‘Too long’ notes
Pedal and drone are long notes but not all of the long notes are pedals or drones. To be distinguished as pedal or drone, a long note has to be long enough or, more precisely, longer than a ‘normal’ note - in a particular context, of course. But what is the maximum duration of a ‘normal’ note? How do we know it? In this chapter I will discuss the concepts pedal and drone in relation to the theories of expectation and anticipation.
John Curwen (1879:342) writes: “When the persistence of Tonic or Dominant does not extend beyond a single measure, we call it persisting […]. When the persistence is carried further, it is commonly called an Organ-point or Pedal.” The ‘single-measure’ unit could be a statistical fact in a certain musical style. However, in any piece with a slower harmonic rhythm, we know it will not prove true. Because, it is not the absolute duration, it is a kind of ‘special-ness’ of this long tone, that makes it distinguishable as pedal or drone. Nevertheless, this two-stage pedal-ness of a pedal is interesting. Curwen’s view implies that when we listen to a piece for the very first time, a long tonic or dominant note will first be perceived as “persisting”, before we recognize it as a pedal. Of course, Curwen did not write about perception, as this became an issue in music analysis only decades later. The mere distinction of ‘persisting tone’ and ‘pedal’, principally suggests different character of short and long sustained notes.
It is known that even non-educated listeners are able to recognize a ‘wrong’ note in a concert, which implies they have some intuitive understanding about what should have been played (Lehman, Sloboda, Woody, p.244-5). This has to do with our experience in listening to music of a particular style. Being acquainted with a particular style provides us with the knowledge needed to follow the grammar of a phrase, to ‘understand’ its unfolding, to recognize its musical gestures. Norms are found on each of many levels of musical organization. However, it is important to understand that the concept norm does not refer to a pre-given set of musical features and progressions. Norm is a dynamic concept, a probability of a particular combination of musical events. The listener is experiencing music against that what her prior experience has defined as the norm. With each new piece, the listener is fine-tuning these definitions, or even changing them. What was once felt as deviation could later be considered to be a stylistic pattern. On the basis of at-that-moment-accepted norms, succession of musical elements raises in listeners particular expectations of what could follow (such as, e.g., expectation of a particular chord, to close the ongoing cadence). Musical patterns can work as stimuli: they make the listener expect one of the stylistically more probable continuations. One of the key concepts in Meyer’s theory is ‘sound term’. Meyer (1956: 45) equates it with musical gesture and defines it as a sound or group of sounds that indicate, imply, or lead the listener to expect a more or less probable consequent event. Expectations and tendencies (mental or motor responses to a stimulus) are processes that are always active when we listen to music. As Margulis (2005:665) puts it: “The phenomenon [expectation] is known to be a basic strategy of the human mind; it underlies the ability to bring past experience to bear on the future.”
As long as our expectations, concerning the subsequent musical events, are fulfilled, we are often not even aware of them (thus we are not aware of our stylistic knowledge). At the moment our expectations are not fulfilled, our tendencies are inhibited and we become aware that the music unfolds differently than expected. Psychologists mostly agree that conditional expectations in music include the whole range of dependencies. “Most of the time, the principal constraints are of low probability order and involve a near context (e.g., one note influences the next note). But music also exhibits distinctive patterns of organization where distant contexts are more influential than near contexts and the probability order is quite large.” (Huron, 2006:56) How is then an ‘ordinary’ note turning into a pedal/drone?
“As soon as the unexpected, or for that matter the surprising, is experienced, the listener attempts to fit it into the general system of beliefs relevant to the style of the work. This requires a very rapid re-evaluation of either the stimulus situation itself or its cause – the events antecedent to the stimulus. Or it may require a review of the whole system of beliefs that the listener supposed appropriate and relevant to the work.” (Meyer, 1956: 29). At the moment we expect a new event in place of a (long) note - another note or silence - and this does not happen, we begin re-interpreting the long note. One of the possibilities is that it is understood as a harmonic pedal.
In many cases however, listener’s experience seems to go in quite the opposite direction: the listener recognizes an instance of harmonic pedal as a gesture, before she could be surprised by the duration of the tone. A pedal is often recognized even before one could call it a long note. But even then, this recognition is based (also) on the expectation that a particular note will terminate. It is important to note that the listener expects a particular note to stop only implicitly. In many cases, for example, the rhythm is expected to continue (and not to stop). Looking from the perspective of expectations, the pedal tone can be ‘too-long’ in several ways. First, in motoric polyphonic pieces, for example, the constant rhythm of the same rhythmic values generates prediction of each following rhythmic event (rhythmic expectations, see Huron, 2006: 175-202). At the moment this rhythm changes (when the movement in the bass line is suspended by a pedal tone), we experience a slight tension due to wrong anticipation. When continuation of movement is expected, a pedal tone could implicitly be seen as too long. However, a pedal point does not necessarily have to interrupt the rhythmic pulsation. In Bach’s Prelude in C major (WTK 1), the dominant pedal is realized in a rhythmic way: the note is repeated exactly at the moments it is expected. What is not expected is its unchanged pitch. The listener expects the bass note to move together with movement in the other voices (importantly, the movement in other voices is fulfilling the expectations). In this sense, the note (realized through rhythmic repetition) is too long.
If a ‘too-long’ note is not perceived as a pedal, it could be perceived as a harmonically neutral drone. It seems however that drones are not felt as deviations (thus not as being ‘too long’) in the same way harmonic pedals are.
In the analytical part of this thesis I will outline twelve types of pedal/drone. At this moment, it is useful and sufficient to make a rough distinction between the two: pedals and drones. I propose and will argue that we consider any instance of pedal or drone as being somewhere in a two-dimensional space which is defined by two axes: 1) the strength of its harmonic ‘working’ and 2) the prominence of its sound. For example, an implied dominant pedal (that does not sound) would be placed on the first axis (the value of the first parameter would be high; the value of the second parameter would be zero). Opposite from it would be a long drone in ambient music (with zero strength of its harmonic ‘working’ and a very profiled sound). In the first example, a pedal is involved in a particular harmonic process, with a beginning and an end. It is the process that we recognize as harmonic pedal. Traditionally, we use the term pedal for the long note that is involved in the process. However, without this process the long note would not be considered a pedal. Although I will also use the word pedal to refer to the long note, it should be emphasized that the long note is just one of the elements of this harmonic process.
On the opposite end of the space are drones, that manifest themselves as sound. There is no particular harmonic process associated with them; their working is primarily sonorous. In some styles, single notes establish themselves as drones from the very beginning of a performance, and we recognize them throughout the performance by their sound. Pedals happen, drones are.
 David Huron (2006) provides a very elaborate explanation of the biological function of expectation. He also goes into details about the processes of reaction to stimuli (both unconscious and conscious), including musical stimuli.
 Huron (2006) explains the five chronological stages of reacting to a stimulus (starting with pre-outcome imagination response, and ending with post-outcome appraisal response). One of the post-outcome stages is the prediction response, which is focused on the correctness of the prediction of the outcome. The biological purpose of this response is to give a negative/positive reinforcement to encourage the formation of accurate expectations in the future.