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Piano pedals: usage and common mistakes

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. 

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Piano pedals function

The piano pedals function on an acoustic or digital piano are the defining feature of this instrument compared to others. Learning how, when and why to use them will make all the difference between your playing and a piano novice. On an acoustic grand or upright or piano, those are what 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. 

Many pianists wonder what do the pedals on a piano do. The pedal will make your playing sustain, be soft, or a mixture of the two depending on how best you use them.  

Common questions for beginning pianists include wondering what do the pedals on a piano do, how many pedals does a piano have, and is the number of pedals different, how many pedals do modern pianos have? 

Knowing what are the pedals on a piano for, allows you to express yourself in a totally different way. By using the pedal in the correct position your music will continue to ring out long after you’ve played it, or be soft enough to express the most gentle of dynamic markings. By pressing the pedals you interact with a range of expression that the piano simply cannot do without a pedal. This is especially true for musicians playing digital pianos, or writing music into a digital audio workstation or recording program. 

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

left piano 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. 

How to use the piano pedals

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. This is how to use the piano pedals. 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.

Common techniques for 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

Damper pedal

  • 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. 

Soft pedal

  • Press the pedal down and hold it with your foot for soft passages
  • Some pianos will allow you to lock the pedal into place by pressing it down and the sliding it to the left, locking it in place. This is great for apartment practicing, or if you’re playing very sympathetically in during a ballad
  • The soft pedal can be use for chords or melodies, just for short passages to create contrasting sections during exciting parts and pianissimo 

Sostenuto pedal

  • Think about the sostenuto pedal like a snapshot pedal, depress the pedal immediately after playing a note and then before you lift your fingers off move to press it down
  • Once down the notes will continue ringing out, but notes pressed after the pedal is already down will not sustain
  • Use this pedal for long tones played in the low end of the instrument or descending basslines

Mistakes to avoid when using piano pedals

Common mistakes to avoid when you play using piano pedals are a lot like cooking with spice, sometimes a little goes a long way. Often times the more that you use a pedal the effectiveness of it will be diminished over time, making the effective technique less interesting over time. 

Damper pedal

  • Avoid using the sustain pedal so much that notes become blurry, or “muddy” sounding
  • Be careful with the sustain pedal if you are playing a melodic line, using the sustain pedal will obscure all the detailed notes for each section

Soft pedal

  • Avoid using this too much or none of the notes will sound soft
  • Don’t forget to unlock the pedal when you’re done playing, you don’t want to start a new song with the pedal locked in place

Sostenuto pedal

  • Make sure to depress the pedal after playing the note, not before
  • Careful to play the notes hard enough so that they sustain long enough after depressing the pedal.

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:

Damper pedal notation

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:

Damper pedal 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:

Soft pedal notation

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.

Notating the Sostenuto pedal

Notation for the sostenuto pedal will look a lot like the other soft pedal markings, except the writing will be shortened to Sost. instead of saying out the entire word, “Sostenuto”. 

Typically also Sostenuto pedals are only written here indicated for the left hand, but sometimes you will find them where they apply to all the notes written unless otherwise indicated by the composer. 

Sostenuto pedal notation

Make sure to use your best judgement when you’re using a sostenuto pedal, and play the lowest things before your place the pedal down, and then after placing the pedal down feel free to play and continue. 

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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Start your musical journey
  • Fall in love with the music - Learn your favorite songs; whether they're classical, pop, jazz or film music, all at a level that suits you.
  • Enjoy interactive piano lessons - Learn with courses that help you master everything from music theory, chords, technique and more.
  • Get real-time feedback - Improve your practice with rich feedback as Skoove listens to your playing and highlights what went well and areas for improvement.
1 month free trial
No credit card details required
Start your piano journey now!