Join Julian Velard for an in-depth discussion in this video The pedal point, part of Music Theory for Songwriters: Harmony.
- A pedal point is a technique that keeps the sustain note consistent through changing chords. Let me show you a simple pedal point. I'll play you a one, four five, all over a bass of C in C-major. (piano chords playing) Pedal points are typically in the bass part of a song, but can also appear in other voices of the harmony. The constant note can function as both the chord and non-chord tone. It typically starts as a consonant note, becomes dissonant, and resolves with consonance.
The result is dramatic and very effective. The term pedal point comes from the organ, where the bass is typically played by foot pedals, which gives it the ability to sustain bass notes for long periods of time. Pedal points are a great way to create tension in a song. As the chords move across the pedal, our need for resolution grows. They are also used to create excitement, especially at faster tempos. One of the most famous examples of a bass pedal point in pop music is the opening of Van Halen's Jump. The song is in C, and it starts out with a C in the bass, which is the tonic pedal point, and then it plays variations of F, G, and C above it.
You should go check it out. Other nice examples of tonic bass pedal points in pop tunes are the verses of: Clearly, it's a common songwriting technique in pop music. Another common pedal point used in the bass is the dominant, or fifth degree of a key. A nice way to use the dominant pedal point is as the verse approaches the chorus of a song.
This works especially well if the verse ends on a five and the chorus starts on a one. So if we've got a five-chord in the key of C, which is G (plays chord), I'll play a bass of G and change the chords on top of it to build anticipation of the one-chord. (piano chords playing) You see how we resolve to the one-chord? We really earn that resolution.
Sometimes songs will have repeating bass lines, which are called ostinatos . Ostinatos can have a similar function to bass pedal points, but rather than have the harmony of the song shift above a single repeated note, it shifts above an entire bass melody. Let me show you an example of an ostinato in the key of C here. (piano chords playing) Here's the bass line, it'll keep repeating and I'll play some chords on top of it. (additional piano chords joining) Some famous examples of an ostinato bass part are: A lot of times, ostinato bass lines will keep their exact interval shape and pattern and move to a different chord center.
This happens a lot in the blues when the ostinato will move from the four and then to the five chord. Here's that same C-major ostinato, but I'll move it to the four and the five to make it feel a little more like a blues. (piano chords playing) Pedal point is also used in harmonies outside the bass part. When a single note is continued through chords as the highest voice in the harmony, we call it an inverted pedal.
Here's an example of an inverted pedal in the key of C-major, with a progression of C to F to Gsus4. I'll play a Gsus4 as opposed to a G because the C will carry over from chord to chord, suspending the B when we come to the G chord. (piano chords playing) You see the pedal? A famous example of an inverted pedal in pop music is heard in the Supremes You Keep Me Hangin' On.
There are also internal pedals. Those happen when the middle voice of a harmony stays the same between chords. Here's an example of our same C to F to Gsus4 progression, with the pedal voiced in the middle of the chords, the C note, making it an internal pedal point. (piano chords playing) Can you see the C staying the same in every note? Lastly, there's the double pedal, which is when two or more tones are carried through between chords.
This is a technique used a lot in modern pop music. A good example is the double pedal tone in Oasis's Wonderwall. The chord progression is Eminor7 to G to Dsus4 to Asus7. The bass part moves around, but there are only voicings used in my right hand for the four chords. (plays notes) B, D, G, and then A, D, G. The D and G stay pedaling all throughout the progression. (piano chords playing) You see them? Playing them right there, boom.
On the guitar, it's played like this. (guitar chords playing) You hear double pedal points used in the voicings of chords in pop music all the time, especially in the guitar or keyboard parts of a song. You'll recognize them right away in Katy Perry's Teenage Dream and Maroon 5's Sugar. The verse of Since U been Gone by Kelly Clarkson has a series of cleverly arranged guitar and keyboard parts that are just a series of pedal points.
The pedal point is a powerful arrangement and voicing tool that can heighten the drama and tension of a song. Start listening and you'll hear them all over the place. And better yet, try writing some into your next song.
In this installment, musician Julian Velard digs into more intermediate-level music theory topics. Starting with minor scales, he shows examples of classic songs in minor keys, and then explores the modes of the diatonic scale (e.g., the mixolydian mode). Next, Julian dives into chords with 4 or more notes, covering 7th chords, chord extensions (e.g., 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths), suspended chords, diminished chords, augmented chords, and inversions. Finally, he covers key centers, modulations, pedal points, alternate bass notes, and polychords. At the end of each chapter, Julian explains the techniques shown within the context of his own original songs.
- Working in minor scales
- Using Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian modes to write songs
- Extending chords
- Using 7th chords in a song
- Transposing a song
- Building different harmonies from a single melody