Opening Tonic Pedal

“Right at the beginning of a composition a pedal point is very useful in order to create, as it were, a certain nexus, with the effect that the tranquil continuance of the tonic - for in most cases it is the tonic we are dealing with - results in an economy of root tones, benefiting the subsequent, increasingly lively, root tones, with the further effect that, despite this tranquil continuance of the tonic, a sufficiently lively change of scale-steps [scale degrees] takes place above the same, as is required by the exposition of the key for its own purposes.” (Schenker, 1964: 117) In this beautiful definition, Schenker points out the play between rootedness and diversity, tranquility and dynamicity, the tonic itself and the key as a whole. Tonic pedal at the beginning provides the stability, while at the same time, other harmonies define the key.

Characteristically, the boundaries of the opening T-pedal are synchronous with the structurally salient moments, moments of structural differentiation. The T-pedal can thus underlie the whole phrase (possibly terminating just before the last chord - in that case realizing a half cadence), its half, or its basic idea. The inversed seems also to be applicable: if the pedal opens the phrase, the moment it stops becomes a local structural moment. The pedal works as a framing device.[1]


In the previous example, the tonic pedal underlies the first of the two identical phrases in the melodic layer. The harmonic structure defined by the piano is basically the same in both phrases (although more embellished in the second one). Tying the first phrase to the pedal puts more weight to the second one. Especially the second cadence feels much stronger. Although the first four bars are a phrase, the power of the pedal turns them into a kind of opening of a larger unit. When the pedal stops, the harmonic movement is free to express itself, and finally to produce a convincing cadence.

In the following example from Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder, we see a similar pattern. The tonic pedal underlines the first part of the textual phrase. The harmony of the second part is free to move and to produce the cadence.


An honest question is if there is a tonic pedal at all in this piece. I believe many listeners would respond positively. The fact is that there is only tonic chord in the first eight bars, and the melody itself does not imply any particular harmonic progression. At the end of each bar in mm.3-7, the melody (doubled by piano, marked orange in the image) features an unaccented passing tone. This could give a suggestion of a chord-change (especially in m.7), but I believe it is not the reason the listeners might feel the presence of harmonic pedal.[2]

One of the reasons could be the persistence of the tonic, with always the same pattern in the bass. Another actor involved in creating the pedal, I believe, is the difference that is felt when the tonic in the bass gives way to other pitches. In m.9, the phrase is free to develop, to unfold, to move, to have a direction. In retrospect, it could feel like this progression has been withheld. In case we have had this aural experience, we could say that there is a discrepancy between the persisting tonic and another felt layer (the one that desires to move). The two of them do not cooperate. The immovable pitch becomes the pedal. The suggestion of the dominant harmony at the end of m.7 brings some articulation in the relationship between the harmony, the pedal and the form.

Opening T-pedal is often present also in pop and rock music. The ‘classical’ example, often referred to, is Van Halen’s Jump (1984). Another example is Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love where the tonic pedal is in the form of a pedal-ostinato. Comparable to its structural ‘working’ in classical styles, in rock music also, the opening pedal usually marks a structural unit. This can be the whole verse or a smaller unit. Although more research is needed to better explore the implications of the opening pedal in other than western art music, I believe that the opening pedal in rock and pop music ‘works’ as an important structural actor. Furthermore, I dare to suggest that in these styles, opening pedal could be recognized as a pattern. This implies that it already exists in ‘the language’ that is involved in perception (see the chapter ‘Interactions’). Some future research must be done to clarify the difference but certainly also the similarity between the opening T-pedal and the opening D-pedal.[3]






There are two distinct patterns in the category T-pedal at the beginning of a theme. I will call them concentric and eccentric T-pedal. Under the subdominant harmonies the tonic pedal seems to enhance growth and expansion; under the dominant harmony the tonic pedal seems to prevent the harmony from changing.


T-pedal: Concentric


Schoenberg (1967:3) instructs the student how to organize a melodic idea: “Almost any simple harmonic progression can be used, but for opening phrases I and V are especially useful, since they express the key most clearly.” The interaction of I and V define the key instantly: when put in this order, I appears as a possibility (that it is the tonic), and V as the confirmation (that it was the tonic). The dominant function contains the tonic chord in itself, as a reference. It will (in classical styles) most often indeed be followed by the tonic chord (or its substitute). The pendulum I-V-I is gravitating toward the centrum, the tonic. The tonic pedal under this progression increase the weight of the tonic, and its ‘centripetal force’.

The dominant chord is in all ways dissonant with the harmony represented by the pedal. In the case of concentric T-pedal, the dominant chord opposes the tonic. The strong attraction of the pedal neutralizes the ‘attack’ of the dominant by making it its ‘servant’, by emphasizing in the dominant the reference to itself, the tonic.


Previous example shows I-V-I pendulum, kept together by the T-pedal. Pedal Story ‘Harmonic Pedal Or Foundational Drone?’ reflects on this piece.

The pedal in the following example is not just a sustained tone; it acts also with its rhythmical persistence (together with the other the other constituting parts of the chord). It underlines the presentation phase of the sentence.


T-pedal: Eccentric


Eccentric tonic pedal does not only prolong the tonic function; it also broadens the harmonic area of the tonic. In this pattern, the subdominant chord raises from the tonic foundation and the two merge in one larger harmonic field. Technically, the frequently used harmonic pattern is: I- (V)IV- IV -V- I, like in the example below.[4]

The subdominant is not completely dissonant with the pedal. Their harmonic functions are different, but the pitch of the pedal tone is shared. This is in a way a competitive relation: both I and IV could impose themselves as ‘the most important’. This competition is mediated by the listener (the analyst), and the result is obvious in the harmonic analysis. While some authors would, in similar cases, label the IV above the T-pedal line, others would not. A few analysts will perhaps even go so far to consider the chord IV6/4 and ignore the pedal because it is a chord tone. At this moment, it is useful to pay attention to the competition of harmonic functions, and the way it interacts with the sonorous consonance between the pedal and the chords. A possible result (through the interaction with the listener) could be the feeling of co-existence of I and IV, with the tonic function as the primary harmony. The tonic-ness of the pedal assimilates the subdominant area brought by the subdominant chord.

The role of the ‘linking’ chord, (V)IV, should not be underestimated. Its interaction with the other elements of the pattern is highly cooperative toward the integration of I and IV. It functions as a bridge between the two outer chords. In itself, this chord contains both I and IV: the first in the tone-collection, the second as a reference. This chord is not a necessary component, but imagine the previous example without it (I-I-IV-V): the smoothness of the broadening process is lost.

The dominant chord at the end of a T-pedal has a closing function. The broadening of the tonic is completed; the dominant chord is redirecting the focus toward the ‘pure’ tonic. The resolution of the dominant into the tonic has closed the circle, the pedal will probably end. When the dominant is synchronized with any structurally salient moment (e.g. end of a part of the phrase), the expectation of change will probably be stronger, as this situation is typical.

The evidence of the influence of this model on the aural understanding of musical expression resides in occasional illusions of pedals in the pieces that do not feature them at all. Brahms’ piano quartet op.60, for example, opens with an (introductory?) tonic, that is followed by the core motif of the movement.

Although the score does not show any sustained tone (except from the curious dim in the piano part, suggesting the tonic will not be abruptly cut at the end of the second bar, but would be brought to inaudible), the feeling is that the tonic pitch underlines all but the last bar. Although the bass register is not deserted in m.3, the sound-space of piano is not filled with other events, and the sound of the last fourfold tonic pitch keeps on fading (and thus is present). The understanding that only the dominant chord in m.9 marks the end of the pedal is influenced by the T-pedal eccentric model, that is stored in the listener’s musical memory, and that works in this case as an actor. In further unfolding of the quartet, the theme reappears several more times above an explicit pedal (each time in a different way).

Let us conclude by returning to Schenker’s words about opening T-pedal, and the ways it defines both the tonic and the key. In case of eccentric pedal that hosts only I and IV (with or without secondary dominant to IV), the collection of harmonies (I, IV) itself does not have the power to define the key. Actually, especially when the secondary dominant is involved, the collection itself could be deceptive. There are two possible tonics. Nevertheless, the listener will most probably know that the pedal-pitch is the tonic (and not the dominant), even before the ‘real’ dominant sounds. I believe this is a direct consequence of the judgement that what one hears is not an introduction, but the beginning of the piece. And, at the same time, this judgement is made also on the basis of the recognition of one of the opening patterns: the gesture of T-pedal.


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[1] C.f. Koslovsky (2012)

[2] The melodic G in m.4 is not dissonant because the melody has a modal character (Aeolian). Bartok (1972: 335) explains the consonant nature of the tonic m7 in folk songs.

[3] Possibly, both are preparing the refrain - keeping the verse still, so that the refrain can burst out with energy or movement. In case the pedal continues after the verse is completed, this could have the impact on how the following section is perceived. Some examples are Seal, Crazy, and Led Zeppelin Whole Lotta Love and Kashmir.

[4] Gjerdingen labels this pattern Quiescenza. He refers to a model that is used at the end of the piece. See here in the section: Closing T-pedal model.

Mozart, Sonata KV.310, first movement

Brahms, Piano Quartet op.60, in C minor

Mozart, Sonata KV.332, first movement

Brahms, Jugfraulein, soll ich mit euch gehn, w.o.33

Bach, Toccata and Fugue in F major

Brahms,  He, Zigeuner, greife in die Saiten ein!, op.103