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Beginner’s Guide to Pedal Point & Pedal Tones

Beginners Guide to Pedal Point

If you’re a music lover, chances are you’ve heard of a pedal. But the term “pedal point” means something different than just the pedal on a piano. In this guide I want to explain it in a way that is easy to understand, even for the beginner!

It is one thing to play the pedal physically on the piano; it is another thing to understand pedal in music. (By the way, do you like all alliterations I’m making here?)

What is the meaning of Pedal Point?

The very first thing we have to discuss when it comes to pedal point is what it IS in the first place!

According to Dictionary.com, pedal point is a “tone sustained by one part, usually the bass, while other parts progress without reference to it.” One note or tone sustains for awhile the harmonies above it change in an unusal way.

Okay, so that probably sounds like a rather technical definition. If you’re a beginner, it probably sounds like Greek!

So let me put it in simpler terms:

With a pedal point, you will usually have one note or tone that is holding out for a long period of time. It is usually a lower note. While this note holds out, there will be other musical things played that don’t technically “belong” there in terms of chords.

But that is part of the “point” of a pedal point in the first place – to create dissonance. We’ll get more into this later!

Different names for Pedal Point

Pedal point can be referred to in a variety of different ways, including the following:

  • Pedal note
  • Pedal tone
  • Organ point

These terms all harken back to the original use of pedal point—on an organ!

Organs have the unique ability to sustain a note using the pedal keyboard at the feet for long periods of time.

This sound ultimately became known as pedal point and has now translated to be used in a variety of different instruments and styles of music.

(By the way, if you would like to learn more about playing the organ, check out OrganistHeidi.com!)

pedal in music

Pedal Point Example in Music

Here’s a quick little example of pedal point that I made. As you can see, there is a C tone that is holding in the bass clef for four whole measures (it is all tied together so it holds the whole time!)

Then in the right hand, we have a moving melody with different chords.

Now technically, there is a C chord, G chord, and F chord all played in the right hand…but the bass notes do not follow those chords. Instead it remains on one note, the C. That is a pedal point!

pedal point example

Now let’s take a look at that same passage again, but this time with the chords added on so you can see them:

pedal point with chords

See how the chords change 5 times while the left hand remains the same?

Pedal point can create some dissonance because of this. But it is really a GOOD thing! Personally I love the way pedal point sounds. It is usually not a bad sounding dissonance.

Examples of Pedal Point in Songs

So are you ready to hear pedal points in action? Here is a video that will show you several different examples of pedal point being used in popular music.

Why Use Pedal Tones Anyway?

There are a few reasons that composers put pedal tones into their music. Let’s take a look at some that are found in specific pieces (including classical) to illustrate why they are used.

1. They are a great way to create excitement, drama and suspense.

Because pedal points have that one underlying tone, it can create quite the suspensful feeling for the listener—especially if the tone is repeated over and over again (rather than held out the whole time).

Take a listen to this Bach Prelude and Fugue. From the very beginning you can see and hear the pedal tone – it is the repeating D in the bass clef!

One interesting thing to note is that it is common for Bach Fugues to end with a section of pedal point. However, the one we just listened to began with it instead!

2. They are used to strengthen a final cadence (ending of a piece)

Speaking of ending with a pedal point, another great use for them is to strengthen a final cadence and make the resolution more final.

With this method, pedal tones are used to create one last dissonant section before resolving to the tonic (the main chord of the key, also called the 1 chord).

Inserting the pedal point makes the ending feel all that much more complete. Once the resolution comes, you just know the song is over! Check out the video below where Ricky Molina demonstrates this on the guitar from the song “Evergreen” from A Star is Born. He also will play a ritard, which adds in more dramatic effect, so listen for that!

I’ve made the video play right before the pedal point happens, but if you want to hear it from the beginning of the song you’ll want to backup a few minutes.

3. They are used to signify an important section of a piece.

Inverted Pedal points

There is actually more than one type of pedal point…the second most common is called an inverted pedal point!

Inverted pedal points are just the opposite of regular ones. The sustained note is on the TOP, while the changing harmonies are lower on the bottom.

Here is the same example I used above but inverted:

inverted pedal point

As you can see, this time the C is in the treble clef, with the chords changing in the bass clef.

Related: what does rubato mean in music?

Is it the same for guitar and piano?

Yes! While the action of creating pedal tones will vary from instrument to instrument, the concept remains the same.

It still refers to one sustained note with other changing chords and harmonies.

How do you indicate a pedal point?

Usually, pedal points are not marked in the music. You will have to use your own knowledge of music theory to find them!

Some things to look for are:

  1. One note in the bass tied over for a few measures
  2. Repeated notes in the bass that are all the same
  3. If the sustained note sounds higher than the rest of the music, it is probably an inverted pedal point

Creating your own pedal tones

Are you wanting to compose your OWN pedal tones? They really are fun to experiment with!

Pedal tones are most commonly used with the tonic (I chord) or dominant (V chord) so I would recommend starting there.

If you play piano, hold out the tonic note in your left hand and start experimenting with different chord progressions in your right hand. Personally, I love the progression that goes from the V chord, to the IV chord, and then resolves into the I chord (like the example I showed in sheet music above!) But there are lots of options and you can try out different chords to see what appeals to you.

Check out this video for more tips on creating your own pedal tones with chord progressions:

Conclusion

Pedal point is an amazing technique and is fairly easy to recognize in music. So the next time you start learning a new piano piece, keep your eyes open! You may just find a pedal tone that you didn’t know existed before.

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