Repeating patterns

Often the most mysterious side of music is how it all fits together. Perhaps it is simply that composition has always been an activity for the few. We wouldn’t expect to produce the beauty of Mozart at the first attempt, but there are ways to start and one of the most frequently used techniques is ‘ostinati’, also known as ‘riffs’ or repeating patterns.


A jazz musician will call them ‘riffs’, a classical musician ‘ostinati’. These are two words for a straightforward device; short patterns, often played over and over again, which can be woven together to form a musical texture. The technique runs through classical music, jazz and rock, and is at the root of African, Brazilian and Cuban musical traditions.

For example, Brazilian Samba, one of the greatest traditions in world music, relies almost entirely on repeated patterns played on percussion instruments. Each instrument has its own pattern. The individual patterns used are not very complicated. Patterns are initially taught with the voice and then students learn to copy the patterns using body sounds. Only at this stage, when the patterns have been thoroughly digested, are the patterns played on instruments.

This method can be used with most groups and not only does it work, it is great fun.

Music Machines

Perhaps the most useful starting point is the metaphor of machines. A machine works through a variety of connected parts, each doing the same job over and over again. Try making your fantasy machine.

  • Start around the edge of the room.
  • Each pupil will make a sound and/or a movement as their own component of the machine in the centre of the room.
  • It can be good to use sound and movement together.
  • Make sure that the components contrast with each other, as they do in any machine, and yet fit together.
  • Once you have your machine running smoothly, you will need to decide how it starts and stops. The easiest way is to start component by component and let the machine slowly come to life. Use the reverse order to stop.
  • You will next want to see if you can get your machine to speed up and slow down. To achieve this you will need some signal as an ‘accelerator’ and ‘brake’.
  • You can add a gear change to the machine. As the machine gets faster and faster, you need to change gear or explode! At the signal for the gear change, each component shifts to a new, slower pattern or simply continues with the same pattern at a much slower speed.

More ways to build riffs

  • Word patterns. Select a subject – food or transport often work the best – and each pupil, or group of pupils, repeats their own favourite word in a rhythm. Having a steady drum beat helps.
  • Switch. Start off a pattern with voice, body or instruments and ask the group to join in with you. Change to a new pattern while the group continues with the old. When you shout “switch”, the group switches to your new pattern.
  • Teaching round a circle. With the group in a circle start off a repeating pattern. Teach it to the person next to you, who in turn teaches it to the person next to them, who in turn teaches it…….. After a while, start off a new pattern. Members of the group continue on the old pattern until the person next to them starts off a new one.
  • As a background. Create a piece using repeating patterns and use this as a musical background. In the foreground you could use a musical conversation. (See ‘Working one-to-one’ in our ‘Composition and improvisation’ section).
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