The pedal point is a common compositional device with a range of useful purposes. In this tutorial we’ll learn what a pedal point is and how it can be used for a variety of functions. We will study examples all the way from Bach to Hans Zimmer and see how different composers make use of pedal points to achieve similar goals.
Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in May of 2010.
A pedal point is a sustained tone, usually (but not necessarily) in the bass, which remains constant while other elements change pitch above or around it. It’s said that the term “pedal point” literally refers to the pedals of an organ, which the player could press and hold down with their foot while playing moving lines on top.
Another way to think of a pedal point is a drone.
The basic functions of pedal points can be split into two categories: creating stability, and creating tension. In this tutorial we’ll focus on the first and more common function.
A well known example comes from Hans Zimmer’s score to Gladiator.
In this often copied cue, titled “Wheat”, there is a constant A in the low strings which creates a dark and ominous feeling. Above this low A the voice and stringed instruments play pitches from the mysterious Spanish-Gypsy mode. The dark tones of the scale and the mournful vocal line create a sad and dark atmosphere that is firmly grounded by the low A pedal.
The constant low A makes the exotic scale more grounded, but much more importantly it creates a sense of static motion. At this point in the scene Maximus is remembering his home. There is no “action” on screen, only his daydream, and so the music should not necessarily “go” anywhere. The pedal point fulfills this purpose, allowing the score to create the mood and setting without forcing any sort of dramatic direction on the scene. A rising bass line might create tension and suspense, more active harmonic changes might create dramatic shaping and emotion, but the pedal point avoids these things from happening.
While a pedal point makes for a great dramatic device, it can also be just as useful in more straightforward musical examples, such as in the opening to this Mozart sonata.
This piece begins with what is called a “tonic pedal”, so named because the pedal point is the tonic of the key (the tonic is the “home” or root pitch of the scale, such as D in D major of G in G minor).
The chord progression of this opening statement is an elaborated I IV V I, but notice that the bass maintains a constant F. Although it is a non-root chord tone of IV, F is a completely foreign pitch in the V chord of C7. The constant and stable F in the bass is being used to show the significance of F and establish the sonata’s tonality. By the end of this phrase there is little question in your mind that F is the home pitch. With that idea firmly planted in your ear, Mozart can then go on to explore different harmonic areas around this home base of F throughout the rest of the piece.
Another example of a tonic pedal to introduce a piece, this time to an even more extreme extent, is in the prelude to Wagner’s Rheingold. The basses hold down a constant low Eb for the entire prelude, over 4 minutes (I’ll admit it requires quite a bit of patience to listen to, although it’s nothing compared to the 4 days it takes to see the entire Ring cycle!).
The dramatic purpose of this piece is to depict the motion of the Rhine river. Clearly harmonic color is not the focus here but rather the constant motion of the arpeggiating instruments above the drone. The Eb pedal creates a constant and steady framework for the rest of the orchestra to “flow” over top of. Although the river is in a constant state of movement, the actual concept of the river is solid and steady, which is being reflected and held down by the pedal point.
A tonic pedal can also be used to create stability and rest at the end of a piece. If a tonic pedal introduction establishes home and then moves out into more interesting harmonic areas, the tonic pedal in the ending signals a return to home and the motion coming at last to rest.
The ending of Bach’s well known Prelude in C Major from the Well Tempered Clavier ends with such a tonic pedal. The last 4 measures all resting on C. Even though the progression above the pedal is C7 – F – G7 – C, the constant C pedal in the bass creates an overall sense of rest and stability. Especially listen for the dissonant rub of the pitch B from the G7 chord, fighting to resolve to the home pitch of C.
Pedal Points Not in The Bass
In all of the examples we’ve looked at so far the pedal has been in the bass, but this is not the only way to create stability with a constant tone.
Jimmy Eat World’s Hear You Me is an example of a song with a constant pedal point but a moving bass line (pay no attention to the visual part of this video…)
Although the bass moves E B C# A, there is always a steady E (the tonic of the key) in an upper voice. Although the effect here is not the same kind of stability as Gladiator or the Wagner, the constant E does create an interesting sort of tension as it moves in and out of being consonant and dissonant.
This type of upper pedal point is a common feature of this style and is usually achieved by always keeping the same open string on the guitar in every chord. The same effect (on the same open string of high E) is used in the verse from Fuel’s Shimmer.
A Word of Caution
“But the use of a pedal point to conceal the poverty of the harmony or the absence of a good bass line is not justified. Unfortunately most of the pedal points of mediocre composers are of this kind. This is the poorest of homophony.” – Arnold Schoenberg
In other words, the pedal point is not an excuse to be lazy. Like all aspects of composition, you shouldn’t use the technique unless you are trying to achieve one of the specific purposes which it can serve.
If you need to intentionally create static motion a pedal point might be a good way to go. If you are just looking for an easy way to kill some musical time, you might want to think again.
Remember that the primary function of a pedal point is stability. Unless that is your specific purpose, you very easily run the risk of being boring and having your music sound like it’s not going anywhere. In general the pedal point lacks emotional depth and direction when over used.