A pedal point is a sustained note during which the harmony above it changes in some way so that the overall sound becomes dissonant.
As with a lot of music theory it is easier to see it and hear it rather than trying to work out what a definition is talking about so let’s have a look at some examples.
Have a look at this score and listen to the example below:
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You can see that the note in the bass is sustained on a C whilst the chords above it change. Can you hear how this change is creating a dissonant feel? This is an example of a pedal point.
Note: a pedal point can also be called a pedal tone, pedal note, pedal, or an organ point. It is called a “pedal” because the sustained note would usually be played by the pedals on an organ.
The Role of a Pedal Point
A pedal point is used by composers for 2 main reasons:
Creating Tension – A pedal point is a great composing tool for creating tension. This is because the pedal point is wanting to pull the harmony back to the root whilst the changing chords above it are pulling the harmony elsewhere – this harmony battle creates tension, particularly when used in a minor key.
Have a listen to the tension created right at the start of this Sonata in D Minor by Bach. Notice how the pedal note is not held down as one continuous note, but is sustained by repeating it:
Creating Excitement – On the other hand, if you use a pedal point in a major key you can create excitement particularly if you use a reasonably fast tempo. Have a listen to this example from the song “Jump” by Van Halen. The pedal point in the introduction helps to create excitement as the song starts.
What notes should I use for a pedal point?
If you are wanting to use a pedal point in your compositions to create excitement or tension then it is good to start by using the root note (tonic) of the scale.
Start by playing chord I over the top of the pedal note and then change the chords above it to chord IV and then chord V. If you do this in the minor scale you will get tension and in the major you will get excitement. Have a go at changing the tempo you are playing at and also the dynamics.
Here is a good example of a song by Ryan Adams that uses a simple chord progression (chords I and IV) over the top of a tonic pedal point:
The other obvious note to use for a pedal point is the dominant (V). However, I would still suggest that you start experimenting with the tonic (I) first.
Other Types of Pedal Point
All of the above examples are of typical pedal points which have a sustained note in the bass of the music. However, there are 2 other examples of pedal points:
Inverted Pedal Point – this is when a note is sustained in the top part of the music (rather than the bass) as shown below:
Inner Pedal Point – this is when a note is sustained in one of the inner parts of the music as shown in the example below: