Pedal Point: Definition, Function & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many ways to add drama to a composition. In this lesson, we're going to check out the pedal point, and see how it can be used to impact a piece of music.

The Pedal Point

Have you ever heard organ music fill up a massive cathedral? It's a chilling and exciting sensation. The music sounds so round, full and dramatic that it's easy to believe you genuinely need that much space to play it. How do they achieve that? Part of it is through acoustics, but the other part is through the music they play.

Organ music very often contains a single sustained note in the bass line which lasts for several bars at a time. This is called the pedal point (named for the pedals of the organ), but also sometimes referred to as the pedal tone or organ point. Pedal points can be played by any instrument and any ensemble (organ not required), but almost always appear in the lowest register, letting the harmonies and melodies change above it. It can be spooky, chilling, thrilling, and satisfying. Yes, the massive cathedral helps, but it's the pedal point that really does the work.

Pedal points are named for the pipe organs on which they are often played
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Using the Pedal Point

A pedal point is a single, sustained note that remains constant while other harmonies and melodies change above it. Why would you want to do this? What this does is create a constant tone for your ear, which alters the way that the chords above it interact. Imagine playing a single sustained C in the lower register. Above that, you start with a C major chord. The C in the lower register matches the chord, and you get this deep, rich sound. But then you change the chord to an E minor (containing the notes E, G, and B). That C is still underneath it, and now it's pulling against the other notes, especially the B, which is right next to it on the staff.

The pedal point stays the same while the chords above change
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This transition from C major to E minor is naturally dramatic, but by maintaining the pedal point you've kept a piece of the original, harmonic chord and directly contrasted it with this dissonant chord. Your ears want the chord to resolve, and musical tension is built up. That's the purpose of the pedal point. Maintaining a single, bass note creates a sense of tension, drama, and direction. It moves the composition forward, looking for a point where the harmonies above it once again match it.

This is a very basic idea in music theory: the greater the musical tension, the greater the musical release. Pedal points help with that a lot. If you want to create a lot of tension, consider using a pedal point with minor chords above it. If you want to build a growing sense of excitement, stick to a set of major chords. The richness and fullness of these chords is heightened by the pedal point. If you need proof, just listen to the introduction for Van Halen's ''Jump''.

Making a Pedal Point

At this point, pedal points seem pretty cool but there's an obvious question: which note should you use? Really, you can use any note but there are only two which create the full, dramatic effect that pedal points are known for.

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