Monday, November 02, 2020

The different types of polyphonic singing 5: ostinato polyphony

Joseph Jordania has outlined nine different types of polyphonic singing in his book Choral singing in human evolution.

I will be working through each type trying to give a simplified explanation and some musical examples. 

This week it’s ostinato polyphony.

Not every culture has polyphonic or multi-part singing. When they do, it can take many different forms. 

In part 1, I wrote about parallel polyphony.

In part 2, I wrote about drone polyphony.

In part 3, I wrote about canonic polyphony.

In part 4, I wrote about contrapuntal polyphony.

ostinato polyphony

Ostinato polyphony is based on the constant repetition of a relatively short musical phrase (or phrases) in one or several parts.

As repetition is one of the key elements of traditional polyphonic cultures, ostinato is present in most polyphonic traditions. The most widespread form of ostinato contains a repetitive phrase in one of the voices. Ostinato is mostly present in the bass, but it can be in the top part as well, and in rare  cases in the middle of the texture. One of the most colourful and specific techniques of the use of ostinato in a top voice is the yodel.

examples of ostinato polyphony

Maasai singing is quite typical for East Africa: group unison ostinato on the syllables “ho-la-le-yo” against the melodic line of a soloist.

Singing plays an important role in Tuareg camel festivals (tende). In northern regions, singing is accompanied by the women’s choral pedal drone, whereas in the southern regions it is ostinato that mostly replaces the pedal drone.

Nuristani polyphony is based mostly on the use of two principles: ostinato and drone. Maybe the most important and salient feature of Nuristan polyphony is the amazing richness of dissonant chords and intervals. Here are some Waigali men singing:

The music of the Baka people is mostly vocal and polyphonic, based on repetitive melody and rhythm, with little variations and a lot of improvisation.

Krimanchuli is a kind of yodelling from western Georgia and is used as a top part in three- or four-part polyphony. Here are several examples from Guria:


next week

In the next post in this series I’ll be looking at heterophonic polyphony.


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Chris Rowbury




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