Here’s a little post about pedal-point harmony — a musical term that I refer to quite often. What the fuck is it? KPOPALYPSE will explain all! Although this is a music theory post, you won’t need to know anything about music to understand this post because I’m going to attempt to explain pedal-point harmony in a way that any drooling dipshit can understand.
Let’s get started.
All sound is vibration of molecules. When a sound is generated from a singer or instrument, the vibration of the singer’s vocal cords or instrument vibrates nearby air molecules that start going from side to side. These molecules bump onto other air molecules until they eventually get to your ear, where they bump into the hairs in your ear that then also start going from side to side. Because the brain is amazing, it then converts those hair movements into brainwaves, and that’s how you get to hear “NOW BLOW IT LIKE A FLUTE, WOO OOOH, WOO OOOH OOOH”. Aren’t you lucky?
So when we hear a note that’s high and then one that’s low, the difference between the two notes is actually a difference in
determination vibration levels. Sounds that sound higher actually vibrate faster than notes which sound lower, and this quality of vibration speed is called ‘pitch’. In textbook music theory, pitch is measured by letters and positions on a musical stave, as per below.
However, we’re not going to worry about that letters-and-positions crap because I don’t need to get into music notation in order to explain how pedal point harmony works. For now we’re just going to focus on the vibration frequency, which is measured in Hz (Hertz are vibrations per second in this case). While the frequencies of vibration are important as they do determine pitch, they are not important in isolation. It’s the relative differences between vibrations that are important.
See, all sound is relative to a fixed Hz sound point. If someone plays a piece that starts with one note at a specific pitch, this pitch (usually) becomes the point from which everything else is then determined and measured against. This is a powerful and important concept in music theory called the ‘key’, and the note that forms the basis of the key is called the ‘root note’. The way that any future notes in the piece are heard is relative to this ‘root note’, as the other notes are defined by their relationship in distance to the ‘root note’.
Harmony is a word for what happens when more than one note is played at the same time, and harmonies also have a ‘root’ that’s (usually) the lowest (least vibrate-y) note of the harmony. Usually these harmonies are in the form of chords. During songs, harmonies tend to change over time because a song with only one harmony in it can get boring. The most common type of pop harmony is the “four chords” setup, but many varieties exist.
Most harmonies in pop music move in parallel — when one notes moves the other notes moves in the same direction at about the same distance. Imagine a song with changing chords, where the lower note is like Kai running away from fangirls and the higher notes are like the fangirls chasing him down the street waving their mobile phones and used maxipads. There is movement, but because the movements are roughly equal, not much is really changing.
A good example of parallel harmony in a song’s backing track would be Juniel’s “Pretty Boy”, where the harmony is based around shifting guitar chords.
A pedal-point harmony happens when the movement isn’t parallel, but it’s also not directly opposed, as in the case of Kai running away while the fangirls are being chased away by security in the opposite direction. Pedal-point harmony has one harmony element that stays consistent while other music elements of the harmony change around it, like Kai running away while his fangirls lie on the ground in despair, their dreams of stealing oppa’s heart in tatters. Although there’s less movement overall, the actual effect to the listener is of more movement because the distance between the static and moving parts keeps changing, and it’s that distance which is all-important for the brain’s perception of harmony. This is what makes pedal-point harmony an interesting harmonic choice musically, at least to me.
The other part of why I like pedal-point harmony is because the type of pedal point harmony that is in a lot of K-pop isn’t the jazz type where different chords are played over static bass, but the type that frequently occurs in heavy metal — static riffs over changing lower harmonies. As someone who grew up on a diet of heavy metal music, it’s nice to hear some influences from this style resonate in the pop sphere. In the following classic Iron Maiden song, the main riff is introduced over two different bassnotes from 0:12, and then a third bassnote is added to the same sequence at 1:21. The repetitive riff actually sounds less repetitive because of the lower harmony that’s moving under it.
Of course, I wouldn’t expect every reader to give a shit about Iron Maiden, and it wouldn’t be a KPOPALYPSE post without K-pop examples, so here we go with some examples of pedal-point harmony as applied to K-pop.
Crayon Pop might be all about punk ideology, but their ultra-rocking “FM” is K-pop-gone-heavy-metal complete with distorted guitars, explosions, cartoon violence, and, of course, pedal-point harmony. No wonder Korean pop fans clinging to their R&B crooning hated it — it was way too musically extreme for those weak fucks. The main high synth riff at 0:24 completes a cycle over the top of a “four chords” harmony, but the actual notes don’t change. However, the relative distance between each note and the chord’s root changes with each playing of the riff, giving the listener the effect of four riffs rather than one.
One of the many little details buried in the mix of Rainbow’s brilliant and largely misunderstood “Black Swan” is that the main keyboard riff that drives the chorus from 1:03 plays again at near-subliminal volume over completely different chords at 1:12. Even Rainbow fans probably didn’t even notice this subtle pedal-point harmony addition.
Almost any upbeat KARA song could be used as an example for this post, but “Pandora” will do. The main riff starts at 0:21 and relates two-and-a-half more times over gradually descending backings before ending with some kind of weird whammy thing just to drive home the point that KARA at their peak were the queens of metal.
It’s easy to get confused by all this though, so here’s some examples of what pedal-point harmony is not.
A song that might sound like pedal-point harmony to some ears but actually is not is D.Holic’s “Murphy & Sally”. Note how when the chorus steps down in pitch at 1:30, the main synth riff follows with exactly the same type of step down. This is actually parallel harmony — both elements changing at the same rate by the same amount.
f(x)’s Indian-classical-influenced “Rum Pum Pum Pum” doesn’t actually have any harmony changes at all, at least not in the sense of Western music theory. Both the bass and everything above it are essentially static.
Lim Kim’s hideous “Awoo” lives in a kind of ambiguous area which can’t really be classed as pedal-point harmony because the main fingernails-across-a-blackboard keyboard riff is the same length as the entirely of the four chords that it cycles over, so it’s all part of the same ‘loop’. However, the song does still have a very pedal-point sound to it just due to the sheer ear-grating one-note repetition of the riff’s structure.
Speaking of slicing your ears up and putting them in a bin forever, the undisputed worst song of 2015, plus possibly the worst trap song in the history of the form, “It G Ma”, does actually feature bassline changes with static higher backings, but that’s probably sheer laziness on the part of the producers rather than by design, because trap music always has incredibly lazy production. The entire style only exists because Three 6 Mafia were too stoned in 1991 to figure out how to use the speed control on their drum machine. Trufax.
If you didn’t know about pedal-point harmonies before, then hopefully this post has helped you understand the pedal-point harmony a bit better. I also hope you managed to wring some small semblance of entertainment value out of it!
Till next time.