The inverse pedal point in music

Van Halen, Chopin, Johnny Cash, Samuel Barber

Inverted Pedal PointJaquandor, as is his tradition, was playing his Your Daily Dose of Christmas. One post highlighted the oratorio L’Enfance du Christ by Hector Berlioz. I had not heard that work.

Well, there is one exception. The Shepherd’s Farewell is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music. And the best moment is when the soprano note remains on the same note, but the rest of the chord below it changes, at about 1:00, 2:20, and 3:45 here. I find it utterly exquisite. Does that have a musical name?

As it turns out, it does. “That is called an ‘inverse pedal point’! A pedal point happens when the bass tone holds while everything above it shifts; an inversion occurs when the same thing is done with a voice other than the bass. Music! :)”

Now, I was familiar with the pedal point, even if I didn’t know what it was called. Singing bass in a church choir, we often sustained our notes while the other sections moved. This guy can explain better than I.

And here are some examples. It appears Jump by Van Halen is a popular choice. As I suspected, the drone of the bagpipe is a pedal point.

“When a pedal point occurs in a voice other than the bass, it is usually referred to as an inverted pedal point. Pedal points are usually on either the tonic or the dominant (fifth note of the scale) tones.” Think of the version of Hurt by Johnny Cash, starting at 0:52.


Final cadences, such as the Amen at the end of a church hymn, often involve the sopranos singing the tonic note twice, while the other parts move. Listen to the Barber Adagio for Strings, specifically around 5:30, and in general about 2/3s of the way through a recording. It ALWAYS devastates me.

Another favorite piece of music with a pedal point is the Raindrop Prelude, Op.28 No.15 by Chopin. This video is useful because it comes with a score. As Paul Barton plays the FEURICH piano, note that there’s a pedal point almost from the very beginning in the bass line. But notice how, at 2 minutes in, at the key change, the continual note is now at the top, first in the bass clef, then the treble. Then the repeated note is somewhere in the middle before the piece reverts to the original key.

If you want to play music at my funeral, I’d suggest the Barber adagio or Raindrop Prelude by Chopin. Or preferably both, though I probably won’t have much of a say in the decision.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

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