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Piano pedals: what they are and how to utilize them?

piano pedals

When you sit in front of a grand piano, your eyes are drawn not only to the mesmerizing keys but also to the three pedals at your feet. These pedals play a crucial role in shaping the sound and expression of the piano. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced pianist, understanding the functions of these pedals and how to use them can elevate your playing to new heights. In this article, we will explore the world of piano pedals, uncover their secrets, and learn how to unlock the true potential of your instrument.

Here on Skoove you can find out and start making music using the pedals! A lot of sheet music, especially more advanced material, contains what we call pedal markings. So overall, the pedals are an extremely important component of the piano.

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What do the pedals on a piano do?

Piano pedals are small yet mighty devices that enhance the sound produced by the instrument. They allow pianists to manipulate the duration, sustain, and tonal quality of the notes they play. Each pedal serves a distinct purpose, providing a range of expressive possibilities. Let’s dive into the individual functions of these pedals.

Types of piano pedals

Pedals on the piano can help to enrich the sound by making the notes sustain longer than normal or by emphasizing the softer dynamics, and consequently enhance the emotional impact of your music. Pianos typically have either two or three pedals. Learning what each of the three pedals on a piano do is a necessary step on every pianist’s journey.

1. Sustain pedal

sustain pedal

The sustain pedal, also known as the damper pedal, is the most frequently used pedal on a piano. Positioned on the right side, this pedal is typically operated with the right foot. When you press down on the sustain pedal, it lifts the dampers from the strings, allowing the piano notes to resonate freely. This creates a sustained sound, even after the keys are released, giving the music a rich and full-bodied quality.

In the nineteenth century, the sustain pedal became an essential part of the piano’s sound. If you’re eager to learn how to incorporate this technique while playing Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’, you can check out our comprehensive ‘Für Elise’ tutorial right here on Skoove! This tutorial will guide you step-by-step through the mesmerizing melody and help you master the nuances of this timeless composition.

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2. Sostenuto pedal

sostenuto pedal

The sostenuto pedal is positioned in the middle and is often the least used of the three pedals. When pressed, it sustains only the notes that are being held down at that precise moment. This allows pianists to sustain specific melodies or chords while other notes played afterward are unaffected. The sostenuto pedal adds depth and complexity to musical passages, enabling a layered and nuanced performance.

3. Soft pedal “una corda pedal”

left piano pedal

The soft pedal, also called the una corda pedal or the left pedal, is located on the left side of the piano. Contrary to its name, the soft pedal does not directly affect the volume of the instrument. Instead, it alters the tonal quality of the notes. When the soft pedal is engaged, the hammers strike fewer strings, resulting in a mellow and delicate sound. This pedal is particularly useful when playing gentle or introspective pieces.The soft pedal creates a beautiful, if sometimes fragile, sound. Whenever you see the instruction pp, pianissimo, or una corda you are being instructed to use this foot pedal on a piano. This pedal is often used in the piano music of French composer Claude Debussy.

You can practice using the soft pedal on Skoove’s arrangement of the traditional melody ‘Greensleeves’.

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Digital pedals

Digital pedals

Digital pedals aim to replicate the functionality and effects of acoustic pedals, providing pianists with a versatile and convenient alternative. 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 standalone sustain pedal for a reasonable price and incorporate it 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 just like acoustic pianos.

How to use the piano pedals

Now that we have an understanding of the different piano pedals and their functions, let’s explore how to use them effectively. Mastering the art of pedal technique will open up a world of expressive possibilities and elevate your piano playing.

Before we dive into the specific uses of each pedal, it’s important to understand the proper pedal technique. When using the pedals, try to keep your foot movements smooth and controlled. Avoid excessive force or sudden movements that can disrupt the flow of the music. With practice, you’ll develop a natural and effortless pedal technique.

1. Sustain pedal technique

Using the sustain pedal correctly is essential for achieving a beautiful legato and creating a seamless transition between chords. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to use the sustain pedal:

  1. Start by positioning your foot above the sustain pedal.
  2. As you press the keys to play a note or chord, simultaneously depress the pedal with your foot.
  3. Keep the pedal depressed as you play subsequent notes or chords, allowing the sound to sustain.
  4. Release the pedal when you want the sound to stop resonating.

Remember to use the sustain pedal judiciously, as excessive or inappropriate pedal usage can muddy the sound or blur the intended musical phrases.

2. Sostenuto pedal technique

While the sostenuto pedal is less commonly used, it adds a unique touch to certain musical passages. Here’s how to employ the sostenuto pedal effectively:

  1. Before playing the desired notes or chords that you want to sustain, depress the sostenuto pedal and hold it down.
  2. Release the keys you wish to sustain while keeping the sostenuto pedal depressed.
  3. Continue playing other notes or piano chords without affecting the sustained ones.
  4. Lift your foot off the sostenuto pedal to release the sustained notes.

By using the sostenuto pedal strategically, you can create beautiful harmonies and intricate musical textures.

3. Soft pedal technique

The soft pedal is often used to create contrast or evoke a specific mood in a musical piece. Here’s how to use the soft pedal effectively:

  1. When you want to apply the soft pedal, slide your foot to the left side of the piano and press down on the soft pedal.
  2. While playing, notice the subtle change in tonal quality, as the sound becomes gentler and more intimate.
  3. To return to the normal position, release the soft pedal by lifting your foot.

Experiment with the soft pedal to explore the different shades of expression it can bring to your music.

Mistakes to avoid when using piano pedals

While learning how to use piano pedals effectively, it’s essential to be aware of common mistakes that can hinder your performance. By avoiding these pitfalls, you can enhance your pedal technique and achieve a more polished and professional sound. Here are some mistakes to watch out for:

  1. Over-pedaling: One of the most common mistakes is overusing the pedals and keeping them constantly depressed throughout your playing. This can result in a muddled and blurred sound, making it difficult to distinguish individual notes or chords. Remember to release and reapply the pedals strategically, lifting them briefly when changing harmony or chords.
  2. Late pedal release: Delaying the release of the sustain pedal can lead to unwanted dissonance or clash of harmonies. Train your ears to release the pedal slightly before transitioning to a new section or changing chords, ensuring a smooth and clean sound.
  3. Incorrect pedal timing: Inconsistent or improper pedal timing can disrupt the natural flow of your music. It’s crucial to synchronize the pedal changes with the musical phrases and phrases’ beginnings and endings. Practice coordinating your hands and feet to achieve precise and accurate pedal timing.
  4. Excessive pedal depth: Applying excessive pressure to the pedals can result in an overly resonant and muddy sound. Aim for a controlled and moderate depth when pressing the pedals to maintain clarity and avoid overwhelming the overall tone.
  5. Neglecting the soft pedal: Many pianists tend to overlook the soft pedal or use it sparingly. However, the soft pedal offers a unique tonal quality and can add depth and expression to your playing. Don’t forget to explore the subtle nuances and dynamics achievable with the soft pedal.
  6. Lack of Foot Control: Proper foot control is essential for effective pedal usage. Avoid stomping on the pedals or lifting your heel off the ground, as it can disrupt your stability and control. Keep your foot relaxed and use the ball of your foot to apply pressure to the pedals.

By being mindful of these common mistakes and actively working to correct them, you can refine your pedal technique and achieve a more polished and professional sound. Remember to practice slowly and gradually increase the complexity of your playing as you gain confidence in your pedal control.

Improving your pedal technique requires patience and dedication, but the results are worth the effort. By avoiding these mistakes, you’ll be on your way to creating beautiful and expressive music with the piano pedals.

Conclusion

Piano pedals are powerful tools that allow pianists to shape their music and add depth to their performances. By understanding the purpose of each pedal and mastering their usage, you can unlock a whole new level of expressiveness in your playing. Experiment with different pedal techniques and explore how they can enhance your musical interpretations. Now that you know how to use the pedals you can incorporate a lot more emotion and expression into your playing. There are countless examples of songs on Skoove where you can incorporate pedaling techniques into your playing. 

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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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  • 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.
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