Anton Rubinstein said: “The pedal is the soul of the piano”.
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.
- The sustain pedal
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 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 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.
There is an old saying: “pedal with your ears” – make sure you are listening carefully! 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.
- The soft pedal
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 sostenuto pedal
The middle pedal can be one of three types depending on what make of piano you have. This can be either the sostenuto pedal, 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 by lowering a felt strip between the hammers and the strings. This lets you practice quietly so that you don’t annoy neighbors or other people in the house.
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: