Pedal And Drone In Literature: A Very Short Overview



In Music Theory textbooks related to classical music, the concept ‘pedal’ is usually explained as a particular sort of nonharmonic tones. The examples often cover several stylistic periods (that is, they show various forms of pedal). Some authors pay attention also to the function and the position a pedal tone can have in a composition. Walter Piston (1941) is exceptionally elaborate on this topic.[1] He names two functions of pedal tone: to establish and to maintain the key. He names some of the commonest usages: dominant pedal as a preparation (“for the recapitulation section of a movement in sonata form, or in a slow introduction just before the exposition”, p.130), and tonic pedal as the reinforcing the finality of the key (in the coda section), p.130. Piston explains that “Since the stationary tone usually begins and ends as the root of a chord, a pedal point often gives the effect of chord expansion, as so is useful at the cadence to lengthen either the V7 or the I chords.” p.427. Next to this, he mentions the pedal as a means to make polyharmony (polytonality) perceptible (the pedal representing one of the two keys), p.132.

William Caplin sees pedal in a similar way. He introduces this concept in the context of prolongation. “The most forceful way of prolonging a harmony arises by means of pedal point. The pedal, which lies in the bass voice throughout the progression, contains the root of the prolonged harmony. Most often, this harmony appears at the beginning and end of the progression.” (Caplin, 2012:11) With this explanation, Caplin emphasizes the unifying role of the pedal tone, but also its power to unify different harmonic events.

While most western theorists would agree that pedal refers to the sustained tone, above (or under) which various harmonic progressions unfold, a slight disagreement occurs regarding its harmonic status: consonant or dissonant. Schenker, for example, claims that pedal tone must be dissonant. Obviously, the books that explain pedal as a type of non-chord tone, implicitly also state that pedal is always dissonant. As we will see later, this view disqualifies some of the most common types of pedal. Luckily, with broadening the range of what ‘dissonant’ can mean, things get different. For example, among pedal examples in harmony books, there are also pedals that become ‘dissonant’ when the harmony moves a 4th up from the pedal tone (e.g. tonic harmony above the dominant pedal). Interestingly, we can conclude that the pedal does not have to be a non-chord tone, but it must have a ‘dissonant nature’. Perhaps it is exactly this dissonant nature, as I will call it, that is crucial for considering a sustained tone being a pedal. In the case of tonic chord in the 2nd inversion, the is a dissonance between the bass tone and the root of the chord.[2]

Živković (1996: 220) indirectly explains this ‘dissonant nature’ of pedal: “Even when pedal tone belongs to the harmony of the upper voices, it does not follow their movement, but rather awaits the resolution of the harmonic progression that has digressed from the pedal-foundation and will (in most cases) return to it.”[3] Saying this, Živković suggests that the motion of other voices groups them together, and establishes them as an independent line. The pedal tone does not follow this motion and so distinguishes itself as another line in the harmonic texture. In this argument, harmonic constellation is of less importance than this ‘not belonging’ or otherness.  


In his Harmony book, Schenker (1964: 313) briefly discusses the ontology of pedal (as, in his view, the common definition “lacks precision”). According to him, it is necessary for a held-tone to 1) “represent a scale step” (Schenker refers to scale-degrees), 2) that above or under it the other parts are “led in certain motions”, representing at least two different harmonies, and 3) that the pedal tone “must not form part of the harmony of the different scale-steps involved.” (p.313-314). This means that the held-tone can be any of the scale-notes, and that it does not even have to be the root of the harmony (although, Schenker asserts, it will in most cases be the root). Above it, there must be at least one harmony that does not contain the held-tone. This definition disqualifies the tonic pedal under the subdominant, and the dominant pedal under the tonic. In his analysis, however, it seems that Schenker did see pedals in such cases.


Schenker then proceeds to shortly outline three common cases of using a pedal tone in compositions: pedal on the tonic at the beginning of the composition, pedal in the middle of the composition, and tonic-pedal at the end. I will refer to these in the chapter on pedal/drone models. At this moment, it is interesting to note that Schenker saw in each of them a “peculiar combination of rest and motion” (p.317).

John Koslovsky points to the structural importance of the pedal point, which “functions as a crucial form-generating and framing device of phrases, sections, and even whole movements.” (Koslovsky, 2012: 42) In his essay ‘Hold that note!’, Koslovsky pleads for more attention for pedal point in music theory classroom. “As an expressive musical technique it heightens the awareness of a sonority and signals large-scale functionality.” (idem.)

Heidrun Bergander has done a research into pedal points in piano literature. In her master thesis (Bergander, 1999) she categorizes pedal on the bases of harmonic function, number of sustained tones, rhythm (figuration). In the conclusion, she gives an overview of the usual pedal-properties.

Related to nonwestern music, The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music is a rich source of information. ‘Drone’ is an index item, referring to pages of all of the (main) nine volumes, to all of the world regions. The examples include vocal, instrumental and vocal-instrumental music.[4] Drone is seen in the context of tone-system (modality), as providing the tonic, or in the context of primitive polyphony. In both cases, the long notes are often just mentioned in the analysis, their properties not discussed, except for the length and the harmonic function.[5]

Drones and pedals in popular music are not an original invention within the genre. Popular music uses all the main variants of sustained sound which we find also in art music: folk drone, harmonic pedal, and textural drone. Related publications mention usually their harmonic function – if the music is tonal. In music where pitch is not the main parameter, theorists refer to their sound-properties, their sonority (e.g. Ericson, 1975).

In the domain of musicology, an important book is The Popular Origins of Western Music, where musicologist Peter Van der Merwe treats drone as having an essential function in the forming of the modern tonality.



next: 'Too long' notes 


[1] It should be noted that Piston does not discuss the functions and structural positions of pedal tones in the chapter on non-chord tones, where this concept is introduced and illustrated. This extra information is interwoven throughout the book. 

[2] Bergander (1999: 84) concludes that, related to harmonic aspects, there could be three categories of pedal tones: 1) consonant chord tone, 2) dissonant chord tone, and 3) non-chord tone.  The second category refers to chords of four and more notes, where the pedal tone would be 7th, 9th, etc. of the chord. The distinction consonant-dissonant chord tone does not take into account the special harmonic nature of the bass tone (in case of pedal in the bass voice), and as such could be criticized. Is the third of the chord as consonant as the root? Is the ninth of the chord in the bass indeed a different category than non-chord tone? Understanding this problem, Bergander emphasizes elsewhere the relevance of style. 

[3] my translation

[4] I have written more extensively about this in my BA-thesis Sustained sound: pedal versus drone (UvA, 2007).

[5] A good example is the chapter ‘Origin of Polyphony’ in The New Oxford History of Music (1957, Vol. 1: 21), where we read about ancient music and the first polyphonic musical forms. Canon is named as one of the oldest, and the discussing of its composing techniques and its realization in music ends with a casual note (about Papuan music) that “the canon is sometimes worked out over a third free part or over a drone.”