Pedal Harmony: (Hooktheory I excerpt)

We recently released an update to Hooktheory I: Music Theory for Songwriting. It mostly involved format changes and minor copy edits. However, a small section on pedal harmony was removed from the chapter on inverted chords. We thought we’d post this material to our blog for all to benefit from (and so that previous owners of the web version still have access to the content). Enjoy!

With chord inversions, we saw that the choice of what note to play in the bass can have a large effect on the feel of a song. Inverted chords almost always use scale degrees that are part of the chord being played, but in certain circumstances even this can be ignored. In pedal harmony, the bass note is repeated on a fixed scale degree while the chords are changing above it.

Usually songs that use pedal harmony repeat scale degree 1. This keeps the song closer to home bass, and in doing so, diminishes the power of the chord progression being played. This can be effective when you want to build momentum gradually and wish to avoid going “too big” too early. One song that uses pedal harmony in this way is the intro to “Everything I Do” by Bryan Adams:

“I Do It For You” by Bryan Adams


In this example, the second chord of the progression is a V chord, but there is a scale degree 1 in the bass instead of the typical 5. To indicate this difference, the chord is written as “V/1” (read as “five over one”) and colored red (the color of scale degree 1). This same pedal 1 is used by the first 4 chords in the progression. These chords (IVIVV) normally create a strong progression, but by using a pedal 1, the song never feels like it completely leaves home base. The second repetition of this same progression adds energy by finally letting go of the pedal on the IV chord to allow the progression to fully depart from home base. Adams also splits the V chord and slots in a cadential 6-4 (I64) chord. The more powerful cadential 6-4 and the accompanying change in harmonic rhythm all add together to create the nice buildup. An important practical note: when a chord is played with a pedal note, the pedal does not replace the original bass note, it is played in addition to it. In other words, a V/1 still needs to have scale degree 5 in it.

The characteristic repetition of the note in the bass can also be used to create a droning hypnotic groove desirable in certain genres of music. One example of a song that uses pedal tones for this is the beginning of “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. A drone is created by a quickly repeated scale degree 6 while the chords change above it. Usually songs that use pedal harmony repeat scale degree 1 because it emphasizes the key that the song is written in. However that’s not the case here. In the next volume of this series, we will learn about songs that treat the vi as a home base instead. In these cases, scale degree 6 is commonly used as the pedal tone. Just as in “I Do It For You”, “Eye of the Tiger” lets go of the pedal in the second verse to increase the intensity of the progression.

“Eye of The Tiger” by Survivor

This is the end of the content that was removed from Hooktheory I. (The rest of the chapter was on inversions). If you’re interested in learning more about the book you can find out more and purchase here.