Building Song Energy With the Dominant Note

The dominant note (the 5th note of a key) holds great potential energy, and can be used to propel the harmonic energy of a song forward. Here’s how.


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Electric BassThe dominant note is the 5th note of the key your song is in, and it holds great potential to build song energy. If your song is in A major, the dominant note and chord is E. You’ll find that with any chord progression from A major, once you’ve play that E chord, there is suddenly a great expectation that the next chord is going to be A. That’s the power of the dominant: it makes you expect the tonic. Anytime you do something in music where you expect something specific to follow, you create a strong sense of energy and forward motion.

There is that same sense of expectation that comes from the dominant note even if the dominant chord isn’t being played, and here’s what I mean.

Let’s say that you’ve got a song that has a verse, a pre-chorus, and then a chorus. A pre-chorus is simply a short section that exists between the verse and chorus. You can hear a good example of a pre-chorus in Katy Perry’s “Firework,” starting at 0’46”. When a verse seems complete (i.e., it’s a complete 2-, 4- or 8-phrase structure), but the chorus isn’t ready to happen yet, that section between the verse and chorus is the pre-chorus. And its main purpose is to build energy.

In the case of “Firework”, energy is built throughout the pre-chorus in two main ways: 1) The melody works its way constantly upward; and 2) orchestration builds, and backing rhythms intensify.

But there’s another technique you can try, which is to build energy by introducing a constant dominant pedal in the bass.

When musicians talk about a “pedal”, they’re talking about a note that plays continuously throughout a chord progression, even if that note doesn’t belong to the chord. A dominant pedal in the bass therefore means that the bass notes sit on the dominant note, regardless of what the chord progression is. It’s a great way to build energy, because listeners subconsciously expect the tonic note and/or chord to happen soon, and that builds energy.

Tonic pedals are quite common in pop music, such as the opening of Van Halen’s “Jump,” and like dominant pedals, a tonic pedal also creates energy. Dominant pedals are perhaps less common, but they create even more energy than tonic pedals. There’s a good reason for that: a tonic chord can move almost anywhere, but dominant chords really want to move to the tonic. And even if they don’t eventually lead to the tonic, the psychological expectation is there. So a bass sitting on the dominant note intensifies momentum and energy.

Let’s say that your pre-chorus progression is this:

A  D  Bm  E  C#m7  F#m  D  E

Play the progression through a few times to get a feel for it. Try playing each chord for 2 beats (listen), and then try 4.

Now here’s the same progression with a dominant pedal: (listen) The note E is at the bottom of each chord.

The other option is to begin the dominant pedal halfway through the progression, starting with the C#m7: (listen)

You’ll find that after a dominant pedal, having the tonic (I) chord appearing at the start of the chorus produces a welcome climactic moment for your song. There’s no one right way to use the dominant pedal, so be sure to experiment and come up with something that suits your song.


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