The 3 Piano Pedals: What are they for?
Under every piano is a great looking set of pedals. They are the supporting cast that really lets the piano showcase its ability. When you first start learning to play piano it may not be clear what those pedals do.
Listed below are the pedal names from right to left. But the name is just the start. You might be surprised to learn that the pedals don’t always operate the same from piano to piano. Read on and we’ll explore them in more detail.
- Right pedal: Damper or Sustain Pedal
- Middle Pedal: Sostenuto or Practice Pedal
- Left Pedal: Una Corda or Soft Pedal
The Right Pedal: Damper or Sustain Pedal
The rightmost pedal is the damper pedal, commonly called sustain. It is a very consistent actor, unlike the other pedals who’s role can change depending on the piano. The damper pedal works the same across all pianos. If you are a beginner learning to play, this will be the first pedal you familiarize yourself with.
It’s important to have a basic understanding of how keys of a piano work to understand what the damper pedal is doing. When you depress a key on the piano it lifts the damper off the string and hits with a hammer for that note allowing it to vibrate and make sound while the key is depressed. When you release that key the damper presses against the string again to stop the vibration.
The damper pedal works by lifting all the dampers off all the strings in the piano at the same time. This lets them continue to vibrate and make sound when you lift your finger to play the other keys. A benefit of this is allowing the notes to connect smoothly and create a nice smooth legato sound. It allows for sympathetic vibrations to form with the neighbouring strings that act together to give a rich fullness to the overall sound. When you release the damper pedal the dampers are applied to the piano strings and the vibrations stop. Hold the damper pedal down for too long and what was a nice sound becomes muddied or worse a cacophony of noise.
On sheet music it appears in a variety of ways. As “Con Pedal” meaning “with pedal”, a straight line meaning depress the pedal with upticks when to release or “Ped.” for when to depress the damper pedal followed by a “*” to release.
The Middle Pedal: Sostenuto Pedal / Bass Sustain / Practice
The middle pedal is the most mysterious of the three. It was a late addition to the piano in the latter half of the 1800’s, isn’t found on all pianos and acts differently depending on piano. On grand pianos it is most often referred to as sostenuto pedal or bass sustain. Upright pianos it’s the practice pedal or celeste pedal. It can also just be decorative, having no function or missing entirely.
For grand pianos it’s properly called the sostenuto pedal. It operates similar to the damper pedal keeping the dampers off the strings. The critical difference is it acts only on the keys currently being played at the moment the pedal is depressed. Not on any keys played before or after. This allows the pianist to hold an underlying chord without sustaining all the notes that are played afterwards. Smaller grand pianos, typically less expensive models, will operate it as a bass sustain rather than a true sostenuto pedal. A bass sustain pedal operates much like the damper pedal. Lifting the dampers off tall the strings below middle C allows those notes to be sustained when played, while the notes above middle C are damped normally.
On uprights the middle pedal could be the practice, celeste or secondary half blow pedal. Broadly speaking its function is to make the piano quieter. For some it accomplishes this by dropping a piece of felt between the piano strings and the hammers. This deadens the blow by drastically cutting down the sound of an acoustic upright. This way you can practice and annoy those around you less as you repeatedly go over a difficult section. It may also be a secondary half blow pedal moving the hammers closer to the strings so they hit with less force, similar to a practice pedal deadening the sound but not as effective. One feature it often has over the other pedals is it can be locked into place by being slid to the side so you don’t need to hold the pedal down for your entire practice session.
This middle pedal is not the most commonly used pedal, and usually abbreviated on sheet music as “S.P.” or “Sost. Ped.”.
The Left Pedal: Una Corda / Soft Pedal or Half Blow
The leftmost pedal is known as the Soft Pedal or Una Corda meaning “One String”. Normally when you play a key on a piano the hammer hits three strings to make the sound. The soft pedal changes how many strings are hit by the hammer. While this makes the piano sound softer it also changes the tone and timbre.
In older grand pianos when the left pedal is depressed it shifts the hammers so that only one string is hit when a piano key is played. Modern grand pianos don’t shift the hammers as far and will play two strings of the three strings. Even though it hits an extra string over the older style of grand piano. We still get the change of tone and timbre as well as a softer sound coming from the notes being played. When possible you should use your own ability to play softly rather than the soft pedal to avoid this.
On upright pianos the soft pedal would be more properly called a half-blow pedal. It moves the hammers in the piano closer to the strings. The tone and timbre of the note still stays the same since we are still hitting the same number of strings. The sound however is softened by the hammers hitting the strings with less force.
Proper Pedal Technique
It’s important to set your feet correctly for proper pedal technique. You don’t want to just slam on the pedals when you need them but be in control of them. To do this, your legs should be extended slightly so your knees are greater than a 90’ angle. Your heel and toes aligned with the pedal with the weight on your heel and the ball of your foot resting on the pedal. When you depress the pedal, push down with your toes and control the release so the dampers settle into place without dropping them.
Each piano is a little bit different and you might notice your pedaling feels off or it doesn’t quite match what you were expecting. It’s just like when you switch cars and have to get familiar with the feeling of an unfamiliar accelerator, brake and clutch pedal. It might take some time before it feels natural again.
Understanding how the different pedals work and learning to use them within your music will help you get even more out of your piano. The damper pedal is arguably the most important of the three though. It is the most frequently used and also the most frequently abused. Use it to enhance your music and not as a crutch to cover the flaws.