Pianists obviously use their fingers to play the piano. But did you know that they can use their feet to change the sound as well? This is done by using the pedals at the bottom of the piano. These pedals don’t play or change the pitch of any notes, but they do affect the way the mechanics inside the piano work to change the tone. In this article, we will cover what each of the pedals of the piano do and how to use them.
What Do Each of the Pedals Do? Functions Explained
In order to understand how the pedals work, you need to know a bit about how the piano keys work to make sound. Each piano key is connected to a mechanism connected to a small hammer. The piano is full of strings tuned to specific pitches which correspond to the keys of the piano. When you play a note, the key sends the hammer toward the string or strings (most notes except for the very low notes have two or three strings for each note for a well-rounded tone). The hammer bounces off the string and a note is played. There are also dampers on all the strings until a note is played. This is to prevent all of the strings from vibrating at once. When a key is pressed, the damper for that note will simultaneously rise to allow the sound to reverberate. When the key is released, the damper will return to the string to stop the sound. All of the pedals affect the sound of the piano by either changing the way the hammers hit the strings or changing the way the dampers mute the strings.
There are usually two pedals on a typical upright acoustic piano and three pedals on an acoustic grand piano.
Far right: The Sustain Pedal
The sustain pedal does what it sounds like: it sustains the sounds of the notes. While the notes are typically muted, or dampened, by the dampers once the key is released, the sustain pedal moves all of the dampers off of the strings so that notes can continue to resonate after keys have been released. This allows the sound of each note to ring and reverberate with all the strings of the piano. This is why it is also sometimes called the damper pedal.
It is the most frequently used pedal and almost always used in some capacity in contemporary piano music. While it can give your playing a pleasant ringing tone, it is important not to over-use it. An excess of the sustain pedal can muddle the notes and create a lack of clarity. Therefore, a pianist must listen to make sure that the pedal is being used appropriately.
Far left: The Una Corda Pedal
Una corda means “one string,” and is also typically known as the soft pedal. It is called the una corda pedal because in early models of the piano the pedal’s function was to shift all of the hammers to the right so that they would only strike one string instead of two. In a modern grand piano, the una corda pedal shifts all the hammers to the right so that they strike fewer strings (two instead of three) and allow a slightly different, softer part of the hammer to hit the string. This results in a softer, lighter tone. In an upright piano, instead of shifting the entire set of hammers sideways, it shifts the hammers closer to the strings so that the hammers don’t hit the strings as hard, producing the quieter “una corda” sound.
Middle: The Sostenuto Pedal
The middle pedal on a grand piano is called a sostenuto pedal. It works similar to the damper pedal but will only hold the dampers of notes that have already been played once the pedal is pressed. This allows the first few notes to continue to ring while notes played after pressing the pedal are not sustained.
Occasionally an upright piano will have a middle pedal. If it does, it is rarely a sostenuto pedal and more often an ‘extra soft’ pedal that dampens the notes even further to make them very quiet. This is often a feature to give pianists the ability to practice quietly in a shared space where the full volume of the piano could be disturbing.
Do Professional Pianists Actually Use all Three Pedals?
While some pedals are used more than others, any pianist of notable skill will use whatever pedal is appropriate for the interpretation of a piece. Professional pianists will certainly use all three pedals throughout their career. The mechanisms of each pedal were invented to provide more options and greater musical control to the pianist. A professional pianist will take full advantage of these options to bring out the best performance of a piece of music. Ultimately, the decisions a pianist makes regarding technique and interpretation must serve music well.
The sustain pedal is used the most often, and generally used in music composed during and after the Romantic Era unless otherwise noted. But the other two definitely have their place as long they are used in ways that enhance the music.
How Often is the Soft Pedal Used in Performance?
The una corda pedal is used when a smaller, more withheld sound is required in the music. While it is sometimes argued that overuse of the pedal can be a ’lazy’ substitute for learning proper dynamic control, there are times when the specific tone of the una corda pedal can add another dimension to the music. It is not used overly frequently, but there are instances of Beethoven specifically recommending it, and well as romantic composers such as Debussy.
Here is an example of where it might be effective in Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C# Minor.
Is There Any Piece that Uses the Middle Pedal?
The sostenuto pedal is the most rarely used pedal and was added to the piano much later. However, it does have its uses. If there is a passage where the left hand plays some low, sustained bass notes and then there is a passage in the treble clef that requires both hands, the sostenuto pedal can be used to sustain the bass notes while the left hand plays in the treble clef. It Is most commonly used in romantic pieces, and has application in pieces by composers such as Debussy and Ravel.
Here is an example from Debussy’s popular piece Clair de Lune.
The left hand is to play the low E-flat octave which is to last for the extent of the measure and then play chords in the treble clef while the right hand plays chords in the higher register. Using the sostenuto pedal right after the low octave will allow the octave to continue ringing while the high chords are played clearly and un-sustained.
All the pedals of the piano are intended to give pianists a wider range of musical expression. There is the possibility of using the pedals to avoid using proper technique, such as over-simplifying the piano dynamic with the una corda pedal or ‘muddling’ over a lack of clarity with the sustain pedal, and pianists should be careful to avoid these mistakes. It is important to learn how to use the pedals correctly within the context of the music to give the best interpretation of the music possible.