Harmonic pedal or foundational drone?

Bach, Toccata and Fugue in F major, BWV 540


The subject of this short reflection is the first long pedal of Bach’s organ Toccata (Prelude) in F major. The aim is to discuss its pedal-ness and its drone-ness, the attributes which are both constantly present but changing in value.

The piece opens with an extremely long tonic pedal, F; later in the piece there will also be a long pedal on the dominant. The first pedal-section has three parts: a long two voices canon, then three-voices contrasting section based on sequentially repeated motifs, and the varied recapitulation of the opening canon. The voices above the pedal realize a T - D pendulum. The pedal is recognized as concentric harmonic T-pedal. The melodic lines are motoric, the sixteenth-note pulsation is constant. The listener expects this pedal to terminate at one of the structurally salient moments (end of the motif, end of the phrase, etc.). As long as there is this expectation, the pedal is implicative and works as harmonic pedal.


The rhythmic alternation I-V-I-V-etc , coupled with the entrance of the second voice (after two bars) establishes two bars as the main time-unit. The pedal tone becomes harmonic pedal when the harmony becomes dissonant with it (m.2). The harmonic progression of the opening section is not developing which leaves the listener with weak expectations concerning the future events. Next to the possibility that it will continue alternating I and V, some change is also very likely to happen. Without change the saturation would set in, and the listener probably does believe that this will not happen. Although the listener might assume the possibilities for new material, none of the concrete consequent events is implied in the first 12-13 seconds. Not necessarily but still probably, the change will come paired with the termination of the pedal. If the pedal is perceived as harmonic pedal, the listener feels the harmonic conflict between the two harmonic layers (bass and the chords). The listener also feels expectation-tension related to the termination of the pedal.

The first possibility for termination of the pedal is the downbeat of m.3 (the listener notices this afterwards). The next probable moment is the downbeat of m.9, on the expected (and realized) tonic harmony. In that case the pedal would underlie the first phrase, after which some development can take place. The ‘resolution’ is being delayed, which at first only increases the tension. The new events from m.12 create also more harmonic tension between the bass and the other voices. Modulation to Bb major takes place, which transforms the T-pedal into a D-pedal. However, as the phrase progresses, the expectation-tension decreases, and the pedal-ness thus also. The reason for this lays primarily in the conflicting interaction between the structural grouping based on proportions, the harmonic progression and the melodic implications (see the image below). As a result, the listener is not sure when the phrase will end, and, thereby when to expect the termination of the pedal tone.

At the same time, the pedal sounds. Different than the imitative, upper lines, its sound is low, not fading, making one thrill. This imposing pedal is a firm ground, above which other voices play. With the decrease of the harmonic expectations, the pedal’s other identity becomes more obvious. Once the listener has accepted the pedal as a constituting element of the toccata, the element that is there to stay, its identity changes from being a harmonic function to being a powerful bass-sound, a foundational drone.

As an opening to some future research, I would like to point at the similarity between the discussed pedal and the pedal in the pop song Crazy (1991), performed by Seal.




The tonic pedal (E) in the beginning sounds like opening T-pedal, that will at some point stop (i.e. the bass tone will change). As it does not change even after the repeated pattern in other voices is changed, we don’t expect the ‘resolution’ any more, and accept the sustained tone as a part of the sound. The refrain promotes another tonic, and the bass tone E regains the pedal identity again when the music returns to the home-key (which feels as a ‘resolution’).

In tonal music with functional harmony, such as this toccata, harmonic forces seem to overpower other forces; harmonic identity seems to overshadow sonorous identity. While both the sound and the harmonic function are actors in forming of the understanding (perception), the harmonic context empowers the harmonic actors, leaving the sonorous ones behind. With the change of the context (as perceived by the listener), the harmonic means could lose their power, in which case the balance between the two changes. Is the opening pedal in the toccata in F major a harmonic pedal or a foundational drone? It is actually both. Many actors are at work here, focusing the listener’s attention once to harmonic changes, at other times to the pedal itself. Its identity could be different in the perception of each listener, and also different at different moments in the perception of a single listener.


To close this short reflection, listen to another performance of the same toccata. The tempo is faster, the timbre is different, and the sound is differently balanced. The pedal tone stands out even more than in the first performance, but the acoustic is different, and the other voices merge in the overall sound. This all could influence the way the whole toccata - as well as its pedal - is heard. It is possible that the auditive focus of the listener is different in this performance, than it was in the first one.