If you want to write great songs, you’ll need to use every tool available to create with. Music theory concepts like pedal point can help you make better music and understand your favorite songs.
But if you felt a pang of terror when you read music theory just now, don’t worry. Pedal point and other important music theory ideas are actually not hard to learn and master.
In this guide, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about pedal point and show you how you use it in your music.
What is pedal point?
Pedal point is when a single note sustains over different harmony changes. Usually, pedal point is a low bass note that continues to play even when the notes above it move to different chords. An easy way to think about it is a never changing bass note played under shifting chords and melodies.
If you’re looking to add intrigue and emotion to your songs, pedal point is a great way to do it. This music theory tool is especially powerful if you want to add tension to your music.
How does pedal point work?
Pedal point works by presenting different sound combinations over a single sustained note. There are some big advantages with using this music theory concept in your songs.
Using pedal point can give you note combinations you may never have thought of using conventional chord progressions. Some chords you’ll stumble upon will fit within the key you’re writing in. These are called inversions.
Usually, pedal point is a low bass note that continues to play even when the notes above it move to different chords
If you’re writing in the key of C Major, pedaling on a low bass note will give you multiple options to choose from that fit with the key.
Here’s a harmonic progression in C Major featuring the note of C:
When the note of C is sustained through pedal point, this is what each chord turns into:
The idea of different notes from a chord being presented in the bass note are called inversions in music theory. Read up on them here if you’re not familiar with them. Pedaling on a sustained note is a great way to explore interesting chord voicings within keys.
Of course, there’s no rule saying you have to stay within a set key using pedal point. Sustaining bass notes is perfect for bringing completely new and different chords into your progressions. Here’s an example using the key of C again:
If you’re trying to sustain tension and prolong harmony in your songs, pedal point will do the trick. Whether it’s an instrumental bridge or a long, meandering verse, pedal point is perfect for sustaining harmonic tension.
Whether it’s an instrumental bridge or a long, meandering verse, pedal point is perfect for sustaining harmonic tension.
And if borrowed chords are a feature of your songs, you can use pedal point as a seamless transitional tool. In case you’re not familiar, borrowed chords are chord combinations from parallel keys (different keys that share the same tonic).
If you’re transitioning from C Major to C Minor for example, pedaling on a low C note will get you there without the shift sounding too abrupt.
Pedal point gets interesting when the sustaining note isn’t in the chords playing above it. Using it in this way will add strange and dissonant sounds to your music you can’t get with conventional chords.
Where to use pedal point in your songs
Pedal points can be used anywhere in your music where chords and melodies show up. Though they’re most commonly used for bass notes, these sustained pitches can show up other spots as well.
Pedal points can be used in the vocal and instrumental melodies of your songs. In the Arcade Fire song “Haiti,” a single repeating synth note starts playing at 1:28 and adds a surreal and tense musical character:
There’s no rule saying more than one sustaining note can’t be used in pedal point. On Oasis’ unavoidable song “Wonderwall,” the guitar plays the same repeating bottom notes under each chord:
Pedal points are great not only for adding tension into music, but also release. In “Jump” by Van Halen, the bass pedals under shifting chords until the chorus makes a dramatic entrance. The chorus itself isn’t special necessarily, but after so much of the same notes, it sounds completely different:
If you’ve been making music for a while, you may have already been using this music theory tool without knowing it. But whether you’re new to music creation or have some experience under your belt, pedal point can bring huge benefits to your music.
Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.
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