Composing Film Music Tips: The Pedal Note

Today’s tip is all about the ‘pedal note’ or ‘drone’. It’s really a very simple concept: a single, sustained note or tone.

Pedal notes can be upper or lower.

Upper pedal notes are high-pitched and are generally above any other movement of melody or harmony; lower pedal notes (or drones) are low-pitched – in the ‘bass’ – and remain beneath the melodies and harmonies.

They’re called pedal notes because of the pipe organ’s pedals, an additional keyboard of long, thin keys pressed by the feet. The music these would have played would often have been a long, held tone to support the melody above.

The continuous ‘drone’ of a bagpipe, over which the melody is played, is an example of a pedal note (actually it’s usually two, an ‘interval of a 5th’ apart, but you don’t need to know what that is right now, don’t worry).

Pedal notes are incredibly useful. Play a few notes over a pedal note and easily create harmonies.

Plus I have to add that I LOVE pedal notes and that they are all over my music if you listen out for them πŸ˜‰

Here’s an example of upper pedals in a piece I wrote today:
[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/77111407%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-UdoIC” params=”color=110099&auto_play=false&show_artwork=false” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Listen out for the continuous, high pitched notes, and how the simple melody in the french horn changes the major/minor tonality or ‘feel’ of the music.

Here’s another example from a piece I wrote aaaages ago for a lovely animation… about a monk in a monastery (so I decided then that pedals would be a relevant way to structure the music!)
[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/77112290%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-d5dv7″ params=”color=110099&auto_play=false&show_artwork=false” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Again, continuous upper notes in the strings, with the violin melody changing the feel underneath.

In another piece for the ‘Rainy Day Corporation’ website video that’s part of ‘The End Is Nigel‘ web drama, it starts of quite simply with the lower pedal note quite easily heard, listen to it growling away at the bottom:
[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/77112763%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-u3tPT” params=”color=110099&auto_play=false&show_artwork=false” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

And then later on in the piece, the drone carries on regardless of the changing, over-the-top, dramatic harmonies above it, with a low piano note emphasising it:
[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/77113162%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-OOfyU” params=”color=110099&auto_play=false&show_artwork=false” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

(You might not be able to consciously hear it quite so much in this second example, but, trust me, it’s there, and it’s really noticeable later on in the piece when the bass note changes at the very end of the video. All very dramatic πŸ˜‰ )

So, pedal notes are a great way to get started on a piece if you find you’re procrastinating. Lay down some long pads (they don’t have to be in conventional instruments like strings – try it on some synth pads you’ve yet to experiment with) and then noodle around with some melodies over the top.

Low pedal notes are also pretty ominous on their own so are useful for hinting at foreboding, apprehension, danger ahead, that sort of thing. High pedal notes can create quite a lot of tension in a scene if required.

Because they don’t move around a lot, and don’t draw attention to themselves so much, they’re pretty good as a basis for underscoring dialogue or very quiet scenes.

Plus they sound fab.

Here endeth the lesson for today.


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4 Replies to “Composing Film Music Tips: The Pedal Note”

    1. Thanks Nitrowheels! Tried to subscribe to yours… but the feed doesn’t seem to exist! Bookmarked you πŸ™‚

  1. Hi, I teach music at a school in Nottinghamshire. I was researching on musical devices for Y8 lessons and found your very helpful tip. It is also very useful for our Y9 Film Music work, so I’ll be taking a look at your other tips shortly.

    Thanks – keep up the good work.

    Steve Jones

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