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Brian Wilson, The Ronettes & Pedal Point

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When Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) heard ‘Be My Baby’( –the Ronettes) for the first time, he was utterly staggered. He knew harmony very well indeed, but what he had heard in that famous chorus was new, unexpected & wholly surprising to him. He would never forget the moment he heard that song on his car radio.


Here it is: The chorus is the ‘Be My Baby’ refrain.

Essentially it’s a ‘pedal point’



I’m not aware of a more modern term, but we hear lots of in in various sorts of music.


One way to think of it is when a note (or notes) bleed into another harmony, producing unexpected results. You could of course figure out the relationship of these notes and give a name to the chord.


But knowing what to call the chord is not that helpful. The effect is entirely dependent upon the musical context. The same harmony from the perspective of a different piece of music will be entirely different. What I am getting at is that the effect of such ‘harmonies’ are not well understood. We can all try out the effect, but is there any documented understanding of how this works really? I’m not aware of any.


It’s a bit like visiting an interesting place, but there are no maps of this place. There are no street signs or road numbers. A surprise can be around any corner.


When Brian Wilson heard Ronnie & the Ronettes that day on the radio in 1963, he experienced something some us can identify with. A spine tingling moment? I think so.


I am working on a guitar solo over a song with lots of chords occurring in quick succession, there are a couple of modes I can switch between to keep it sounding in tune, but no single scale will fit. Furthermore I can’t think fast enough to keep up with the changes as they occur. I’m aware though, that certain notes ‘work’ in there that shouldn’t. They are normally discordant, but somehow work within the framework of this particular composition. Why? I have no idea.


Are any of you writers any wiser about this ‘extra’ dynamic in harmony?



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This is a really interesting topic, and it's a shame to see no replies... :(


Some random thoughts... pedal point is a term that comes out of the classical tradition, altho it's perfectly applicable to any style of music where the technique occurs. The compositional approach prior to the 20th century was focused on melody and counterpoint, and as such harmony was a somewhat incidental consideration, at least compared to the way we think of it today.


Melody over drone is a huge component of the classical music of India, well worth checking out if you haven't already.


Modal jazz is another genre where you see this type of thing. Kind of the opposite of the solo you've got in the works... instead, the basic harmony remains static for an extended period, allowing a sort of anything goes approach to soloing, moving thru different scales and suggesting surprising extended harmonies.

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I was first aware of it in late 60’s rock (eg: Jack Bruce’s songs in Cream) with a guitar solo being transformed by a bass line ‘suggesting’ chords.  

The drone of a sitar certainly belongs in the broad description, though bagpipes don’t, as that music is much simpler. Though Robert Hunter used bagpipes in ‘Child’s Lament’ creating a great example.


That’s for your insights R Rex

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  • 3 months later...

Pedal point comes in various facets. 



Paul McCartney plays an open G note through out the entire piece even when the chords don't always line up to support a G note he throws it in anyway.


Mike Rutherford (Mike and the mechanics) Sets up a vamp over an a chord for an extended period before modulating the lick to accommodate the chord changes. Granted he's using a lot of slap back delay.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APXwdkdhC2c


You can also use the pedal point as the focus of your progression and leave it.  Bryan Adams "It's only love"

The progression goes. D5 (D A D) C9 (C G D) Asus4 (A E A D) Bb (Bb F Bb D) Then ignores the D when it reaches for the F chord.


For guys like... well you and me who have embraced supporting the harmony and using the notes from the harmony to play "connect the dots" with our melody In support of that it's hard to simply allow that type of dissonance when a pedal point is in conflict with the harmony.  However if we can get beyond that dissonance to a point where the pedal point tone has consonance with the chord tone later down the line we can think of it as tension and resolution. 

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Yes, we are drawn to the difference / dissonance, but still need it to come out tidy in the end.


Good examples in those links Mike. They make the point perfectly.


I'm working on a different piece now, and using a riff which 'suggests' a flattened 5th where there is'nt one. I always think of a flattened 5th as a special note. It belongs nowhere except in transition, and it pretty much always sounds good.


I am starting to think of music as a sort of narrative (or have that potential anyway), where the music can tease the listener and even lead him astray a little bit.


Actually, it nice place to be.

Edited by Rudi
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When playing jazz rhythms I tend to omit the 5th or bury it in my harmonies. It allows more latitude for the soloist who might want to reach with substitutions or uncommon scales/modes.

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