Compositional Ideas: Pedal Points And Ascending Tones

February 10, 2015

This is a neoclassical tool we can use in lead composition. We are going to look at extracts from Bach's "1st Cello Suite," "Prelude" and "Courante," see how Bach uses pedal points, then look at how we can apply this in our own playing.

Here's the extract is from Bach's "Prelude" in his first "Cello Suite."

Figure 1

You can see that from the second beat of this example, Bach is using the note D (fret 7 on the G string), and then chromatically ascending from D, and going back to D each time.

Have a go at playing this extract and see how you find the sound. You should find it sounds like increasing tension. Also note the position changes we have to do, moving the ascending notes onto the next string (in beat 1 of the second bar), and shifting the pedal point (D) a string lower, which allows us to use a greater range, and also to extend the time that we can use this technique to increase the tension.

Another thing to note here is how Bach sets this up. The two notes at the start are chord tones to the pedal tone D. Bach wrote this piece in the key of G major; in this key, the chord built from D is D major, which has the notes D, F# and A. So Bach plays F#, A then resolves down to D, before using D as a pedal tone and ascending chromatically.

How can you apply this to your playing?

We can take the principles that Bach used for this section of music and apply them to our own soloing. For example, you could sweep through an arpeggio, then move from the lowest note in the arpeggio into a series of chromatically ascending notes, using the bass note as the pedal point.

Example in D minor:


Adding another level to this idea

In the third piece from the first "Suite," "Courante", Bach uses this technique again, with a twist on it:

Figure 2

You can see in the second and third bar that instead of a pedal point (or single note), Bach is now using a pedal phrase (circled in blue):

Figure 3

With the following notes moving round the pedal phrase (circled in red):

Figure 4

Again, changing up a string with the red circled notes allows us to use a greater range - this example requires more from our hand than the first one and wouldn't be able to (easily) stretch up to the high frets. 

Here is a second example from later in the same piece:

Figure 5

The pedal phrase is easier to see here as it is on a separate string (circled in blue, ascending tones in red):

Figure 6

In both examples, the first moving tone (circled in red), is the next note up in the scale from the highest note in the pedal phrase (circled in blue). So when the highest note in the pedal phrase was E, our first moving tone was F# (figure 2); and when the highest note in our pedal phrase was A, the first moving tone was B (figure 5).

In both these examples, the phrase moves:

  • Low to high
  • High to low

How can you apply these ideas to your playing?

As in the last example, create a short pedal point phrase, and use the next note up in the scale from the highest note in your pedal point phrase as the first moving note

Example in E minor:

Figure 7

So in this example the pedal phrase is:
And we are working in the scale of G major. A is the highest note in the phrase, so my first moving note is going to be B. Simple!

Closing Remarks

So we've gone through an analysis of how Bach uses pedal points in two different ways in two different pieces, looked at how we can use these ideas in our own playing and also looked at a couple of examples.

I'd love to hear your thoughts/ideas - post a YouTube link or ask a question in the comments and I'll answer it as quickly as possible!

About the Author:
Sam Russell is a professional musician based in West London. He has recently published several books, tab books of Bach's "Cello Suites" for electric guitar. Find out more for free on
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