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What is a piano pedal and why is it so important?

piano pedals

When looking under the piano you have three brass colored levers sticking out from the bottom. Pedals are unique to the piano, and their effect cannot be understated. They are so important! 

On an acoustic grand or upright or piano, those are the piano pedals! Many pianists wonder what do the pedals on a piano do? Here you can finally find out and start making music! The pedals are an extremely important component to the piano, sheet music even has pedal markings. 

Types of piano pedals

Pedals on the piano help to enrich the sound by making the notes sustain longer than normal or by accentuating the softer dynamics and consequently enhancing the emotional impact of your music. Learning what the three pedals on piano do is a necessary step on every pianist’s journey, and the first step is to learn the piano pedal names.

Sustain pedal 

Sustain pedal 

Location: right pedal

Main functions

  • Also called Damper Pedal
  • Sustains sounds played by the piano
  • Allows for playing more piano notes across the instrument
  • Blends sustained notes sound from multiple notes of the instrument together

How does it work?

The first pedal we will learn about is called the sustain pedal or damper pedal. These two words are often used interchangeably to refer to the same pedal. On all acoustic grand or upright pianos, the sustain pedal is on the right side. If you are close to your piano, and you have never pushed down this pedal, go over to your piano, press down the sustain pedal lightly with your foot, and play some keys. What happens when the hammers lift off the string? The sustain pedal causes selected notes to sustain for a period of time after you lift your finger off the keys. This pedal on the piano adds a legato effect to your music, helps string notes and chords together, and smoothen out transitions. It also adds a pleasant blurriness to your music, similar to the impressionism of a watercolor painting. However, too much sustain pedal can cause your music to become muddy and create indistinguishable sounds, so you must learn how to wield its power to your advantage.

The una corda pedal

The una corda pedal

Location: left pedal

Main functions: 

  • Una Corda means only one string
  • We also call this pedal the Soft Pedal
  • Creates a muted, or muffled sound
  • This pedal physically moves hammers inside the piano to play fewer one strings
  • Use it to play the Dynamic Marker pp, pianissimo, or extremely soft.

How does it work?

This dynamic means This dynamic is best achieved by pressing the soft pedal or the una corda pedal. On an acoustic piano, this is the pedal on the left side.The una corda pedal works differently on a grand piano versus an upright piano. 

On a grand piano, depressing the soft pedal shifts the piano hammers to the right so that the hammers only strike one string instead of two or three. The result is a softer tone. This is where the name una corda (one string) comes from. On an upright piano, pushing the soft pedal moves the hammers closer to the strings, thereby limiting the total distance the hammers can travel to strike the strings. This has a similar, muting effect.

The soft pedal is a beautiful, if fragile, sound. Anytime you see the dynamic markings pp, pianissimo, or una corda, you are being instructed to use this pedal. You will find this pedal quite a bit in the piano music of French composer Claude Debussy and you can practice using the soft pedal on Skoove’s arrangement of the traditional tune “Greensleeves”.

Sostenuto pedal

Sostenuto pedal

Location: middle

Main functions

  • The middle pedal can have three different functions
  • The Sostenuto pedal
  • The Bass damper pedal
  • The Practice pedal

How does it work? 

The sostenuto pedal sustains only the notes that are held when the pedal is pressed. Any notes pressed after the pedal will sound as they normally would without the pedal. If you play a big chord high up on the piano and engage the sostenuto pedal with it, then the following notes will sound detached from the sustained chord, until you release the pedal. 

The Bass Damper pedal functions like the damper pedal on the right side, but only affects the bass notes. Any notes above middle C on the piano sound like normal.

The Practice pedal. This type of pedal is most often found on a modern upright piano. Practice pedals soften the sound and lock into the down position so you do not have to sit there and hold it the entire time you practice. This pedal allows you to practice quietly meaning you will not annoy your neighbors or housemates and is especially useful if you live in an apartment or other close dwelling. Now you know what the middle pedal on a piano does!

Digital pedals

Digital pedals

Location: plugged into keyboard

Main functions

  • Many keyboards do not come with pedals
  • All pedals plug into a ¼’’ input jack
  • Can be used to sustain instruments that are not pianos
  • Sustain is recorded into DAW Recording Programs 

How does it work? 

Most keyboards come equipped with a ¼” input jack on the back that is usually labeled “sustain.” If you are interested, you can purchase a stand-alone sustain pedal for a reasonable price and incorporate that into your practice. Unfortunately, there are no analogous soft and sostenuto pedals for digital keyboards, but many piano plug-ins do have soft or sostenuto pedal functions. Digital upright pianos come with a standard three pedal arrangement like acoustic pianos, but now digital keyboards. 

The internal mechanics

Have you ever taken a look inside your acoustic piano? If not, take a moment and open the lid and examine the interior. Have you ever wondered what are the pedals on a piano for? 

When you depress the sustain pedal, the little blocks of felt called “dampers” are lifted away from the strings.The dampers are what mute the piano strings after you lift your finger off the keys. This is why the sustain pedal is sometimes called the damper pedal. 

To use the pedal correctly, place your right foot in front of the pedal, heel firmly on the floor, toes on the pedal lever. Your heel should remain on the floor as you pedal, keeping your foot in place. Maintaining proper piano sitting posture is important. Only your toes move up and down to work the pedal. How hard you have to press on the pedal varies from one piano to another. It is a bit like driving – every car feels a little bit different.

How to use the piano pedals

A great Skoove song to practice pedaling with is “Moonlight Sonata”. Use the damper pedal here to create a sense of reflection. 

Go to the lesson

  • Start by changing the pedal on the first beat of every measure. 
  • Aim to take the pedal off and put it down again just as you strike the new notes. Move pedal in a swift up-and-down action. 
  • Hold pedal almost to the downbeat. 

There is an old saying, “pedal with your ears”. Make sure you are listening carefully to how your pedaling sounds. 

  • If the notes are blurry, lift your foot higher off the pedal
  • If the notes are not blending, apply more pedal down on the pedal. It takes practice to get it right and for it to feel and sound effortless. 

Skoove has many great lessons like the one mentioned above. If you are interested in checking it out more, you can sign up for a 7 day free trial. Skoove features over 400 lessons and a unique AI system that listens and responds to your playing in real time. It is awesome for students at any stage of life.

How to read pedal notation

Now that you know what the pedals on a piano are for, it is time to learn how the pedals on the piano are notated. You will commonly see notation for the sustain and soft pedals, but rarely if ever for the middle pedal, unless you’re playing a piece written for grand piano. 

Notating the damper pedal

Pedal notation is easy to recognize. The notation for the sustain or damper pedal looks like this:

Notating the damper pedal

This example begins with middle C on the piano. The indication Ped tells you to play the sustain pedal, the extended horizontal line across the first measure means hold the sustain pedal down, the triangle at the beginning of the second measure means to refresh the pedal, and finally the vertical line at the end of the second measure means lift the pedal for good. Simple, right?

You may also see this notation:

Ped. simile means to continue pedaling in the same manner. In this example, that means refreshing the pedal before the start of each new measure.

Notating the soft pedal

Notation for the soft pedal is achieved with either the dynamic marking pp meaning pianissimo or very quiet, or the dynamic marking una corda, meaning one string. Here is an example:

Notating the soft pedal

If you see a marking like this in music, it means these chords should be played with the soft pedal depressed. You can try using the sostenuto pedal with some basic piano chords as well.

But, digital keyboards have a different advantage: you can explore the wide world of guitar and bass effects pedals! Delay pedals, reverb pedals, fuzz, overdrive, and octave pedals, and more! If you are curious, there is truly no end to the sounds you can explore down that pathway with pedals on the piano! Perhaps you don’t want to make the only sounds from a piano? Digital pianos can adjust themselves to sound like any instrument or percussion, or even play samples of voices.

Final words

Pedals are the key to making interesting sounding music on a piano, and their importance can never be overlooked. With proper pedals you can also make your digital keyboard sound just like a real acoustic piano, with strings long enough to make the bass notes ring. Learning piano truly is the best way to understand how to make music, and the best way to do that is through online piano lessons. Now that you know how to use sustain pedals you can finally play moody classical music, or long beautiful chords that drift away slowly. Enjoy making moody piano music! 

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Author of this blog post:

 

Alvin Shipp is a Multi-Instrumentalist Composer, Performer, Producer, and Educator from Portland, Oregon currently based in Berlin, Germany. He’s worked extensively in the USA and Germany, has released Over 15 Albums. He has been teaching upper-level students for over 15 years, and currently lives as a Freelance Composer, Mixing & Mastering Engineer and Teacher.

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