The sounds available to you when you play are not limited to what you do with your hands. Piano pedals (the levers at your feet) enrich the sound in various ways, opening out possibilities further than the keyboard, from subtle nuances in dynamic to bold changes in the tone.
Types of pedals on a piano
Modern acoustic or digital pianos usually come with three pedals. Older acoustic pianos have two. Here we explain the effect that each has on the sound, the proper technique for using them and where you can find them in musical notation. Bear in mind that if you are starting as a beginner, you don’t need to worry much about the pedals yet. Their use is a (relatively) advanced technique and you won’t come across it much for a little while.
Sustain pedal (right)
Consider an acoustic piano. When a finger is taken away from a key, a “damper” pad stops the note from ringing out. The sustain pedal removes the dampers from the strings, allowing notes to ring out for longer, even when the keys are not held down anymore. That’s why it is also called the “damper” pedal.
It is rare to find any piece of music or song that doesn’t use the sustain pedal. Legendary pianist Artur Rubinstein even called it the “soul of the piano”. So If you are learning on a keyboard that doesn’t have built in pedals, then this is one that you really need. See Chapter 1 - Choosing a Piano or Keyboard for more on choosing a sustain pedal.
Soft pedal aka “una corda pedal” (left)
Most strings in an acoustic piano are grouped in threes, with each group tuned to the same note. When played normally, the hammer strikes all three at the same time giving a full, bright sound. On a grand piano, the una corda pedal shifts the entire mechanism to the right, so the hammer only hits two of the three strings.
The resulting note is softer. Also, since the strings are hit by a different part of the hammer, the sound is muted and less bright. On older pianos the hammer would only hit one of the three strings, hence “Una corda” meaning “one string”. On upright pianos, pushing the pedal moves the hammer mechanism closer to the string, making it softer but without altering the tone.
Sostenuto pedal (middle)
This is similar to a sustain pedal. The key difference is that it only holds notes that are already being played at the moment when the pedal is pressed down. Any notes that begin after the pedal is down are not affected, allowing for selective sustain without blurring the sound.
Since the sostenuto pedal is a relatively recent addition to the piano, it is rarely required for pieces before the late 20th century. Even so, many pianists use it when playing the work of earlier, more progressive composers like Debussy and Ravel.
Other functions of the third pedal
The middle pedal is not included on older pianos. But even if your piano does have three pedals, the middle pedal may not be a sostenuto pedal. Some pianos replace it with a bass sustain pedal that sustains only the lower (“bass”) notes. Other pianos have a practice pedal (aka “celeste pedal”) that softens the notes even quieter than a soft pedal. They often have a locking mechanism so you can practice without bothering people quite so much.
How to use the pedals
If you are sitting correctly, your feet should be flat on the floor. Line them up so the big toes of both feet are in line with the left and right pedals. When you want to use a pedal, raise the front of your foot and move it forward. Place the ball of your foot on the rounded end of the pedal, in line with the big toe. Pivot down in a smooth motion, keeping the heel on the floor. Try to minimize unwanted noise from hitting the bottom endpoint too fast or releasing the pedal uncontrolled.
Use your right foot for the sustain pedal, and left foot for both the soft and sostenuto pedals. Experiment with each of them to get used to how they alter the sound. Here are a few common techniques for the sustain pedal:
- Delayed/legato pedalling means pressing down the pedal after you play a note, releasing it, then pressing it down again after the next note is played. It is the most common, as it allows the notes to flow into the next, without giving a muddy sound.
- Half pedalling means partially pressing down the sustain pedal so the dampers only lightly touch the strings. Use this if you want a slightly richer tone, without blurring the sound. Some pianists use it for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, or to make Mozart sound less “dry” (pedals are never included in his notation).
- Preliminary pedalling means pressing down the sustain pedal before you play a note. This takes the damper off the string before the hammer strikes, creating a deeper, richer tone and making it ring out even more. You won’t use this very often.
- Simultaneous pedalling (aka direct/rhythmic pedalling) means pressing and releasing the pedal at the same time as playing a note or chord. This accentuates it, helping create emphasis in a more rhythmic manner. This is also rarely used.
Introducing the above techniques into your playing can drastically change the way a piece will sound. Just be careful not to overuse the pedals and make sure it suits the music. A fast song can be ruined by holding down the sustain pedal too much, while something slow might gain a lot from the same technique.
Overusing the sustain pedal
“….abusing the pedal is only a means of covering up a lack of technique, making a lot of noise to drown the music you’re slaughtering!” - Claude Debussy
Debussy was harsh, but he had a point. The sustain pedal is often heavily overused, creating a muddy, noisy sound. To avoid this, don’t hold it down, instead use delayed/legato pedalling technique described above: release and press down the pedal after you play the next note(s). Why after? Because it takes time for the dampers to mute the strings.
A good rule of thumb is to be particularly careful with the sustain pedal if the melody is made up of neighboring notes or whenever chords are changing. Always let your ears guide you and compare your playing to a recording of a professional pianist.
How to read pedal notation
Some composers are clear where they intend you to use the pedals, with freedom to add when necessary. On written music, pedal markings show where you place your foot down, and when to raise it again. Each pedal is marked slightly differently, but the principle is the same:
- Sustain (damper) pedal: Down = “Ped.” Up = “✱”
- Sostenuto pedal: Down = “Sost. Ped.” Up = “✱”
- Una corda (soft) pedal: Down = “una corda” Up = “tre corda”