I hear the following in string parts a lot in intense movie scenes or certain styles of music. I don't think that this falls under the categorization of Alberti Bass since it's functioning as a melodic part and not a bass part. You can assume that the main chord for this example is A minor, but of course, it doesn't have to be, but that's the chord I intend when I show this. Basically, on beats and the "+" and of beats chord notes and non-chord notes are played interrupted by the 5th of the chord. This note that alternates on the e and a if one was counting 1e+a can also be the root of the chord from what I've observed. Any ideas on how to categorize this?

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Update: the pattern is not repeating.

  • 7
    This is a form of latent polyphony: a one-voice passage that imitates the sound of a two-voice passage. In this case you're approximating the structure of a simple melody above a second voice playing a pedal point. Jan 8, 2017 at 14:58
  • @KilianFoth That should really be an answer. It's the best one yet.
    – 11684
    Jan 8, 2017 at 22:22

5 Answers 5


That musical figure has two voices: a melody in the upper voice and a pedal tone in the lower voice. Bowed strings do not permit sustained chordal tones, so to play multiple voices they must be alternated or arpeggiated. Typically, the music alternates between melody on the beat and the pedal tone between beats. A particularly famous example appears in Cello Suite no. 1: Prelude by J.S. Bach, where the entire second half of the piece is a melody like this over a D pedal.

While this technique is especially common in bowed music, you do also see it in other stringed instruments like guitar and piano. For example, the B section of Für Elise ends with a similar figure in 32nd notes around a G pedal. In that case, the pedal point is an upper voice rather than the bass.

The general term for breaking multiple voices into sequences of notes is arpeggiation and the term for the sustained harmonic voice is a pedal point (which is usually but not always in the bass voice). Note that some musicians use pedal specifically for tones sustained through harmonic changes, while others use it for any “bass note that is held for a long period,” and still others for any long-sustained tonic or dominant tone.

  • The bottom note in my example is not a bass tone. Also, strings was just an example of an instrument I've seen this technique used in. The instrument could be a piano, a synth lead, a flute, etc.
    – 02fentym
    Jan 9, 2017 at 0:53
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    The lowest voice in a musical figure is the bass (base) even if it is not in a register you would normally think of as bass, plus it is possible to have internal pedals as noted in the answer by Rosie F. The thing that makes it a pedal is that it is a fixed voice in the harmony, not the clef you write it in. Jan 9, 2017 at 0:58
  • @02fentym, I elaborated on the usage of arpeggiation and pedals on other instruments and in non-bass voices. Jan 9, 2017 at 1:14
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    I think Patrx2 is definitely correct for pieces with two distinct melody voices in counterpoint. In this example, where one voice is a constant harmonic tone, I suspect that pedal is more appropriate than compound melody but I am not familiar enough with the latter term to say for sure. Jan 9, 2017 at 1:30
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    @JoséDavid, after a little digging I see that pedal is used for a few related things in music, with the common element being sustained harmonic tones, so I added a note to that effect. Jan 10, 2017 at 1:51

If the entire figure repeated exactly, then it would be an ostinato, the term that endorph used.

But the extract in the OP does not show such a repeat. What we have is a pedal (in the repeating lower notes) with a tune above. A pedal is sometimes called an interior pedal or internal pedal if it is not in the lowest or highest voice.

  • Yes, the pattern does NOT have to repeat, which is why I showed some variation. I'll make my question more clear so that people don't think it's repeating. So you can have a pedal even when it's not the bass part? Is this the common understanding of a pedal?
    – 02fentym
    Jan 8, 2017 at 22:07

It's a compound melody, i.e., one that implies two or more voices by means of a broken figuration (by which I mean that a note implying one voice breaks off and leaps to a note that implies another voice, which breaks off in its turn and leaps to a note implying the first voice, and so forth). Kilian Foth has called it "latent polyphony" in the comments, which is a good description, but compound melody is the term I have normally seen used. You will find plentiful examples in Bach: the subject of the Fugue in E minor BWV 548 ("The Wedge") comes to mind.

  • After doing a google search for compound melody, this seems to be the most correct term. Thanks!
    – 02fentym
    Jan 8, 2017 at 22:38
  • Is that a compound melody or a melody arpeggiated with a pedal? That looks like a melody voice and a harmonic voice, rather than a compound melody, unless I am misunderstanding what that term means. Jan 9, 2017 at 1:16
  • @BraddSzonye, we have too little to go on to judge the function of the "lower voice", but the OP states that it changes. Even at that, I don't think it much matters: the melody implies that it was created from two or more layers. Where would one draw the line, then? What would constitute a harmonic line as opposed to simple counter-melody?
    – user16935
    Jan 9, 2017 at 2:21
  • Compound melody was my first thought, not arpeggiation, because of the step-wise top part. Jan 13, 2017 at 21:53
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    @MichaelCurtis, compound melody is still the correct term, I believe. A compound melody is pretty simply one that implies construction in layers. Whether one of those layers is an implied pedal point or "harmonic" voice is immaterial.
    – user16935
    Jan 13, 2017 at 23:01

The word that immediately jumps to mind is ostinato.

Here's the relevant quote, in case Wiki drops off the internet. Can't be too cautious.

[An ostinato is] a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, usually at the same pitch.

This answer is obviously not specific to that particular pattern. However, if I were discussing the part with another musician, I'd refer to it as the 'string ostinato'. There may be a more specific term for that musical phrase; I'm not aware of it.

  • Thanks for the answer. It seems a bit general though. As I looked over the article, ostinato seems to be an umbrella term for some sort of pattern. When you look at the non-repeated notes in my example, those don't necessarily need to form a pattern, they just need to alternate with the common note (E in my example).
    – 02fentym
    Jan 8, 2017 at 11:23
  • 1
    @02fentym Yes, it's a pretty broad classification. I mentioned it as a catch-all, in case there isn't another phrase. We'll see if you get a more specific answer from someone else.
    – endorph
    Jan 8, 2017 at 11:27
  • If the pattern continues over a number of bars, then ostinato would fit well, as ostinato is a pattern, and a motif needs to repeat several times to be seen as a pattern.
    – Tim
    Jan 8, 2017 at 11:32

I don't know if it is a universal term, but I would call that a pedal point, as it is commonly referenced in guitar literature (I have also seen pedal tone).

You can see an example in this video on Eric Johnson's style, showing many variations of the position of the repeated note; Cliffs of Dover has lots of that.

  • I think the main issue with calling this a pedal point or pedal tone is that those are sustained, as far as I know, as opposed to just simply being alternated with. Not to mention that it usually is stagnant over many chord changes. In my melodic example, the common tone would move with the chord changes, i.e. it would be a part or extension of the chord, whereas a pedal point is inherently not a part of the chord for most of the changes.
    – 02fentym
    Jan 8, 2017 at 23:02
  • Another famous example is the D pedal point in the extended dominant section of Cello Suite no. 1 Prelude by J.S. Bach. Bowed strings do not permit sustained pedal notes, so alternating between the melody and the pedal point is the only way to do it. Jan 9, 2017 at 0:43
  • @02fentym, also keep in mind that the only way to sustain a pedal tone on most acoustic instruments is to play it over and over, and even on electric instruments it is common to repeat them for rhythmic purposes. Jan 9, 2017 at 1:18
  • Hmmm...this is tricky. Both compound melody and pedal point in a melodic sense seem to fit. I have to read up more on both to make a final decision as to which answer is correct.
    – 02fentym
    Jan 9, 2017 at 1:24
  • 1
    IMHO a compound melody is something a bit more complex than the excerpt given, having two different melodies "multitasking" in the same line, not much like the constant and pulsating fifths in-between the main melody notes. Jan 9, 2017 at 18:07

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