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Building Musical Energy With a Dominant Pedal

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In a movement from a classical symphony, the music isn’t divided up into verses and choruses as is typical for pop songs. You’re more likely to see reference to sections called “1st theme”, “2nd theme”, “transition”, “development”, “coda”, and so on.

With pop songs, you get a definite feeling that the basic energy of the music changes each time you move from one section to another – from a verse to a chorus, say. Even people with little or no training in music can hear and perceive these changes. So when a non-musician listens to Michael Jackson’s “Bad”, they know when the chorus starts, even if they can’t verbalize quite why they know that. Amongst other things, they’re perceiving an energy change in the music.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” - Can't get past the hook?One of the things that classical composers would do to increase the musical energy of a section would be to heighten the harmonic tension before a new section, to make the change in musical energy more obvious once they’ve reached a new part. A favourite way of doing this was to do what was called “standing on the dominant.” Here’s how that works.

Let’s say they had a main theme that was written above the following chord progression:

C  F  Am  G…

And let’s say (as is typical) that that main theme might return several times throughout a movement. In that sense, it’s operating like a chorus: returning over and over again.

To make that theme sound important and stand out a bit, you’ll want whatever chords that come before its return to build up to the main theme, maybe something like this:

Am  Em  F  G  Dm  C/E  F  G

Play that progression, and then play the progression I suggested for the main theme, and you’ll see and hear how easily one moves to the next.

So far, what I’ve given you for chords isn’t much different from what you might hear in a modern pop song’s pre-chorus leading to a chorus. But classical composers would often employ a little “trick”, a way of making that lead-in progression sound even more intense: they’d place the dominant (i.e., the 5th note of the key) in the bass, and keep it there throughout the progression, regardless of the chords above it.

The key of the main theme’s progression is C major, making the dominant note G. That would give them this:

Am/G  Em/G  F/G  G  Dm/G  C/G  F/G  G

Or you might see that written this way:

Am  Em  F  G  Dm  C/E  F  G

To hear the effect that this had on the music, take a listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, the 4th movement. The section below is just before the return of the main theme, near the end of the movement. The bass is murmuring, fluctuating back and forth between the dominant note and the semitone below it, but the effect is that we hear that dominant note over and over again, even while the chords are changing.

And you can hear the energy of the music build and build until the main theme returns about 15 seconds later. And you keep hearing that “standing on the dominant” effect happening at various times until the end of the movement, always used to build musical tension:

Genesis used this effect in their song “Squonk”, from their “A Trick of the Tail” album. The song starts with a pedal tonic note, and then 8 bars later we hear the dominant pedal: the “standing on the dominant” that builds harmonic tension:

If you’re looking to add some musical tension and energy to your songs, here is some advice:

  1. Try adding a dominant pedal before the start of a chorus. Take the final two or three chords of the verse, and play them with the bass on the dominant (5th) note.
  2. Add a dominant pedal to a pre-chorus section.
  3. Add a dominant pedal to the end of a bridge section before the return of the final chorus repeats.

It’s not something you’ll want to do every time, because it can get to be a predictable effect, and not every song will need that kind of intensification. But a dominant pedal has a great way of increasing listener interest by causing listeners (even subconsciously) to want to “wait” to hear the resolution of the dominant pedal.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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