Metrical Support (rhythmic pedal/drone in the bass)

When the pitch of the rhythmic pedal that sounds in the bass does not have important function in harmonic development of the piece, its rhythmic properties might become more important.  When can we state that the pedal-pitch does not essentially contribute to the development of harmony in a piece? Harmonic strength of a pedal tone in the bass lays in the harmonic tension between it and other chords above it. If this tension is itself not dynamic – if it does not change but rather always stays the same, the expectation that it will resolve decreases and finally one does not expect it anymore. When this happens, even the tension between the pedal and the other harmonies slowly loses its power – one accepts the dissonant sound as it is.

This kind of pedal is common in stylized folk music. Listen to the rhythmic drone in an interpretation of L. Daquin’s "Musette", played by Bomond String Quartet:

Folk music of other world regions also features rhythmic drone. For example, didgeridoo often provides a rhythmically patterned drone to accompany songs.[1] Listen to the Nharo Bushmen Hyena song accompanied with musical bow:

In stylized folk dances, such as landler, the accompaniment often provides both foundational drone (the tonic) and the rhythm to dance. In tonal music, one cannot not hear the harmony. The rhythmic drones in the bass will thus always have also harmonic connotation. This does not disqualify them from being metrical/rhythmic drones as well. The purpose of labeling is to indicate or suggest a particular ‘working’ of any pedal/drone. This ‘working’ can be multiple. 

The figure above shows the first phrase from Beethoven’s landler WoO.11, no.3. The double pedal (octave) prolongs the tonic harmony. The melody outlines the dominant function exactly where it is most needed (m.3 and m.7). The listener perceives this harmonic change (the only harmonic events in the first phrase) and the pedal does not neutralize it. The pedal has two other important effects - none of them harmonic: it creates the folk atmosphere (by being also a folk drone), and the pulse to dance.

To better understand the nature of rhythmic pedal/drone, and also to distinguish this model from the model folk drone, I invite the listener to compare the effect of the following two fragments (Beethoven, WoO. 11, no.5, and Chopin Grande Valse Brillante, op. 18).


Although the Chopin’s waltz does not feature drone or pedal (after the introduction), it would not be surprising to think we have heard one. While in the first example in this chapter (landler no.3) it would make little difference if the bass tone in mm.3, 7 would change to A, the fragment from the waltz would change little if the bass tone in mm.6-7 would be kept Bb. Despite of the harmonic richness of Chopin’s waltz, the first four bars of the theme are, in a certain sense, comparable to the first phrase of Beethoven’s landler no.5. The musical gesture is the same. One could recognize a metrical-support drone in Chopin’s waltz, despite that there is none.

In this particular case, the interaction between the accompanying pattern (the rhythmic pattern and the arrangement of the accompaniment), the repeated Bb on the downbeats in the melody, the dynamics of the introduction, and the metrical-support drone/pedal model, could change the perception of the bass tones. After the announcement-introduction, the phrase lounges on the dominant. The energy of the introduction could have been transformed into the excitement of the beginning - has the phrase started on the tonic. The dominant-beginning has only increased the energy, making the expected tonic a very important event. The tonic in m.6 is indeed perceived as the tonic, but the process of resolution of the high dominant energy will be completed only at the end of the phrase. Only the last tonic chord is strong enough to be the arrival.[2] The prominent B in the melody diminishes the tonic-ness in m.6, and perpetually links mm.5-7. The tonic chord is on a higher level felt as a part of dominant prolongation. The relation of the B in the melody in m.5 and the bass tone B is defined as ‘doubling’. The B in the melody is prolongation of the pedal B from the introduction. When doubled with the bass in m.5, it takes some of the bass-ness in itself and projects its own pitch to the pitch of the bass tones. The continuation of the introduction is felt as an important line, which suggests the pedal is not yet resolved, thus, there is no ‘real’ tonic in m.6. In that case, the pedal tone in mm.6-7 could have been Bb. The difference would be in color, rather than in harmony.

Ostinato patterns in the bass are typical of rock and pop music. In case they are performed on a single pitch, we can speak of a pedal-ostinato, with strong metrical and rhythmical function (next to the harmonic one).


In his analysis of music of the rock group Genesis, music theorist Mark Spicer argues that one of the elements that is so characteristic for their sound is the “pedal- point groove”. “In a pedal-point groove, the bass and drums work together to create a driving rhythmic ostinato.”[3] Spicer sees this element in general as “a well-worn cliché of progressive rock”, but relates it also to funk music and synth- pop.

A short reflection on Beethoven, Sieben Ländler, WoO. 11, nos. 3 and 5 is presented in the Case Study: Beethoven.

next: Foundational Drone  or return to menu


[1] Erickson 1975: 100-103; The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol. 9: 394-397.

[2] There is an expectation of the tonic in m.8. The bass indeed resolves but the b7 (Db) turns the chord into the harmonic culmination, instead of the resolution.

[3] Spicer 2007


Genesis, Squonk. Transcription Mark Spicer (2007)

Beethoven, Landler, Woo.11, no.3

Beethoven, Landler, Woo.11, no.5

Chopin, Grande valse brillante