Epilogue: ‘Pedal effect’


This short reflection investigates the effect that could be put in relation with harmonic pedals. I will analyze fragments from several songs that do not feature obvious pedals, but do have a similar effect as particular types of pedals and drones do. Examining these situations could shed more light on some types of ‘real’ pedals/drones.



Led Zeppelin, Ramble on.

Led Zeppelin’s song Ramble on opens with a thin texture. There is no drum, just a steady pulsation of the tapping (a hybrid between rhythmic pedal in accompanying voices and textural drone). The voice is calmly telling the story, for the most part on the same pitch (melodic pedal). The four-bar phrase, clearly formed by the bass pattern is repeated: no real development is in it. The bass pattern has an implicit two-part texture: on the downbeats there is ‘real’ bass (the roots of the chords that are played by the guitar), and between the downbeats the melodic bass-voice takes over. The ‘real’ bass tones sound in the first three bars, but not in the fourth: I - IV - I - x. The subdominant chord that sounds in the fourth bar gets thereby an implicit tonic pedal under it. The return of the bass in the following bar feels therefor as a sort of local resolution.

The third time the 4-bar bass-pattern repeats, there is an increase in tension; the fourth time it repeats, the listener knows that ‘the time has come”, something will happen. The refrain will bring change, we are prepared. The realization of this expectation is delayed for another four bars of transition. At its end the drums mark the decisive moment. Everything explodes. A thrilling experience. This effect does not die even after so many times the song is heard. The bass line gets agitated, the drums are energetic, Robert Plant screams “Ramble on!”. When the following verse begins, the listener awaits with much excitement the beautiful moment when the suspense will resolve into this energetic outburst.


In retrospect, the listener feels that the flow was held until this moment, in a similar way an opening T-pedal holds it. When the pedal stops, the music can flow. In Ramble on, it is when the drums come in, the music can explode. As if the drums were suspended - in a similar way the progression of the bass-line is suspended in case of a harmonic pedal.

Dagar Brothers, Asavari.

In the foreword, I have outlined an experience with Indian music. While not wanting to go into analytical details nor the aesthetics of this style, I would like to point at one feature in this particular recording that can be related to the current chapter. It is the change that happens at the moment the rhythm of tabla sets in. Before that moment, the foundational drone sounds throughout. The singer explores the mode, first in a calm expression, then with a gradually increasing agitation. The listener feels the process of intensification, and this process incites an expectation of an arrival. Most probably the tension will culminate, and will then discharge in one or another way. In the case of Asavari, the culmination and the resolution (beginning of discharge) come simultaneously, with the entrance of tabla. It organizes the music metrically and fills the textural space to the full sound.[1]

The effect of the drums (after their absence) is that of an arrival. In retrospect, this implies a process that has led to this point. The arrival could be felt to have been delayed. This effect has a lot in common with the dominant pedal that delays the arrival of the tonic. The felt tension that arises as we listen to the increasingly agitated voice could project new meaning onto the otherwise stable foundational drone. Now that we know that the change will come but cannot anticipate the exact moment, now that it feels as a kind of process (of approaching the culmination), the calmness of the drone could feel to be in conflict with this.

Sonny Rollins, Tenor Madness.

Sudden change of the texture is a common element related to jazz solos. The bass or the drums could stop, which always projects the sense of temporariness. These moments have something in common with the cadenza model. It is the sudden silence of a textural layer, and the expectation that the previous texture will be restored. In the following audio example, Sonny Rollins’ Tenor Madness, the full texture of the ensemble is replaced by the drums only (in the integral recording it happens around 6:24 min.). 


There is one important difference between the fragment above and cadenza model: while in a cadenza it is possible to feel the dominant as an implied harmonic pedal (at least in the beginning and at the end of the solo), in the presented jazz example there is no such implied layer. However, a possible relation to a harmonic pedal is the feeling of suspense, and the expectation-tension related to the anticipated ‘resolution’. While not being a pedal-process, this situation creates a sort of pedal-effect.

The effect is achieved not only by the sudden change of the texture, but also by the changed role of the drums. The steady metrical pattern is now replaced by improvisational, motivic rhythm. This ‘deviation’ on the local level (although it is a part of the norm on the level of style) is expected to be ‘resolved’.

Different from a classical cadenza, a jazz solo will customarily have a predetermined duration. Even when the listener can anticipate its end with certainty, the return of the ensemble can have an effect similar to the one felt when a longer dominant pedal is resolved. This has to do with disturbance of continuity, and the principle of return.[2]





If music would come into a loop, obviously repeating something instead of moving further, the listener would probably notice it. In music where repetition is defining the style, the recurrence of the same material is expected. In music where repetition influences the form, too much of it could cause the conflict with the structure. This repetition that stretches the form is quite known in western musical styles, and appears often just before the end of the phrase, when the cadence is evaded (e.g. by a deceptive turn) and the last bars are repeated once more (this time with a proper cadence). If the repeated part is long, there is no sense of suspension, just the denial-tension (due to another musical event in place of the expected one) and returning to a previous point in music. If the repeated part is short, especially, in cases it is based on a single harmony, it can have a ‘pedal-effect’.

Eddie Vedder, The Times they are a changin’ (cover Bob Dylan).

Bob Dylan’s song The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964) has five stanzas (verse-refrain) of identical structure (see the image). Harmonically, the first two parts of each stanza are organized around the tonic (ending on the dominant), the third is the dominant, ornamented with the walking bass line, and the fourth has a cadential function.

The song has been covered many times, by many artists. The cover of Eddie Vedder performed on a concert (2000), contains very little change in the first four stanzas: a couple of swapped words and a bit different timing. The last stanza also begins faithfully. The audience sings together. The surprise comes only at the very end, after the dominant section (after “will later be last”, the green line in the lyrics), when Vedder does not resolve the tension of the dominant into the refrain on the tonic, but instead sings again the dominant section on the lyrics of the previous stanza (green selection), then again with the lyrics of the first stanza, then one more times on the lyrics of the second stanza. After a so much prolonged dominant section, and a so much delayed appearance of the resolving tonic, when the tension is extremely high and the audience ultimately excited with expectation, he sings the refrain. The time is running again.

Etta Jones, All of me

In the final chorus of the performance of the jazz standard All of me, Etta Jones repeats the last part of the song two times (compare it to the first chorus). At the end of these repetitions, she repeats just one line (on the words “why not take”) several times, before singing the last line of the text. Different than in the previous example, this time not all the musical events will be repeated (no ‘loop-effect’). While she repeats the words - on the same pitch (!) - the chord progression is not repeated, but instead continued. This results in a conflict between the harmonic layer that unfolds in a particular direction, and the melodic layer that is ‘stuck’ on the same place. On the level of this conflict (or in the context of this conflict) the two layers are independent. The voice part ‘insists’ on the 6th scale degree, which at certain point also feels as a light suspension (for the 5th that will sound later). All the requirements for a melodic pedal are met.






What can we conclude from these examples? The first three emphasize the importance that western musical perspective assigns to the bass as the harmonic foundation, and the metrical organization of the musical events. Although these two are absolutely no requirement in music, it seems that the moment they enter the musical space - after their absence - can have the effect of a structural differentiator (on the local- or a higher level). This conclusion is in the line with the discussion within the ‘T-pedal at the beginning’ chapter. The sustained bass line has something in common with the absence of the bass line: in both cases it is recognized as a ‘deviation in the bass-space’, and as such, as a temporary situation.

All the examples tell us something about the nature of musical time, as it unfolds in the listener’s perception. The time as measured by the unfolding of the song could be stopped at the moment the listener feels that the process of this unfolding is halted. If the song unexpectedly returns to the same position, it could feel as if the time is suspended, and will proceed running only when the song moves on. This situation is comparable to the harmonic pedals, in particular with the dominant pedal that delays the resolution of the cadence.


[1] It is possible that the listener with musical background in this style would have another context for the perception of the discussed fragment.

[2] Meyer (1956:151) explains ‘the principle of return’ as a driving force in music. After “there has been something different which was understood as a departure from the pattern” the listener will expect the return to a prior position.

(from the middle of the performance)