Pedal points "have a strong tonal effect, 'pulling' the harmony back to its root." When a pedal point occurs in a voice other than the bass, it is usually referred to as an inverted pedal point (see inversion (music)). Pedal points are usually on either the tonic or the dominant (fifth note of the scale) tones. The pedal tone is considered a chord tone in the original harmony, then a nonchord tone during the intervening dissonant harmonies, and then a chord tone again when the harmony resolves. A dissonant pedal point may go against all harmonies present during its duration, being almost more like an added tone than a nonchord tone, or pedal points may serve as atonal pitch centers.
The term comes from the organ for its ability to sustain a note indefinitely and the tendency for such notes to be played on an organ's pedal keyboard. The pedal keyboard on an organ is played by the feet; as such, the organist can hold down a pedal point for lengthy periods while both hands perform higher-register music on the manual keyboards.
A drone differs from a pedal point in degree or quality. A pedal point may be a nonchord tone and thus required to resolve, unlike a drone, or a pedal point may simply be a shorter drone, a drone being a longer pedal point.
Pedal points are often found near the end of fugues "...to reestablish the tonality of the composition after it has become clouded by the numerous modulations and disgressions along the way within the middle entries of the subject and answer and in the connecting episodes. Fugues often conclude with a music written over a bass pedal point.Pedal points are also used in other polyphonic compositions to strengthen a final cadence, signal important structural points in the composition, and for their dramatic effect.
Pedal points are somewhat problematic on the harpsichord or piano, which have only a limited sustain capability. Often the pedal note is simply repeated at intervals. A pedal tone can also be realized with a trill; this is particularly common with inverted pedals. Another method of producing a pedal point on the harpsichord is to repeat the pedal point note (or its octave) on every beat. The rarely-seen pedal harpsichord, a harpsichord with a pedal keyboard makes it easier to perform repeated bass notes on the harpsichord, since both hands are still free to play on the upper manual keyboards.
The term is also used to describe a bass note that is held for a long period in orchestral music, as in the symphonies of Jean Sibelius. Pedal points for orchestral music are often performed by the double basses with the bow, which creates a sustained, organ-like bass tone underneath the changing harmonies in the upper voices.
Pop songs using pedal points include "Fly like an Eagle" by Steve Miller Band , "Superstition " by Stevie Wonder and "Crazy" by Seal. The progressive rock band Genesis often used a “pedal-point groove” in which the "bass remains static on the tonic as chords move above the bass at varying speeds." "By the late 1970s and early 1980s, pedal-point grooves such as this had become a well-worn cliché of progressive rock as they had of funk (James Brown’s Sex Machine), and were already making frequent appearances in more commercial styles such as stadium rock (Van Halen’s Jump) and synth-pop (Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax).
Film composers use pedal points to add tension to thrillers and horror films. In the Hitchcock thriller film North by Northwest, Bernard Herrmann "...uses the pedal point and ostinato as techniques to achieve tension," resulting in a dissonant, dramatic effect. In one scene, Herrmann "...uses the timpani playing a low pedal B-flat to create a sense of impending doom" as one character is arranging for another character's murder.
Rock guitarists have used pedal points in their solos, especially neoclassical guitarists such as Yngwie Malmsteen. Other rock guitarists that use pedal points in solos are Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, John Petrucci, Jason Becker, Paul Gilbert, John Sykes and Vinnie Moore. Pedal points can be heard on records such as Vinnie Moore's "Time Odyssey" and "Mind's Eye"'; Yngwie Malmsteen's "Rising Force"; Jason Becker's "Perpetual Burn"; and Richie Kotzen's "Fever Dream". Thrash metal in particular makes abundant use a muted low E string as a pedal point. Examples of thrash metal bands that make use of a muted low E string pedal point include: Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax. In small combo jazz or jazz fusion groups, the double bass player or Hammond organist may also introduce a pedal point (usually on the tonic or the dominant) in a tune that does not explicitly request a pedal point, to add tension and interest.
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