‘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.”[1]

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.[2] 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.


Any pedal or drone can be placed somewhere in the described two-dimensional space. To specify its position in this space, I will use the terms pedal-ness and drone-ness (descriptive values on the two axes). Most instances of pedal/drone will have both values different from zero. As the music unfolds, these values and their ratio could change. A long note, at first recognized as a pedal, could later be revalued and understood as a drone. In other words, the high pedal-ness of a harmonic pedal could later decrease, which would change the ratio between the two parameters, and in some cases the drone-ness could become predominant. This situation occurs when our expectations related to the pedal are not met (cf. the section on Brahms’ integrated pedals, also Case Study: Brahms). In such cases the drone could even be felt as a sort of deviating pedal.

Meyer explains how the mind is re-evaluating the unexpected musical stimuli – or trying to make sense of what is being heard. In case this mental synthesis does not lead to clarification, “the mind may reject the whole stimulus and irritation will set in” or “the unexpected […] may be seen as a purposeful blunder” (Meyer, 1956:29). Meyer relates the last option to comic or satirical pieces but the rejection without irritation is possible also in other genres. In this way, a pedal can turn into a sort of ‘background noise’ – thus being alienated from the musical piece (becoming extra-musical) and so (temporary) filtered out (see the analysis of Ravel’s Le Gibet).

Once we have understood a note as a pedal, we hear it as a sustained pitch. Can this pedal tone itself surprise us as ‘too long’? In the analytical part of this thesis, you can read about three versions of ‘too long’ pedal (different from ‘too-long’ note). These are: 1) expanding the dominant prolongation (adding tension) - see the analysis of Bach's prelude in C major in Pedal Stories: Prolonged Pedal), 2) expanding the tonic pedal (closing gesture) - see the analysis of Mozart's sonata KV.330/ii (within the same Pedal Story), and 3) loosing pedal-ness (both resolving and inciting tension) – see the analysis of A German Requiem in Case Study: Brahms.

Put in relation to expectancy, a harmonic pedal is never expected on a note-to note level. When following the musical lines, the listener can never expect that the harmonic texture will be split into two layers (the fixed bass and the progressing harmonies). On a higher level of musical structure, the listener can assume the possibility of a pedal-episode: based on the experience with pieces in the same style (assuming that this musical style features harmonic pedals) the listener knows that a pedal could be involved. Thus, even when not immediately expected, harmonic pedal is a rather familiar element, and the surprise will be almost instantly absorbed by the listener. Surprise will add the most in cases the pedal itself is experienced as ‘too long’ or unexpectedly-changing. The power of pedal is not coming out of this surprise - although the surprise will contribute to that effect.

To come to a better understanding of the working of (especially harmonic) pedals, I am turning to Elisabeth Margulis, whose expectancy model seems to provide the tool. Margulis is interested in the nature of the tension aroused as a consequence of expectation, and defines three types of tension: surprise-tension, denial-tension, and expectancy-tension. Although Margulis’ research focusses on expectedness on melodic level only, [3]  this distinction is very fruitful for the current research. Each of the three tension-types could be related to pedals, and indirectly also to drones.[4]

According to Margulis’ theory, surprise-tension refers to the “tension deriving from unexpectedness [and] registers not as a conscious experience of shock, but rather as a subtle experience of intensity and dynamism. It motivates closer attention from the listener.” (2005: 693). As it is by definition not expected, a pedal draws the listener’s attention to the events related to it. Perhaps it even draws the attention to itself, and the listener starts listening to the sustained tone (constantly being transformed by the other harmonies).

Denial-tension type “correlates directly with implicative denial. High denial-tension creates a sense of will, intention, or determinedness.” (Margulis, 2005:693). ‘Denial’ refers to situations when a non-expected element (Margulis refers to pitch) appears instead of the expected one. In case of harmonic pedal on the dominant, for example, denial-tension is created by the dominant prolongation that denies the resolution of the dominant into the tonic. The strongest denial-tension is probably felt when a dominant pedal is located on a structural place, so that its beginning is felt as the penultimate chord of the authentic cadence. The listener expects the cadence to resolve; she expects to hear the tonic chord. Instead of that, the pedal prolongs the dominant harmony at the moment the tonic chord should sound.[5] At this moment, the expected harmony is denied. The denial increases the will to hear this particular chord: the tension rises. It should be noted that, in this situation, the denial-tension refers only to the moment where we have expected to hear the tonic. All the other moments within the time-space of the dominant pedal (the pedal-process) will incite the third tension type.

“A third tension type, expectancy-tension, pertains not to the degree to which an event satisfies or denies expectations created by preceding events, but to the strength of expectation generated by an event about future ones. […] Events that trigger strong expectations generate high expectancy-tension, but events that generate mild expectations generate low expectancy-tension. Expectancy-tension creates an impression of strain and desire in a melody.” (Margulis, 2005:694-5) Let us return to the previous example with the dominant pedal. After the tonic chord was denied (the beginning of the pedal), and the listener has understood that this is a harmonic pedal, she expects the harmonic progression to return to the dominant (and then resolve to the tonic). The ‘pedal-ness’ of a pedal could be explained as the strength of the expectation of its resolution. When the harmonic progression above the pedal is too complex or even modulate, the expectation of the resolving chord (generated by the pedal) weakens, and so the harmonic power of the pedal decreases. [6]

Expectancy theories provide a new perspective for distinguishing the two main categories of the sustained notes: pedals (defined as harmonic processes) and drones (defined as sonorous elements). From this view, pedals are sound terms,[7] that arouse specific expectations about the following musical events. The power of a pedal is, to a large extent, related to the expectations it arouses. Concerning the harmonic function in the tonal music, dominant pedals are in this sense more powerful than tonic pedals, as they incite two harmonic expectations: return to the clear dominant harmony, and the resolution to the tonic. Tonic pedals involve only expectation of the return to the tonic chord. This issue will be discussed in more detail in the analytical chapters. Drones are not sound terms, they do not arouse specific expectations related to the coming events, they do not direct the harmonic flow.



next: Interactions


[3] Margulis’ model of expectancy is related to the dynamics that is made by melodic movement. The model generates expectancy ratings for melodic events. The key factors for expectation are stability of the pitches within the key and the current harmony, directionality of melodic movement, proximity of adjacent notes, and movability. Each note in a melodic succession could be rated through the three types of expectancy, and the values compared. Interestingly, Margulis (p.668) suggests that the schematic expectations (based on the four parameters) are still at work, even when we listen to a piece that we know very well, and so know exactly which note will sound next.

[4] It should be noted that the three types of tension are just a part of Margulis’ model. In the current essay, I will apply them without a reference to the integral model.

[5] Of course, it is not always only the dominant pedal that denies the tonic harmony. The chord above the pedal could also be different than the tonic. This situation illustrates the importance of seeing the concept of pedal as a process in which several elements are involved, rather than just the long note.

[6] The three types of expectedness-tension could also be related to the deviations in the phrase structure. Using Caplin’s (2012) terminology, interpolation could have a high rate of surprise-tension, evaded cadence (in case of repetition of the last part of the phrase, so called ‘second try’) could have a high rate of denial-tension (as it is obvious that the repetition is coming in place of the expected event), and expanded cadence could have a high rate of expectancy-tension (the listener is the whole time expecting that what will most certainly indeed sound).

[7] As defined by Meyer (1956: 45), a sound term is a sound or group of sounds that indicate, imply, or lead the listener to expect a more or less probable consequent event.