What Do Piano Pedals Do? Why Pianos Have Pedals

Musical instruments can be a very mysterious thing upon first brush, and that includes the immortal piano.

Whether acoustic or digital, most pianos come with pedals – usually three, each serving a different purpose. Some older pianos only come with two.

But what do these pedals do, and why do pianos have pedals? Let’s explore these questions in detail.

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Types Of Piano Pedals

Modern pianos come equipped with the following three pedals:

Soft Pedal / Una Corda Pedal

The soft pedal is the leftmost of the three pedals found on a piano.

Just as its name would suggest, the soft pedal (also called the una corda pedal) is used to soften the sound of keys played.

But how does this work?

Well, inside a modern acoustic piano, you will find that each key, in most cases, is connected to three strings. When a single key is played on the piano, all three strings are struck by a hammer simultaneously, producing a loud, bright sound.

When the soft pedal is engaged, the hammer strikes two strings rather than three, producing a softer, more muted sound.

With older pianos, when the soft pedal is used, only one of three strings would be struck (thus “una corda,” or “a string”).

The soft pedal can be used to alter the dynamics of one’s playing, which allows for more expression.

In recent years, the so-called soft piano or “felt piano” has become increasingly popular among composers, who intentionally use the sound for more subdued musical themes. Rather than utilizing a pedal, however, these pianos have been configured to offer a soft sound by default.

Sostenuto Pedal

The sostenuto pedal, which works a little like the sustain pedal (more on this in a moment), is the middle of the three piano pedals.

This pedal is used to sustain notes. But the difference between this and the sustain pedal is that the sostenuto pedal will only hold notes that were played at the moment the pedal was engaged.

Any notes that are played after the pedal is pressed down aren’t affected. This means you can sustain certain notes without all of them bleeding into each other.

You can use the pedal to sustain single notes or even chords (usually in the left hand) while you’re playing melodies, arpeggios, chords, or licks in the right hand.

The pedal doesn’t get as much love as the sustain pedal, but it has its uses.

The sostenuto pedal cannot be found on older pianos. This is because it’s a relatively new development in piano history, at least compared to the other pedals.

This also means that the sostenuto pedal was not available when the likes of Ravel and Debussy were composing. Modern pianists, however, can be found using this pedal when playing their works.

Occasionally, depending on the piano, you will find that the middle pedal has another function. The most common variations are the bass sustain pedal, which only affects lower notes on the piano, and the practice (or celeste) pedal, which allows players to play even quieter than with the soft pedal.

Naturally, the practice pedal is considered ideal for practice because it allows beginners to play more quietly (and make all the mistakes they want) without disturbing others. There is no guarantee that there won’t be some disturbance, though.

Some pianos also have a middle pedal that does nothing.

Sustain Pedal / Damper Pedall

On an acoustic piano, after a note is played and you lift your finger from it, the note promptly stops. Inside the piano, there’s a damper pad that prevents the note from ringing out.

When you engage the sustain pedal, it removes the damper pad from the strings. This means notes can be held for longer durations even after you’ve stopped holding down the keys.

The sustain pedal may also be called the damper pedal.

Most pieces of music use the sustain pedal in some way. Many pianists – especially more experienced ones – find they can do without the other pedals, but they consider the sustain pedal essential.

Despite this fact, the sustain pedal can also be overused. If you are a beginner pianist, it would be in your best interest to develop techniques that allow you to avoid common mistakes (such as letting dissonant notes blend into each other).

We’ll talk more about common mistakes to avoid later.

Why Do Pianos Have Pedals?

History shows that pianos have had pedals from the very beginning, though there have been many different configurations through the centuries before arriving at today’s standard three-pedal setup.

The pedals allow the player to change the tone of the instrument. This allows for more creative expression overall.

Think of an electric guitar player for a moment. An electric guitar player is afforded an array of tones because they have dials on the guitar, they can access multiple channels and EQ settings on their amplifier, and if they have effects pedals, they can also use these to change the tone of their guitar.

Why would an electric guitarist need so many options? Some don’t. But depending on the mood of the song and what is called for, many guitarists like to change up their tone, and even their playing approach to the song.

It’s the same with piano pedals. The pedals give pianists more options in terms of tone, blending, and expression.

How To Use The Piano Pedals

The pedals are levers that are meant to be operated by your feet. The idea is to keep your heel on the ground while pressing down on a chosen lever with the ball of your foot. The pedal will need to be pressed down firmly, but avoid pressing down too hard, and stomping is unnecessary.

There is a bit of a trick to releasing as well. You don’t just want to pull your foot off. Keep your heel on the ground and lift the ball of your foot while maintaining contact with the pedal. This helps you avoid unnecessary thumping when the pedal is released.

Now that you understand the basics of using the pedals, let’s look at when you might use each of the three pedals, how to use them, and what effect they will produce.

Soft Pedal

The soft pedal is the perfect tool for creating contrast or dynamics.

Here’s how to engage and take advantage of this lever:

  1. Ready your foot. You may need to slide your foot over to where the pedal is located (it’s the leftmost pedal).
  2. Depress the pedal.
  3. Play desired notes and chords. Notice how having the pedal depressed changes the quality and tonality of the notes.
  4. When you’re done, lift your foot.

The soft pedal is an excellent tool for creative expression and exploration. Go ahead and try using it in different sections of music to see how it changes the mood or atmosphere of the song.

Sostenuto Pedal

The sostenuto pedal isn’t often used, but it can be quite thrilling in certain sections of music.

Here is how to use it:

  1. Depress the sostenuto lever (before you play the notes or chords you intend to sustain).
  2. Play the notes you want to sustain and release them. Keep the pedal down.
  3. Play other notes or chords (these will not be sustained).
  4. When you’re done, lift your foot off the pedal. This will stop the sustained notes.

The sostenuto pedal can be a tasteful addition to your toolbox. Use it to create textures and harmonies that intrigue the listener.

Sustain Pedal

The sustain pedal is the most essential, and yet for the same reason it can also be the most overused.

It’s the go-to pedal for creating transitions between chords and for achieving breathtaking legato.

Here are the basics of using the sustain pedal:

  1. Ready your foot. You’re not going to depress the pedal just yet, but your foot should be positioned above the pedal.
  2. As you’re playing the note or chord you want to sustain, press down the pedal at the same time.
  3. Hold the lever down as you’re playing the next series of notes or chords.
  4. Release the lever when you no longer want the sound to resonate.

Excessive use of the damper pedal can lead to a muddy sound. Use it sparingly and intelligently for the best effect.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

The most difficult aspect of using the pedals is probably the fact that you’re using up to three limbs simultaneously. This takes some coordination! Fortunately, it does get easier as you practice more and muscle memory kicks in.

Aside from that, pedaling isn’t too hard. That said, there are some things you should consider avoiding as you use the pedals. They are as follows:

  • Pedaling too much. Over-pedaling will produce a very muddy, indistinguishable sound. It’s important to depress, release, and re-apply the pedals at the right moments to avoid the crowding of notes.
  • Releasing the pedal too late. This is especially a problem with the sustain pedal, as it can lead to notes and chords clashing with each other. It’s best to keep an eye on your music for transitions and release strategically.
  • Bad pedal timing. Just as notes and chords are intended to be played at specific times, you must employ the pedals with proper timing as well.
  • Too much pedal pressure. Depressing too hard can lead to muddiness. For a more controlled sound, experiment until you find the right pressure.
  • Not using the soft pedal. The soft pedal can add expression and dynamics to your playing. You can get away without using it, sure, but you can create a beautiful contrast in your playing by taking advantage of it for the right musical passages.
  • No foot control. Don’t stomp on the pedals. Avoid lifting your feet off the ground. Keep your foot relaxed.

Keep the above in mind and you should be able to improve your pedaling technique. As with anything, start slow, and gradually build up to tempo.

Becoming better at pedaling may take time, but it is worth the trouble. So, keep practicing!

Should Younger Students Utilize Piano Pedals?

For younger students, it can be difficult to reach the pedals while maintaining good posture. It depends on the student, but generally, it’s okay to hold off on teaching the pedals until a student has reached 10 years old or older.

If your youngster is especially enthusiastic and ready to learn, then you may want to purchase an adjustable piano pedal extender bench, which will allow younger and shorter students to reach the pedals with less effort.

Is It Possible To Find Pedals For Digital Keyboards?

Yes. There are sustain / damper pedals that plug directly into the keyboard for most popular models – M-Audio, Yamaha, Roland, Casio, Nord, Alesis, etc. Check your keyboard for the required input.

You can find the occasional three-pedal unit too, though it is a little less common for digital pianos.

I’m Still Having Trouble Figuring Out How To Use The Piano Pedals – What Should I Do?

Some (not all) composers make it clear in what sections of music they intend for you to use what pedal. Pedal notation is relatively easy to read.

But if you’re new to piano pedals, or if you’re new to reading sheet music, then trying to figure this out all by yourself could prove challenging. Just knowing when to press down and when to lift can take some practice.

There are two things you can do.

The first is to purchase method books, specifically those designed for beginners. Method books move at a relatively gentle pace, and that means you can gain confidence in your playing while learning vital theory and concepts.

As you work your way through the material, you will eventually learn about the pedals and how to use them. If you’d like, of course, you could skip to the section of the book that talks about the pedals.

If you don’t think you’re cut out for the DIY route, then it’s well worth hiring a piano teacher to guide you. They can show you exactly when to use the pedals, how to use them, and in what context. Having someone demonstrate for you as you’re observing is a great way to learn.

Final Thoughts

The piano pedals are there to help you achieve a different sound. Each pedal works a little differently than the other, and knowing how they work, as well as when to use them, is essential to making the most of your piano experience.

The use of piano pedals requires good timing as well as restraint. But as you get better at utilizing the tools available to you, your playing will become more creative and expressive. It will make you a better piano player and musician!

P.S. Remember though, none of what you've learned will matter if you don't know how to get your music out there and earn from it. Want to learn how to do that? Then get our free ‘5 Steps To Profitable Youtube Music Career' ebook emailed directly to you!

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