“For the First Time”, and the Inverted Tonic Pedal

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The Script - "For the First Time"The Script’s hit single, “For the First Time,” has an interesting anomaly that’s worth studying. It involves the tonic note (i.e., the note representing the key of the song), and the fact that it almost never seems to disappear. The song is in the key of A major, and from start to finish you can hear that note almost unceasingly. It’s interesting, because we usually try to be judicious about how and when we use the tonic pitch. “For the First Time” demonstrates how one note, repeated constantly, can add intensity to a song.

The tonic note carries with it an enormous amount of power. As composers, we’re right to limit its use, saving it for ends of musical phrases and/or song sections. That’s because the tonic note usually gives a sense of finality, a feeling that the musical phrase has come to a definite conclusion.

It’s the reason that so many songs end on the tonic note. Having a melodic line or a chord progression end on the tonic feels natural.

So how did the writers of “For the First Time” (Danny O’Donoghue and Mark Sheehan) use it? Predominantly as a background accompaniment effect.

It’s played almost constantly, even when the note doesn’t specifically fit the chord (for example, during E/G#).

In those cases, when the note happens constantly over a changing progression, it’s called an inverted pedal point. (Read more about inverted pedal points here.)

Melodically, the tonic note in this song plays the role of being a lower destination point for most of the melodic figures that occur in the verse. And while the chorus melody largely abandons it, the tonic note remains constantly in the ear of the listener in either the bass note, accompanying chord, or inverted pedal in the keyboard or guitar.

So what’s the resultant effect of this relentless tonic? Mainly to add power and intensity to the lyric.

Lyrics that exhibit determination, dedication and forthrightness will benefit from a repeated note. Often we mean that the melody itself should be constructed to include repeating pitches, but “For the First Time” is a great example of how this concept of repetition can apply to other song elements, chiefly the backing accompaniment.

In your own songs, you can add the power of an inverted pedal point, and it does not need to be the tonic note.

It often works best to allow the inverted pedal to be a chord tone from the last chord of your chorus progression. But this is something that’s worth experimenting with. Here are some suggestions from the key of A major:

  1. Sing the note E constantly, and play: A  F#m  D  E  A
  2. Sing the note B, and play:  E7  F#m  D  Bm
  3. Sing the note F#, and play: D  C#sus4  F#m  Gmaj7  C
  4. Sing the note C#, and play: A  C#m  D  A/E  F#m  D  Bm  D

There’s no rule here; you can hold the sung note constantly, or you can allow it to move up and down to more easily fit the chord of the moment. In any case, whether you allow the constant pitch to be part of the melody or part of the accompaniment, you’ll find that it adds power and intensity to the lyric. So choose the effect for songs for which the lyric is passionate and strong.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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