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. 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.
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.” 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.