Pedal point

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Pedal tone example.[1] About this sound Play 

In tonal music, a pedal point (also pedal tone, pedal note, organ point, or pedal) is a sustained tone, typically in the bass, during which at least one foreign, i.e., dissonant harmony is sounded in the other parts. A pedal point sometimes functions as a "non-chord tone", placing it in the categories alongside suspensions, retardations, and passing tones. However, the pedal point is unique among non-chord tones, "in that begins on a consonance, sustains (or repeats) through another chord as a dissonance until the harmony", not the non-chord tone, "resolves back to a consonance." [2]

Pedal point example. About this sound Play 

Pedal points "have a strong tonal effect, 'pulling' the harmony back to its root." [2] When a pedal point occurs in a voice other than the bass, it is usually referred to as an inverted pedal point[3] (see inversion). Pedal points are usually on either the tonic or the dominant (fifth note of the scale) tones. The pedal tone is considered a chord tone in the original harmony, then a nonchord tone during the intervening dissonant harmonies, and then a chord tone again when the harmony resolves. A dissonant pedal point may go against all harmonies present during its duration, being almost more like an added tone than a nonchord tone, or pedal points may serve as atonal pitch centers.

The term comes from the organ for its ability to sustain a note indefinitely and the tendency for such notes to be played on an organ's pedal keyboard. The pedal keyboard on an organ is played by the feet; as such, the organist can hold down a pedal point for lengthy periods while both hands perform higher-register music on the manual keyboards.


A double pedal is two pedal tones played simultaneously. An inverted pedal is a pedal that is not in the bass (and often is the highest part.) Mozart included numerous inverted pedals in his works, particularly in the solo parts of his concertos. An internal pedal is a pedal that is similar to the inverted pedal, except that it is played in the middle register between the bass and the upper voices.

A drone differs from a pedal point in degree or quality. A pedal point may be a nonchord tone and thus required to resolve, unlike a drone, or a pedal point may simply be a shorter drone, a drone being a longer pedal point.

Pedal points are often found near the end of fugues " reestablish the tonality of the composition after it has become clouded by the numerous modulations and digressions along the way within the middle entries of the subject and answer and in the connecting episodes."[4] Fugues often conclude with figures written over a bass pedal point.[5] Pedal points are also used in other polyphonic compositions to strengthen a final cadence, signal important structural points in the composition, and for their dramatic effect.

Pedal tone in Bach's Prelude no. 6 in D Minor, BWV 851, from The Well Tempered Clavier, Book I, m.1-2.[3] About this sound Play  or About this sound all  All pedal tone notes are consonant except for the last three of the first measure.[3]

Pedal points are somewhat problematic on the harpsichord or piano, which have only a limited sustain capability. Often the pedal note is simply repeated at intervals. A pedal tone can also be realized with a trill; this is particularly common with inverted pedals. Another method of producing a pedal point on the harpsichord is to repeat the pedal point note (or its octave) on every beat. The rarely seen pedal harpsichord, a harpsichord with a pedal keyboard, makes it easier to perform repeated bass notes on the harpsichord, since both hands are still free to play on the upper manual keyboards.

Pedal points often appear in early baroque music "alla battaglia", notably prolonged in Heinrich Schütz's Es steh Gott auf (SWV 356) and Claudio Monteverdi's Altri canti di Marte.[6]

The term is also used to describe a bass note that is held for a long period in orchestral music, as in the symphonies of Jean Sibelius. Pedal points for orchestral music are often performed by the double basses with the bow, which creates a sustained, organ-like bass tone underneath the changing harmonies in the upper voices.

Another example, one in which a timpani roll is used as the pedal point, is the final section of Johannes Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem: "Herr, lehre doch mich." In this example, a D natural is sustained in pedal point for nearly 2½ minutes until resolving in the final chord of the movement.

Use in jazz and popular music[edit]

Examples of jazz tunes which include pedal points include Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" (intro), Stevie Wonder's "Too High" (intro), Bill Evans's "Skidoo", Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance", Pat Metheny's "Lakes" and "Half Life of Absolution", and John Coltrane's "Naima".[7] The latter, from the album Giant Steps, has the notation "E pedal" to instruct the bass player to play a sustained pedal. Jazz musicians also use pedal points to add tension to the bridge or solo sections of a tune. In an ii-V-I progression, some jazz musicians play a V pedal note under all three chords, or under the first two chords. Other examples include Miles Davis's "Agitation".[citation needed]

Pop songs using pedal points include "Fly like an Eagle" by the Steve Miller Band, "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder, and "Crazy" by Seal.[citation needed] The progressive rock band Genesis often used a "pedal-point groove", in which the "bass remains static on the tonic as chords move above the bass at varying speeds," with the Genesis songs "Cinema Show" and "Apocalypse in 9/8"[verification needed] being examples of this.[8] "By the late 1970s and early 1980s, pedal-point grooves such as this had become a well-worn cliché of progressive rock as they had of funk (James Brown’s "Sex Machine"), and were already making frequent appearances in more commercial styles such as stadium rock (Van Halen’s 'Jump') and synth-pop (Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 'Relax')."[8]

Film composers use pedal points to add tension to thrillers and horror films. In the Hitchcock thriller film North by Northwest, Bernard Herrmann, "uses the pedal point and ostinato as techniques to achieve tension," resulting in a dissonant, dramatic effect. In one scene, "The Phone Booth", Herrmann, "uses the timpani playing a low pedal B-flat to create a sense of impending doom," as one character is arranging for another character's murder.[9]

Rock guitarists have used pedal points in their solos, especially neoclassical guitarists such as Yngwie Malmsteen. Other rock guitarists that use pedal points in solos are Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, John Petrucci, Jason Becker, Paul Gilbert, John Sykes and Vinnie Moore. Pedal points can be heard on records such as Vinnie Moore's "Time Odyssey" and "Mind's Eye"'; Yngwie Malmsteen's "Rising Force"; Jason Becker's "Perpetual Burn"; and Richie Kotzen's "Fever Dream".[citation needed] Thrash metal in particular makes abundant use a muted low E string (or lower, if other tunings are used) as a pedal point. Examples of thrash metal bands that make use of a muted low E string pedal point include: Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax. Megadeth's song "Hangar 18" in particular makes use of pedal point throughout the track until its ending solo sections.[citation needed] In small combo jazz or jazz fusion groups, the double bass player or Hammond organist may also introduce a pedal point (usually on the tonic or the dominant) in a tune that does not explicitly request a pedal point, to add tension and interest.

Other examples include The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On" (chorus: octave E's against A, G, and F major chords) and John Denver's "The Eagle And The Hawk" (intro: top two guitar strings, B & E, against B, A, G, F, and E major chords).[10] Also, Tom Petty's "Free Falling" and Goo Goo Dolls' "Name".[11] The original theme song for the show 3-2-1 Contact features a funky guitar holding an A chord as the rest of the orchestra plays a descending scale.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zinn, David (1981). The Structure & Analysis of the Modern Improvised Line, p.118. ISBN 978-0-935016-03-1.
  2. ^ a b Frank, Robert J. (2000). "Non-Chord Tones", Theory on the Web, Southern Methodist University.
  3. ^ a b c Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.99. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
  4. ^ "The Fugue", an outline of the substantials of a fugue based on Hugo Norden's Foundation Studies in Fugue
  5. ^ Smith, Timothy A. (1996). "Anatomy of a Fugue", .
  6. ^ Gerald Drebes: ‘‘Schütz, Monteverdi und die „Vollkommenheit der Musik“ – „Es steh Gott auf“ aus den „Symphoniae sacrae“ II (1647)‘‘. In: ‘‘Schütz-Jahrbuch‘‘, Jg. 14, 1992, p. 25-55, h. 37-40, online: [1] (German)
  7. ^ Rawlins, Robert (2005). Jazzology: The Encyclopedia of Jazz Theory for All Musicians, p.132. ISBN 0-634-08678-2.
  8. ^ a b "Composition And Experimentation In British Rock 1967–1976", Philomusica on-line.
  9. ^ "A Case Study of the Bernard Herrmann Style", p.2, Hitchcock.TV.
  10. ^ Stephenson, Ken (2002). What to Listen for in Rock: A Stylistic Analysis, p.77. ISBN 978-0-300-09239-4.
  11. ^ Stephenson (2002), p.81.