The pedals on a piano are a really important part of the instrument, yet sadly, often overlooked. Using the sustain pedal brings your performance to new heights as well as making it easier to sustain chords that are more widely spaced. This gives your music a richer, lusher sound. It’s time to get creative with tone and colour by experimenting with the piano pedals. By the end of this article you will know about sustain, sostenuto, bass damper, una corda and practice pedals.
Acoustic pianos and digital pianos all have one pedal in common: the sustain pedal (also known as the damper). This is the pedal on the right hand side, if you have more than one pedal. If your keyboard or piano only has one pedal, it is the sustain pedal. Keyboards have a “damper input” for the pedal jack to plug in to.
On an acoustic piano, when the damper pedal is pressed, all the dampers are lifted from all the strings. (Dampers are little blocks of felt that stop the strings from vibrating). When the sustain pedal is activated, notes will linger until they naturally decay or until the pedal is released. The effect is a sustained singing resonance because all strings are free to vibrate.
The best way to experience this is to experiment. Black is beautiful is a pentatonic (5 note) piece. You can use the pedal in each lesson as the Skoove app takes you through the learning process.
When and how to use the sustain pedal
The sustain pedal is so named because it sustains the sound. When you want to create a blended, smooth sound, or when you want to play a widely spaced chord that you can’t manage in one go, use the pedal. Almost everything sounds better with the pedal, if it’s used well.
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. 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. I always say it’s a bit like driving – every car feels a little bit different.
One of my favourite songs on Skoove is Valse d’Amelie. Use the pedal here to create sustain in this reflective piece. 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. In other words, it’s a swift up-and-down action. Be careful not to take the pedal off on beat three, but hold it almost to the downbeat.
There is an old saying: “pedal with your ears” – make sure you are listening carefully to how your song is sounding. If the notes are blurring too much, you may not be lifting your foot high enough to refresh the sound, or you might be forgetting to change the pedal. If the notes aren’t blending, you may need some more pressure on the pedal. It takes practice to get it right and for it to feel effortless.
Acoustic Piano Pedals
What do the other pedals on the piano do? Acoustic pianos usually have 3 pedals. The left pedal is the una corda pedal and is operated with the left foot. This softens the volume of the entire piano. “Una corda” meaning “one string”. On grand pianos, this shifts the entire action to the right so that the hammers only strike one string instead of two or three. The result is a softer tone. On upright pianos there is no shifting of the entire action as there is on a grand piano, but instead, the hammers are moved closer to the strings, causing them to strike the strings more gently.
The French composer Debussy used this pedal to great effect in a lot of his piano music. This pedal works very well along with the sustain pedal. It is reserved for pianissimo (very soft) playing. Experiment with colour and the una corda pedal while playing Greensleeves.
The middle pedal can be one of three types depending on what make of piano you have.
This can be either the sostenuto pedal (top of the range pianos), bass damper pedal or practice pedal.
The sostenuto pedal sustains only the notes being held down when the pedal is pressed. Any notes pressed after the pedal has been activated sound as they normally would without the pedal. This applies all over the piano. So if you play a big chord high up on the piano, engaging the pedal with it, then any following notes will sound unconnected to the sustained chord until you release the pedal. Likewise, if you play a chord low down on the piano with the pedal, any following notes will sound detached.
Alternatively, the middle pedal can be a bass damper. This works just like the right pedal but it sustains just the bass notes while any notes above middle C respond as normal.
The third type of middle pedal is a practice pedal. This is most likely on a modern upright, which is unlikely to have a sostenuto pedal. Practice pedals soften the sound and lock into the down position by nudging them to the left. This lets you practice quietly so that you don’t annoy neighbors or other people in the house. Sometimes a practice pedal works just like the una chorda, and others have a felt strip that the pedal lowers into place between the hammers and the strings to soften the sounds. Either way, these can be a really useful pedal, especially if you live in an apartment.
When using the pedals on your piano, be sure to place your feet in position at the start of your song even if you’re not using them immediately. Sometimes a song doesn’t require the pedal from the start, but if your foot isn’t in position you might find yourself pausing and looking under the keyboard for the pedal, interrupting the flow of the music.
Anton Rubinstein said, “The pedal is the soul of the piano”.
Let’s have one more beautiful song from Skoove, The River Flows in You by Yiruma.
Enjoy exploring the pedals on your piano and learning how they can enhance your playing!
And if you want to hear the use of piano pedals and have a look of what’s happening inside of the piano live, take a look at this video:
Learn more about the mechanisms of a piano in our Ultimate Guide To Playing The Piano.
Author of this blog post:
Roberta Wolff started piano lessons at the age of five and is still enjoying learning! Currently, she teaches piano pedagogy and performance pedagogy at post graduate level in the UK. Her other work includes running a private teaching practice for students of all ages and abilities and creating learning and practice resources. Roberta loves writing as a means to supporting others on their piano journey.