, etc.   Try setting parameters on the ostinatos (ex:  all have to be in 4/4 rhythm or in the key of C) so that they can be layered together.

Created with:  GarageBand ’09, Version 5.1

Amanda Louise Miller is currently pursuing a Master’s in Music Composition at Oklahoma City University.  She has a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and extensive experience working in online teaching and faculty development.
Contact her at amandalouisemiller@gmail.com.
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