When you visualize a piano, you see a beautiful musical instrument with gorgeous black and white keys. Almost always, viewers are drawn to a pianist’s fingers moving on the keyboard. But what you might often miss are the pedals at the bottom.
Although relatively unseen, piano pedals have an essential role in playing the instrument. They’re levers that modify the sound in different ways. Wondering what they are and how are they used? This article will tell you everything you need to know about piano pedals.
Types of Piano Pedals
Typically, there are three piano pedals from left to right: soft, sostenuto, and sustain pedals. As for beginners, you might be wondering what do piano pedals do?
Types of pedals:
- Sustain Pedal: The first pedal to the right is the sustain pedal (also called the damper pedal). The damper pedal is one of the most commonly used piano pedals and controls dampers inside the piano. Dampers are small wooden blocks with a felt pad or pads attached to the bottom that lay against the strings for the keys. When you press a key, that key’s damper rises, allowing for sound to be heard. However, when you lift your finger, the damper is released. That’s when the sound stops.
The damper pedal lifts all dampers so that every note sustains sound even after lifting your finger from the key. In short, the sustain or damper pedal lets players extend the sound of a note for a longer duration. It’s used to create beautiful resonant sounds and hold extended chords that accompany a melody. This pedal is also used to play with “legato articulation.” Legato articulation is the practice of moving from one note to the next smoothly, without breaks in between sounds.
If you want to know precisely how the sustain pedal and damper mechanism works, open your piano and check it out. In digital pianos the action of the pedals is emulated.
- Soft Pedal: The left-most one is the soft pedal, commonly known as the una corda pedal. As the name implies, this pedal offers a reduction in the sound volume and softens it. However, in technical terms, the pedal provides a change in the timbre of the sound being played. It ends up creating a sound that may invoke feelings of mystery, rumination, or awe.
The mechanism works like this — the whole keyboard and respective key hammers shift a little to the right, hitting only one note for each string rather than the standard two strings. One string translates to una corda; this is where soft piano pedals get their second name.
While it may be an incorrectly used term because today, the term has stuck around because of its popularity. However, some pianists have started calling it the “half-blow” pedal instead of una corda.
- Sostenuto Pedal: The sostenuto is the middle pedal and is often the least used. However, it has an interesting variation from the sustain or damper pedal. When you hold the sostenuto pedal down, the note will continue to sound after you’ve lifted your finger—much like the sustain pedal. But all the notes you play after that will last just as long as you’ve held them down. So, for those pianists who want to hold out a long chord while playing other keys, this pedal offers an excellent way to do it. Typically, you can hold down bass notes while letting the melodic and harmonic lines continue.
Sometimes, the center pedal makes muffled or very soft sounds. In such a case, it’s called the “practice pedal” and not sostenuto. It lets you practice your piano at a low volume without disturbing those around you. But the center pedal isn’t present in some pianos, which means that its use is limited.
Are There Any Other Piano Pedal Types?
Some piano manufacturers waver from the typical outline and experiment with piano pedals. In recent years, they’ve come up with pedals that have other uses or that are brand new.
For instance, some American manufacturers leave the center pedal for just bass strings. Others have tried adding a new (fourth) pedal that dampens the notes played, reversing the effect of the sostenuto. Some have gone even further by using different materials for the practice pedal to change the sound. But with not many composers or compositions using these experimental pedals on piano, they’re not commonly used yet.
How to Use Piano Pedals the Right Way
The correct position when using the pedals is to place your feet flat on the floor. Next, make sure that your feet are lined up so that the big toes are against the right and left piano pedals. Finally, once you’ve rested your feet on the ground, keep the ball of your foot on the rounded end of the pedal you want to play.
Next, lower the ball of your foot firmly but not quickly. You should not press down hard on the pedal. Your leg movement must be soft and smooth. Release the pedal by placing your heel on the ground and then lift the ball. Be sure to keep in contact with the pedal, so it doesn’t make a thump motion when it’s released. Your right foot can be used for the sustain pedal and left for the soft plus center pedals.
There are different piano pedaling techniques like legato, half, simultaneous, preliminary, and overlap.
- Legato: Also known as delayed pedaling, the legato pedaling technique joins two unconnected notes in its simplest form. It makes this possible when one chord or note stops and the next starts playing immediately after.
The pedal achieves this when it aligns precisely at the point at which the following note begins. But where it goes down depends on the music sheet, the judgment of the sound, or the piece’s speed. Legato is the most commonly used because it allows one note to flow into the next without sounding muddy.
- Half: As the name suggests, you can use the half pedaling when you’re partially pressing down on the sustain pedal, touching the strings lightly. Half pedaling is used to create a richer tone without blurring the notes. Some piano players use it to play Beethoven and Mozart’s compositions.
- Preliminary: It’s probably the easiest of all piano pedaling techniques. But it’s also used sparingly. The sustain pedal is depressed first before you hit a note. The damper lifts off the string before the hammer strikes down.
Preliminary pedaling creates a deep, rich sound that rings out more than usual. It adds a dreamy feel to a musical piece, especially if you’re playing a mellow rhythm or just hit a crescendo and move to a slow bit.
- Simultaneous: It’s also called direct or rhythmic pedaling. Simultaneous pedaling is a little tricky to get right. In this technique, you press and release the pedal at the same time or “simultaneously” when playing a note or chord.
This technique highlights the note, rhythmically laying more emphasis. Like preliminary pedaling, it’s also one of the rarely used techniques.
- Overlap: Overlap pedaling is one of the advanced pedaling techniques. It’s used when you want to deliberately “overlap” one note over the next. You start by pressing down the keys for the first chord and depressing the sustain pedal. Then you release the keys without taking your foot off the pedal and play the second note. Now, you disengage the sustain pedal and let the keys go at the same time.
The overlap technique suits a piece that needs certain parts merged to start at different times but end at the same exact moment.
Playing piano pedals the right way changes your music piece to a large extent, in a good way. However, avoid overusing pedals if they don’t sit well with the song you’re learning. For instance, fast-paced songs don’t work when you’re holding down the sustain pedal for long or you will have to keep changing the pedal frequently to achieve the desired sound. On the other hand, slow music will benefit from keeping your sustain pedal held down.
When to use Pedals on the Piano?
Now that you know how to use pedals, it’s essential to know when to use them.
A good time to use pedals is when playing chords. Pedals help transition between chords. But, again, a word of caution, don’t use it for short or detached rhythms. Unlike classical music, you have the freedom to use pedals whenever you like while playing with chords.
Pedals can be efficiently used for different genres of music. Currently, a lot of pianists also experiment with pedals with fast paced pieces and music from the Baroque era. This is a time when the piano was an instrument that was commonly unknown.
You can use music sheets to identify which pedal to use and for how long. So, let’s dive right into it.
[Read: How to Play the Piano]
Reading Notations for Pedals
As you’ve already seen, pedals can’t be played anywhere in a musical piece. So that pianists know which pedals to use when they’re given notations on music sheets. For those who are still new to this, musicians read notations from a music sheet. While the soft and sustain pedals are commonly notated, the center pedal rarely finds use. To truly understand what do piano pedals do, it’s essential to know all their notations.
- Sustain Pedal
For this right pedal, the indication usually begins a little after Middle C. It usually spells out as Ped. Followed by the pedaling symbol. The symbol also lets you know when and how many times you need to depress the damper pedal. The initial line shows the start, with a peak in the middle. This peak tells you when to let the pedal go for a short moment. And the final line shows when you can completely release your foot from the sustain pedal.
Further, Ped.simile denotes you can continue pedaling the same way for the next section. Another marking of the sustain pedal is “senza sordini,” which translates to “without dampers.”
- Soft Pedal
There are two ways to notate the soft pedal in a musical piece. It’s either marked as pp, which stands for pianissimo (very quiet), or una corda (one string). Alternatively, it may also be called con sordino. The phrases that tell you to release the pedal may be senza sordino or tre corde.
If you see the soft pedal chords on your music sheet, it means you should play those notes by depressing the soft pedal. Then, you can start practicing with the sostenuto pedal on some basic piano chords.
What About Digital Pianos?
Are you wondering, what about the pianos that don’t come with any pedals? Particularly the digital ones because some don’t have pedals, to begin with. You may think that learning about piano pedals, then, doesn’t make sense. However, several digital upright pianos do come with the standard three-pedal arrangement, just like acoustic pianos.
Keyboards, on the other hand, have a ¼ input jack that’s called sustain. If you purchase a keyboard, look over to the back of it; you’ll find this pedal. But if you still don’t get it, you can buy a separate, stand-alone sustain pedal. You get such pedals for an affordable price to use them for practice. Unfortunately, there are no soft or sostenuto pedals available for keyboards. Although you still have options with digital keyboards. They come with a variety of guitar and bass effect pedals: delay, reverb, fuzz, octave, and so much more. Once you learn about them, there’s no stopping you.
Learning how to play piano pedals will change the way you look at music and make it. Often, piano pedaling techniques aren’t understood and end up getting misused or rarely used. But you can do better by relying on your ear, getting clarity when playing and accepting pedals as part of playing the piano.
Don’t restrain yourself from learning more about the piano, whether you’re a beginner or just or toying with the idea—you can take the next step. BYJU’S FutureSchool makes music learning more accessible and offers a number of music classes for kids and adults.
Is your child interested in learning the piano? Or are they already playing it? Tell us more about their experience in the comments.