Vamps, riffs and ostinanti

At the community choir last night our conductor referred to part of a song we were practising as a vamp. I have heard this term before in the context of songs, but wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, so decided to find out.

According to the OED, vamp (/væmp/) has a number of meanings, including:

1. That part of hose or stockings which covers the foot and ankle; also, a short stocking, a sock.
2. The part of a boot or shoe covering the front of the foot; U.S., that part between the sole and the top in front of the ankle-seams.
3. Anything vamped, patched up, or refurbished; a patchwork; a book of this nature.
4. A vamped or improvised accompaniment.

Etymology: from the Anglo-Norman *vampé / *vanpé, from the Old French avanpié, which later became avantpied – a combination of avan(t) (before) and pié foot.

None of these definitions entirely fit what we were singing last night – a short repeated phrase at the end of a song.

According to Wikipedia, a vamp is “a repeating musical figure, section or accompaniment” that’s used mainly in jazz, gospel, soul, and musical theatre, and also in other types of music. Vamp can also mean “to improvise simple accompaniment or variation of a tune”.

The equivalent of vamp in classical music is ostinato, the Italian word for ‘stubborn’. A related term is riff, which is perhaps an abbreviation of refrain and refers to a repeated chord progression, pattern, refrain or melodic figure, and is used mainly in rock, funk, jazz and Latin music.

5 thoughts on “Vamps, riffs and ostinanti

  1. This prompted me to look up something I’d been wondering about. Apparently “busk” can also mean to improvise. I’m assuming this usage is limited to British English, because the only place I’ve ever encountered it is this exchange in a Goon Show episode, where some characters are attempting to float a piano across the English Channel:

    Bloodnok: Seagoon, take over the keyboard. I can’t steer anymore.
    Seagoon: Eccles, take over the keyboard.
    Eccles: I can’t find my music.
    Seagoon: You’ll just have to busk for the next four miles.

    “Busk” is used in US English, but AFAIK, only in the sense of being a street musician.

  2. “busk” is not uncommon in British English. It means being a street musician, but also to improvise – an email to me not long ago from someone I had brought a visitor to see included “Was it obvious I was busking it?”

  3. A vamp is often indicated in musical theatre, at the beginning of a song before the vocalist enters. The pit band keeps repeating the vamp until whatever stage business or dialogue necessary is finished, and the vocalist enters.

    Ostinatos, although repeated, are an entirely different thing – simply put, an accompaniment figure that repeats continually alongside the melodic/harmonic portion of the piece of music. They are used alot in elementary music education here in Canada, to teach harmony and polyphony, or simply to embellish performances by young musicians.

  4. Irish music piano accompaniment is often called vamping, tends to be just chords.

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