Melodic Pedal

Melodic pedal is a sustained tone in the melody, often in the theme. It is a kind of inverted pedal.
‘Inverted pedal’ technically means that a sustained tone is above (possibly also between) other voices. It does not say anything about its relationship (except for the registral one) with the other musical events
. It seems that appearance of pedal in the melody (upper voices) has more power than a pedal in accompanying voices. Even when it is harmonically consonant, sustained (or repeated) tone in the melody has a conflicting nature. The sustained tone conflicts with the dynamicity of the other voices, that keep on moving. A repeated tone stands out already because it is repeated (think of many fugue themes that contain repetition, which makes them easily recognized when they reoccur). Repeated or sustained, a single pitch will, statistically speaking, at some point change. The listener expects the melody/theme (in a tonal style) to ‘unfold’. Mere repetition does not allow completion; there should be some change, at least to mark the end. At some point change is expected.[1] In this sense, melodic pedal has something in common with fanfare pedal discussed earlier.

As long as only change is expected, one does not expect a concrete event, and cannot anticipate what will come. The power of such expectation is not strong, as many continuations could be possible. Deferring this continuation raises tension, but could also incite saturation, with boredom or even irritation in cases when the listener does not believe (any more) in the purposefulness of such situation. In many beautiful phrases composers knew to transform the seemingly neutral repetition/prolongation, just on time, into an actual suspension. This moment at once aurally explains and ‘justifies’ the existence of the long/repeated tone. At the moment when the long tone transforms into a suspension, the weight is put on the resolution, and the persistence of the pedal could retroactively feel as postponing of this important event. Listen to the fragment from Beatles’ song Michelle.


Bach’s Air from the orchestral suite no.3 is a wonderful source of suspensions, appoggiaturas, and melodic pedals, in their full expressive power.

The sense of suspension in the melodic voice is the result of the activity in the bass line. The bass moves away from the melody and the stretching of the space between them is progressing toward a particular culmination, when the limit is reached. In this case the limit is the first moment where the interval between them is (relatively) dissonant on the downbeat. The harmony moves from I through vi, to subdominant. The latter could be considered being IV, in which case the M7 is a dissonant interval. If we consider it ii6/5, as I would suggest, the melodic F# is a harmonic dissonance. As such, its resolution would be the E on the second beat in m.2.

The long A in m.3 is again a short pedal that does not follow the processes in other voices. This time the activity in second violin and the dialogue between two violins in mm.3-4, create more tension.

Another beautiful example is Mozart’s string quartet no.15, already discussed in the chapter on sectional pedals. The opening D in the melody shifts an octave lower, to a darker register; the bass and the harmonies continue movement. The high F is not terminating the pedal but rather intensifying it, lifting it higher, further away from the bass. Second violin takes ‘a part of D’ over; the D continues to sound, now empowered by F. It should be noted that A in violoncello makes the pedal D dissonant (i6/4). That means that the melody goes from one dissonance (P4) to an even stronger dissonance (m7). This event I understand as intensification of the pedal effect.

The desired resolution of the tension is first of all a closing gesture, a strong, directed harmonic progression. A dominant chord could solve it. The prolonged D thus has a tendency to resolve to C# and F to E. This tendency is felt as suspension, and thus, even if iv7 is considered to be ‘just’ a scale chord, its seventh needs resolution. Similarly, the D within Gm chord is also felt as a suspension. The dominant chord is resolving the suspensions, and the tension gathered in the first bars is now transformed into expectation-tension related to the expected tonic chord.

The sixteenth-notes in m.3 could be seen as a direct result of the stretching of the distance between the melody and the bass. Just like an elastic band that is extremely stretched, when the F starts moving downwards, its impulse is high, and it goes through the resolution (both its own, and the resolution of the opening D).  

There is a certain ‘stubbornness’ in the opening notes of Mozart’s quartet. More than just persistence, the D intentionally does not want to move. In one thing both previous examples are similar: the melody stands still, while the bass descends in a steady motion. Compared to harmonic pedals in bass, this situation is inverted. In the earlier case I have argued that the bass does not follow the movement of the other voices, that it has its own direction (while the bass should follow the melody, together with other voices). In the current case, it is the melody that does not follow the others. But the melody does not even need to follow. Where is the conflict then? It is perhaps in the suggestion that the melody does not have its own direction, that the roles are switched, that the melody wants to draw attention of the bass by conflicting it, that it is making a statement by not moving.

Similar ‘persistence’ is present in the melody of jazz standard How Insensitive. The opening of the melody is essentially a long melodic pedal, embellished with the upper neighbor. Just like in the previous examples, it is consonant with the chord progression under it, until the last chord, where it resolves a step below. The bass line descends chromatically D-C#-C-B, which could perceptively be interpreted as a progressing conflict between the two (similar to the previous examples). With the last chord, the melody becomes dissonant, and resolves like a classical suspension. The following phrase in the song is a melodic sequence of the first, thus also being a long embellished melodic pedal.


A ‘special case’ of suspension-pedal is when the whole theme resides on one single pitch, like in Peter Cornelius’ Ein Ton. The song is in E minor and the melody is positioned on the dominant pitch, B.


The melodic pedal tone B is consonant with virtually every chord that accompanies it - with one single exception, in m.24. As the chord symbols in the score show, there are ten different chords, and B is a chord-tone in each. If one focusses on the melody, the mere repetition is felt as persistence. If one focusses on harmony, the sense of suspense is intensified by open ends and thus non-closure of the phrases. All the phrases, except for the very last one, end on the dominant of another than the home-key. The pedal tone is there understood as a suspension within the cadential 6/4 chord, which is not resolved. There is significant tension related to it. In mm.7 and 13, the pedal tone has tendency to move downwards, to A. This tendency decreases, as the harmony transforms and directs the listener’s attention toward other anticipations. In m.8, a stronger sound term (B7) draws all the attention toward the expected Em.
Next to the mentioned actors, one should not ignore the text of the song. When the listener focusses on text, this creates a slightly different context for perception, than when she focusses on harmony.

When the sung tone is not repeated, but sustained, especially in the high register, this could have a very strong effect due to the association with a scream or a shout. The listener could be ‘breathing with the singer’, and the feeling of the lack of air could increase the effect. This element is often met in pop music (e.g. Whitney Houston in I will always love you, at 3:10 min).

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[1] c.f. Meyer (1956: 135-138)

Peter Cornelius, Ein Ton

Bach, 'Air' from the 3rd orchestral suite

Mozart, String Quartet KV.421, 1st mvm.

Jobim, How Insensitive