The drones of the Bagpipe and the Hurdy-gurdy are extreme cases, showing how the Tonic or Dominant of a tune can be endured when held on persistingly, without consideration of consonance or dissonance. In good music a little of this “droning” is quite acceptable to the cultivated ear, which always desires the assertion of the Tonic and Dominant.

John Curwen, 1879.


Long notes in the form of pedals or drones exist in all musical genres and styles, including folk music on all the continents.[1]  Drone (also called bourdon) and pedal (or pedal point, organ point) are western musical terms defined broadly as sustained sound. Mostly, the texts concerning western (classical, jazz, and pop) music use the term pedal, and the texts concerning nonwestern music (including western folk music) use the term drone. Music encyclopedias suggest pedal and drone are one and the same thing, in different contexts.[2] Within western music analysis there is a similar situation: although music theorists would agree that the appearances of pedal tones can be extremely different, in music analysis their existence in a piece is often just reported, reducing the variety to the same.

Pedals (drones) can sound in a variety of ways – including being (almost) silent. Think of a very long pedal tone played by a harpsichord, for example. This pedal remains a long note for a score-analyst, but in the reality, it simply vanishes into inaudible. As a contrasting example, imagine a whole tribe singing a drone while one soloist sings the melody. For an analyst looking at the transcription, there would simply be a more or less interesting melody accompanied by a drone; for a participant in singing, this collective drone can have a strong psychic effect.

Drones and pedals appear in a large variety of forms. Aside from their appearance, their function and place in music can also differ very much. As a result, there is a whole range of effects that a pedal or drone can have, and a whole range of musical ‘meanings’ that can be assigned to it. But, what is it in these rather static elements that can accumulate so much energy and tension? What is it that causes excitement or the feeling that the piece has come to its final phase? What is it in ‘folk drones’ of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony that brings us listeners to different times and different places? What is it in the tonic pedal at the end of the third movement of Brahms’ A German Requiem that arouses us? What is it in the cadenza of a concerto that has the same effect as a pedal tone? Why are some pedals more exciting than others? In which way do some of them establish themselves as a safety-anchor, while others feel as quicksand under one’s feet?

There is not much written about these issues. The concept of pedal is treated primarily in harmony textbooks, with a (logical) emphasis on harmonic function and duration. In analysis too, all different pedals are predominantly defined by these two parameters (possibly mentioning the ostinato pattern, if applicable). Their differences are implicitly absorbed into the analysis of the other notes in a given piece. Such view ignores dynamic potential of pedals, and presents them as static forms. Probably everyone would agree that pedals/drones influence our experience of (the other notes in) a musical piece. But the opposite is also true: all the other musical events influence our experience of the pedal/drone in it. When put in this perspective, any pedal/drone is not anymore just a fact, but a ‘living musical element’, that influences and is being influenced.

In my previous research,[3] I have argued that there are essentially two categories of sustained notes: one category could be defined as harmonic process, the other as sonorous element.[4] I suggested we use the words pedal and drone respectively.  The former will primarily ‘work’ on the level of harmony (in a functional-tonal system). It could be said that pedal comes to existence when the harmony splits into two parallel layers that are rather independent. Such splitting can be perceptible even when one of the layers (the pedal) does not sound any more (but is implied). On the other end of sustained-sound-continuum is drone. It is also a layer, but with sonority as the most important parameter. Drone must sound; the sound is its essence. Most of the pedals in tonal music have, next to their harmonic implication, also sonorous contribution. Likewise, most of the drones in tonal music can be determined in terms of harmonic identity (at least in terms of scale degree). Even in pieces that are based on non-functional harmony, the mere existence of one prominent pitch will influence the hierarchy of the tone collection (with high chance that it will be perceived as the tonal center, see the reflection on Debussy’s Voiles, later in this text). Because of this complex nature of sustained tones, I have introduced concepts drone-ness and pedal-ness, to indicate the sonorous- and the harmonic relevance of a sustained tone in a particular piece.

The aim of my research is to come to a better understanding of the power of long notes. This issue has to do with subjective experience of music; but, as I will discuss in further chapters, much of this subjectivity is shared among the listeners of the same musical culture. The power of music is for a small part grounded on the properties of its physical sound, and much more on our acquaintance with the style. In both cases, we deal with the relationship between musical elements and the meaning they get in the listeners’ ears. Turning to music psychology in order to come closer to the answers I sought, I have found a new perspective and a new conceptual frame in the theories of expectancy. According to these theories, music expectations that are being aroused while listening to music are important factors for experiencing excitement. The legendary book of Leonard B. Meyer, Emotions and meaning in music (1956) has provided much inspiration for this essay. The book is more than half a century old, but the ideas are not outdated. More recent psychological research has focused on a deeper psychological level to explain the nature and the biological source of the expectations in music. An important book in this direction is David Huron’s Sweet anticipation (2006).[5] Other important psychological research has been done by, among others, Lerdahl, Margulis, Narmour, Krumhansl, Wiggins. They have outlined models for analyzing pitch or rhythm expectancy, providing verifiable theories.[6] Their ideas were influential for this essay. However, the current research is not in dialogue with these writings. It does not aim at verifiable statements, but rather at providing a convincing new perspective for thinking about the current topic. David Lewin has developed a model of music perception that also includes expectation as one of the parameters. This model will be presented in the chapter ‘Interactions’.

The principal concern of Expectational theories is how listeners experience the unfolding of successive musical events. According to Meyer, events take on musical meaning when their relations are recognized. Music is experienced and understood on the basis of (intuitive) knowledge of stylistically-defined norms. "What we know and hence expect influences what we perceive." (Meyer, 1956:77) The listener is, at the same time, grouping the aural stimuli, relating them, and anticipating on what could follow. The expectation of the future events is built in the experience of current events in a musical piece. In his book Beyond Schenkerism, Eugene Narmour presents his implication-realization model. The model explains dynamic structuring of musical events, led by implications of musical parameters, and their realizations.[7] Narmour writes: “Whatever structures actually occurred would always be related to what was implied. But what was implied would not necessarily be realized … Structure is never mere realization.” (Narmour, 1977:122, 125)

Elizabeth Margulis (2005:665) writes: “a theory built around expectancy absorbs the reality of temporal experience into its foundation, preserving the distinction between past events, which have become fact, and future events, which remain uncertain.” All the expectations (both fulfilled and not-fulfilled) are built in the experience.  Recognizing the role of expectancy in perception of music forces us to integrate the bottom-up perspective in the analysis. The analysis of musical fragments in this thesis will follow the temporal listening experience and try to explain the power of the analyzed pedals (also) through the examination of the (stylistic) expectations that are being made in the course of the listening.


The central focus of Meyer’s publication (1956) are the cases when the predictions for the coming events do not come true. Put in a simple way, when there is a friction between the expectations and the actually occurring events - that is, when the music surprises us - we experience tension.  Any kind of musical deferral (e.g. postponing of the cadential resolution) is by definition unexpected, and as such also triggers surprise and hence musical emotion (or simply arousal).

[1] In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music all of the volumes (world regions) include music with drones.

[2] In The New Encyclopædia Britannica, within item “drone”, pedal is “a drone used in the context of European harmony […]”.

[3] Sustained sound: Pedal versus drone, BA thesis, UvA, 2007. Pedal point, with particular focus on Brahms' pedals, BA thesis, KC, 2014.

[4] These terms originate from my previous research. In the current thesis I will use the term pedal-process (instead of pedal-event), to avoid possible confusion with the term event, as used by the authors that are often cited in this essay.

[5] Michael Spitzer (2009) writes about paradigm shift in the current research on this issue. Huron, together with Juslin and Sloboda, and Jenefer Robinson, present a Neo-Darwinian perspective. Their critique on Meyer is for the most part related to the concept of emotion. In the current essay this issue is less relevant.

[6] In this sense it is worth noticing that later in his writings (in the 70’s), Meyer himself has changed focus from expectation to implication. Narmour (1980: 136-7) has interpreted this as a step towards solving the problem of a flaw in theoretical sense: the concept of expectation is subjective in content, and as such, it cannot be formulated in falsifiable terms. Positivistic thinking has influenced the methodology of music psychology and some music theory (such as Narmour’s).

[7] Expectations (on the basis of the stimuli) could be seen as implications (of those stimuli).

Margulis (2005) adds more nuance to the idea that unexpected events arouse tension: she is particularly interested in the types of tension that are aroused. Margulis has developed the model to distinguish the three types of tension: surprise, denial, and expectation itself. This model has informed the analytical work in the current research. It has proved fruitful in examining the differences in working of different pedals/drones. [8]


The predictions about the following events are based on what the listener (consciously or unconsciously) considers ‘the norms’, or ‘logical music continuations’ in any given moment. Everything else (the material that surprises us) is felt as deviation from the norm (or from what was expected).[9] In Meyer’s writing deviation is an important concept. In the context of this thesis, it could be associated with the concept unrealized expectation.

Being acquainted with the musical style does not only influence the listener’s expectations on the note-to-note level. Each style has its own characteristic patterns that could be recognized as such. A composer can refer to another style by ‘importing’ these patterns in own composition. Take, for example, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. The listener can recognize its folk drones as such, if she is acquainted with the concept ‘folk drones’. The meaning of open-fifth sustained tones in this piece is created through recognition of this model, thus, through understanding it as a particular pattern – in this case originating from a different musical style, with different stylistic norms.

The importance of interrelations between patterns and the knowledge of norms is recognized also by James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy, in their influential work Elements of Sonata Theory (2006). They consider each piece in sonata allegro form as being in dialogue with all the other already existing pieces in the same form. The word “dialogue” is very interesting here. It suggests the interaction between the general and the particular. The general influences the perception of particular; the particular contributes to the ever-changing identity of general. Hepokoski and Darcy define five types of sonata form, which are described as models. They also define an ordered number of ‘default levels’ for tonal plan (and types of cadences), which could also be understood as models. In the authors’ view the composer is in dialogue with these existing models. In the analytical chapter ‘Models’ of the current thesis I will argue that there is a number of pedal and drone models, with which any particular instance of pedal or drone is similarly in dialogue. When any particular pedal/drone model is recognized in a piece, the ‘dialogue’ that relates it to the actual pedal or drone in that piece influences our perception of that tone. Each model is in fact a stylistic cliché. Even when deviations (unexpected or postponed events) are defining a particular type of pedal on a note-to-note level (e.g. in case of a dominant pedal), on a higher level, a type of pedal could be perceived as a part of the norm.

Some types appear on particular places within formal structure. The listener is sometimes able to orientate in the form when hearing some characteristic realization of pedal. For example, in a Baroque fugue, hearing a long dominant pedal probably means that the composition is in its final stage; in a classical sonata form, such a pedal would probably make us expect the recapitulation. The combination (or interaction) of the pedal tone and the formal structure influences our perception of the piece. Whenever a pedal makes us expect something, it implies that the meaning of the other (simultaneous) notes is changed. The meaning of both pedal and other notes is influenced by their interaction.

All the tones in a piece, with their properties, are integrated in a complex network where the levels of meaning are interwoven. Interaction between diverse types of musical events (including pitch, dynamics, clichés, etc.) influences the way we perceive musical patterns, and is also the ground for the forming of meaning. Through interaction with other musical elements, a sustained tone could be understood as being a particular type of drone or pedal (or none of them). In the chapter ‘Models’ I will outline and discuss a number of pedal/drone types (models). Their ‘working’, or the power that each of them can generate, will be seen as related to three things: theory of expectation, physical properties of the sound, and interaction between the musical parameters.

To a certain extent, the ‘working’ of pedals and drones is cross-stylistic. For example, in any style or genre with tonal-functional harmonic language, a dominant pedal will probably raise tension. Also, a drone with powerful, low sound will, in any style, probably cause some thrill. But, there are also many style-dependent effects. For example, a single interval can be consonant (stable) in one style, and in another style, we would expect to hear its resolution (it would raise tension). Style-dependent expectations could also relate to form, to harmonic progressions, to any kind of common patterns. In pop music, for example, a short recurring pattern, riff is very important. This pattern (that could be based on a pedal tone) is, in the listener’s musical mind, instantly being associated with the song it comes from. The repetition of such pattern, in the context of a pop song, could then not have the same effect as a temporary pedal-ostinato[10] pattern in a western art-music piece. The meaning we assign to musical gestures are always related to stylistic norms that we have consciously or unconsciously taken as the frame for the listening.

These considerations have proved to be very important in defining pedal/drone models. In order to narrow otherwise too broad field of research, I have primarily focused on the classical repertoire - which makes the core of my analytical chapters. Nevertheless, I have not restricted myself to it. The classical repertoire is already very rich in variety of pedals and drones, but at certain places it is necessary to refer to styles that are related to a particular type of pedal (such as folk drones or drones in ambient music). On other places, I have included examples from other styles with intention to emphasize the sameness, or to suggest the difference where similarity seems to be high. My ambition here is only to sketch the possibilities for further exploration. More research would be needed to examine the specific working of pedals and drones in the context of other musical styles.

The methodology of my research includes three lines: 1) the line of the literature, especially that related to the expectancy theories, 2) the line of listening to broad repertoire of music, and 3) the line of score analysis. The three lines were interwoven throughout the research: each of them has been influencing the others. For example, the ideas about music expectancy have modeled my analytical work; performing auditive research (listening while focusing on different musical events, comparative listening of various musical fragments) has influenced the definition of each model; the conclusions made on the basis of listening and analysis have occasionally led to changing of the focus while re-examining the expectancy theories; different theoretical focus has provided different language for the analysis.

After this introduction, the first chapter provides a brief overview of literature related to the topic. In the second chapter, I will focus to the concepts of pedal (pedal ostinato) and drone, seen from the perspective of norm-deviation idea. I will outline and explain the concepts related to expectancy, that will be used in analytical chapters. The third chapter deals with the concept interaction, and its possible role in analyzing appearances of pedal/drone. The central part of the research is presented in the chapter on pedal/drone models. Each proposed model will be defined and illustrated with one or more analyzed musical examples. Many instances of pedals and drones are not clear examples of one or another model. Therefore, I have also included links to a number of short ‘pedal/drone stories’, analytical presentations of various interesting examples. At the end, there are three case studies, where the chosen pieces are explored into more details.

At last, the electronic medium made possible to include the sound files, and larger portions of the full scores. Therefor I have chosen not to make the reductions but instead to annotate the scores. Clicking on the small image within the text will open the score in the full format.



Next: Pedal And Drone In Literature: A Very Short Overview



[8] Expectancy theories can help explain much of the tension the pedals create, but musical expectation is certainly not the only factor that contributes to their power. The sonorous quality of the sustained tone can have tremendous effect. One of the critiques that Mayer receives is that he “underestimates the connotative or denotative aspects of sound. Individual sounds can sound "cute," or "crude," "nervous," or "assertive," and these connotations influence the emotional experiences of listeners.” (Huron, Course Notes for the subject Music and Emotion, chapter on Leonard Meyer, online). Spitzer is on the same line with Huron: “Meyer never extensively entertains the possibility that emotion may be produced through states rather than processes; or through the appreciation of regularities (such as ‘grooves’) instead of subversions.” (Spitzer, 2009).   

[9] The unexpected (or deviating) elements will in most cases be re-interpreted to fit a new understanding of the music. In retrospect, most of the events would not be found illogical.

[10] With pedal-ostinato I refer to a rhythmic pattern realized on a sustained pitch. It could also be ornamented with other pitches.