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Piano pedals: the key to expressive music playing

piano pedals

When looking under the piano you will have noticed three brass-coloured levers sticking out from the bottom. Pedals play an important role in piano playing, adding a wide variety of different colours and sounds to the music. Indeed, there are different names of piano pedals that each serve a particular function.
The piano foot pedals can be found not just on acoustic grand or upright pianos, but also on many electric pianos and keyboards. Yet many pianists wonder what the pedals on a piano do. 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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How do piano pedals function?

The function of piano pedals on an acoustic or digital piano is to offer a wider selection of sounds for the composer and/or performer to choose from. Learning how, when, and why to use them will make a huge difference to the quality of your piano playing. The pedals on a piano can make your playing sound sustained, sound softer, or a mixture of the two depending on what is required.
Some of the most frequently asked questions about the pedals include: What do the three piano pedals do? How many pedals does a piano have? Do modern pianos have more or less pedals?
Once you’ve mastered how to use the piano pedals properly, you’ll be able to incorporate all sorts of expressive qualities to your piano playing. For example, the pedals can allow a note to ring out long after you’ve played it, and they can also express the gentlest of dynamic markings. Without the pedals, the potential for expressive piano playing is much more limited. It is particularly important for musicians who play digital pianos, who write music into a digital audio workstation, or who use a recording programme to be aware of how pedals function, as we shall see.

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.

Sustain pedal 

sustain pedal

Location: right pedal

Main functions

  • Also called the Damper pedal.
  • Sustains (or holds) sounds played by the piano.
  • Allows for playing more piano notes at the same time.
  • Blends sounds from multiple notes of the instrument together.

How does it work?

The first pedal we will learn about is called the sustain pedal, also known as the damper pedal. These two terms are often used interchangeably but refer to the same pedal. On all acoustic pianos, the sustain pedal is on the right side. If your piano is nearby, try pressing down the sustain pedal lightly with your foot and playing some keys. What happens when the hammers lift off the string? The sustain pedal causes the selected notes to ring on for a period of time after you lift your finger off the keys.

This pedal on the piano adds a legato (meaning smooth) effect to your music, helps blend notes and piano chords together, and smooths out transitions between passages of music. It can also create a pleasant blurriness in the music, not dissimilar to the Impressionist watercolour paintings by the likes of Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Do bear in mind, however, that too much sustain pedal can cause your music to sound muddy and create indistinguishable sounds, so you must learn how to wield the sustain pedal’s power to your advantage.

In the nineteenth century the sustain pedal became an essential part of the piano’s sound. One of the most famous examples of its use is Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’. You can learn to play this tune, which I’m sure will be familiar to you, right here on Skoove!

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The una corda pedal

left piano pedal

Location: left pedal

Main functions: 

    • Una Corda literally means only one string.
    • We also call this pedal the Soft pedal.
    • Creates a muted, or muffled sound.
    • This pedal physically moves the hammers inside the piano to play fewer strings.
    • Use it when playing passages marked extremely soft (that is, pianissimo or pp).

How does it work?

This Playing dynamics like pianissimo is best achieved by pressing the soft pedal, also known as the una corda pedal. On an acoustic piano, this pedal is on the left side. The una corda pedal operates slightly differently on a grand piano compared to an upright piano. 

On a grand piano, pressing the soft pedal shifts the piano hammers to the right so that the hammers strike only one string instead of two or three and this results in a softer tone. That is where the name una corda comes from. On an upright piano, pressing 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 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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Sostenuto pedal

sostenuto pedal

 

Location: middle

Main functions

  • The middle pedal on a piano can serve 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 played after the pedal is pressed 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 any 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 is typically found on a modern upright piano. Practice pedals soften the sound and can lock into the down position, so that you don’t have to keep your foot pressed down for the entire duration of your practice. This pedal allows you to practice quietly so it is especially useful if you don’t want to disturb neighbors or housemates while you practice!

Digital pedals

Digital pedals

Location: plugged into keyboard

Main functions

  • Many electronic keyboards do not come with pedals.
  • All pedals plug into a ¼’’ input jack.
  • Can be used to sustain notes on other instrument settings on the keyboard.
  • 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 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

To use the pedals 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 press the pedal, keeping your foot in place. Maintaining proper piano sitting posture is important. Only your toes should move up and down to operate the pedal. Just like driving, where every car’s pedals feel a little bit different, the extent to which you have to press down on the pedal varies from one piano to another.

Common techniques for the piano pedals

A great piece to practice pedalling with is Beethoven’s famous ‘Moonlight Sonata’. Use the damper pedal here to create a sense of reflection. You can learn how to play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ right here on Skoove!

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Sustain/damper pedal

  • Start by changing the pedal on the first beat of every measure. 
  • Hold the pedal almost to the downbeat of the next bar, and then take your foot off.
  • Aim to release the pedal off and quickly put it down again just as you strike the first note of the next measure. You should move the pedal in a swift up-and-down action.

As the saying goes, “pedal with your ears”. Make sure that you are listening carefully to how your pedaling sounds. 

  • If the notes are too blurry, lift your foot higher off the pedal.
  • If the notes are not really blending, apply more pressure down on the pedal. It takes practice to get it absolutely correct 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 then sliding it to the left, locking it in place. This is great when you’re trying to practice quietly in your apartment without disturbing anyone, or if you’re playing very sympathetically during a ballad.
  • The soft pedal can also be played in short passages to create a contrast with the louder, livelier parts of the song. 

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 press it down again
  • Once the pedal is pressed 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 in descending basslines.

Mistakes to avoid when using piano pedals

Using piano pedals in your playing is a bit like cooking with spices – often a little goes a long way! You should be careful not to overuse the pedals otherwise they may lose their impact and effectiveness.

Sustain/Damper pedal

  • Avoid using the sustain pedal so much that notes become blurry, or “muddy”-sounding
  • Be careful if you are playing a melodic line, as using the sustain pedal will obscure the detail of the notes in each section.

Soft pedal

  • Avoid using the soft pedal too much or everything will sound at the same dynamic.
  • Don’t forget to unlock the pedal when you’re done playing, otherwise when you come to play a new song it will still sound soft!

Sostenuto pedal

  • Make sure to press the pedal down after playing the note, not before.
  • Be careful to play the notes hard enough so that they sustain long enough after pressing the pedal.

How to read pedal notation

Now that you know what the pedals on a piano are used for and how they function, it’s time to learn how the pedals are notated in sheet music. It is common to see notation for the sustain and soft pedals, but rarely (if ever) for the middle pedal, unless you’re playing a piece written specifically for grand piano.

Notating the sustain/damper pedal

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

Damper pedal notation

In the example below, 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 for you to release and then swiftly depress the pedal, and finally the vertical line towards the end of the second measure means lift the pedal for good.

Damper pedal notation

If you ever see a marking that says “Ped. Simile”, this simply means that you continue pedaling in the same manner until you’re told otherwise.

Notating the soft pedal

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

Soft pedal notation

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

Modern digital pianos have a unique 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 really is no end to the variety of sounds you can explore down! And perhaps you don’t want to make only piano-like sounds on your instrument? Digital pianos can be adjusted to sound like any instrument or percussion and can even play samples of voices.

Notating the Sostenuto pedal

Notation to use the sostenuto pedal is usually shortened to ‘Sost.’ rather than writing out the whole word “Sostenuto”. 

Furthermore, sostenuto pedal in the example below only refers to the left hand, but sometimes you will find they apply to all the notes of the chord, whether in the right or left hand. 

Sostenuto pedal notation

Final words

Pedals are one of the best ways to create more expressive, more dramatic music on a piano. By getting to know the pedals and how they work you can open your playing up to a huge range of possibilities. And if you have a digital piano, the pedals will allow you to make it sound just like a real acoustic piano! 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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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!