Piano pedals: The Ultimate Guide (2021)

Piano pedals transform the sound of the piano in such a way, that even an inexperienced person while pressing them, would capture your attention immediately while playing. They are crucial for piano, just as guitar pedals are for guitar, but let’s see exactly what types there are, what they do, and compare these pedals from different pianos.

What do piano pedals do?

Foot-operated levers that change the sound. Usually having three pedals on piano ( una corda, sostenuto, and sustaining pedal) they have their own big roles in music. Some remove the middle pedal on the piano or have it do a completely different role.

These pedals have evolved since the early days of the pianoforte, continuing into the latter half of the 19th century, going through multiple configurations from 1 to 6 pedals until arriving at the modern 3. So if you want piano pedals explained more in-depth, you have to understand one thing.

All types of pedals have been invented either by the pianoforte maker himself, Bartolomeo Cristofori or by descendant piano makers which took his designs and upgraded them, such as Steinway, who perfected and patented the sostenuto pedal, which was the last piano foot pedals to be added to the modern grand.   

Fun fact: on the modern upright/vertical piano, the left pedal is not a true una corda as it doesn’t move the action, the strings running at such an oblique angle that the hammers would probably strike a note on a wrong string. 

Piano pedals

So what do piano pedals do?The pedals on the piano give the player the opportunity and technique to enhance some sounds. Modern pianos have 3 piano pedals with names such as: Soft or una corda, sostenuto and sustain.


All these pedals give different timbres to the instrument and have special piano pedal markings on the lead sheet. Let’s take a look at the piano pedals names, their functions, and how they came about.

Soft pedal (una corda, left)

The una corda pedal or soft pedal, was invented by the pianoforte inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori as the first mechanism to modify the piano sound. We can see it in use today as the left pedal on piano (both grand and upright). 

The name is somewhat of a misnomer as it doesn’t completely describe what it truly does, and what it does is modify the timbre, not just the volume of the instrument. On Cristofori’s pianofortes, the soft pedal was operated by hand, a knob on the side of the keyboard.

When activated (the knob on the side), the entire action shifts to the right to play one string ( una corda) instead of the usual two strings (due corde). 

Sostenuto pedal (middle)

The middle pedal piano. The last pedal to be added to the modern grand was the Sostenuto or the middle pedal. Initially called the “tone-sustaining”pedal, which better describes what it does, i.e. the sustainment of a single tone or group of tones. It is also referred to as the forte pedal.

Presented at the Industrial Exposition in 1844 in Paris, the design was taken by A.F. Debain and Claude Montal, and built this type of pedal in 1860 and 1862. Patented and perfected by Albert Steinway in 1874, it was publicly advertised in 1876 and soon was included on Steinway grands and uprights. 

As with almost everything in music, the term sostenuto is a misnomer, as in Italian it means sustained, aka it presents it as doing the same thing as the damper pedals. 

Sustain pedal (damper, right)

The most used pedal on a modern piano, the rightmost pedal, and it has the job to sustain the notes, by moving the dampers away and allowing them to vibrate freely.

All notes and chords played with this damper pedal engaged will continue until the vibration naturally ceases or until the pedal is let go. Pianists use this to accomplish legato passages which, otherwise, aren’t possible as the technique doesn’t exist for this instrument.

Other techniques for the use of the piano damper pedal include something called half-pedaling, which means that the pianist can press the pedal and it will just slightly raise the felt dampener and thus obtain a different sound.

Piano type pedal differences

Depending on the type of piano you are playing on, piano pedals functions can experience slight differences. The shift on a grand piano pedal switches the action to the right, while on an upright piano, it doesn’t do this however, it places the hammers closer, while on a digital piano, well it’s completely different, with some DAWs allowing you to have even keyboard pedals. Let us explore the piano pedals’ function in each type of piano.

Grand piano

Shift

A shift pedal refers to specifically the grand piano pedals, which “shifts” the action to the right (i.e. treble side) which gives the sound a more hushed and ethereal timbre, offering a pianist the possibility to play a different instrument altogether with the use of this pedal.

Sostenuto 

Also called selective sustain, this holds down selective notes you want to play. Some have decided to utilize the position of the sostenuto to make a bass sustain pedal which only sustains the bass notes.

Sustain 

First controlled by hand and it was a part of the original pianos, but it was a hindrance to the player and thus it was moved to the bottom to be used with the foot, but before the foot pedal was invented, they usually had an assistant to help them with the dynamics. 

Upright piano

Shift

The left pedal on an upright doesn’t work as in the grand pianos, aka it doesn’t shift the action from left to right, but it places the hammers closer to the strings and a fun fact is that on older uprights if you keep the right pedal pressed and pump on the left one, you can get some really strange sounds.

Sostenuto 

On an upright piano the middle pedal serves a few different functions, but rarely does the sostenuto of a grand piano. They will release dampers only on the bass strings section.

Sustain

The sustain pedal releases all dampers and lets the strings ring until the vibrations naturally cease or the pedal is released and the dampers come back into contact. 

Digital piano

Shift

Digital pianos use the soft (una corda) pedal to change non-piano sounds such as the organ guitar or sax with sounds such as Pitch bends, vibrato, speaker speed, and so on, however, instead of a soft pedal as its normal name, on a digital, it is called a modulation pedal.

Sostenuto

When it comes to sostenuto, it is more common on uprights and digital pianos as the effect is easy to mimic in various DAWs.

Sustain

Works similarly to a normal piano pedal but instead it is plugged into an input jack and an electrical signal is sent and the sample or synthesis is “sustained”. Some virtual pianos even have keyboard pedals, but it involves using your hand rather than your foot.

How to use piano pedals

The way you use piano pedals depends on the style you are singing and however, you wish your style to sound like. To note that you already have to have good coordination skills as now the legs are involved as well. There are different piano pedal techniques out there, however, here are four common pedal techniques used in most genres, especially by the classics.

Half pedaling

In mechanical pianos, you can half-press the sustain pedal to only slightly lift the dampeners off the strings and that will give you a weird twangy sound to the strings, an extended technique some may call it.

Many pianists use this technique when playing, for example, Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata as it gives it a richer, more pronounced sound, using it as though you use punctuation in writing and speaking.

This technique is used to enhance the melody while diminishing the boom of the bass notes (left-hand notes), but also to augment the tone of keynotes. That is why this type of piano pedaling is important.

Delayed pedaling

When it comes to the delayed pedaling technique, also known as legato pedaling, you have to press the pedal each time you play a note, release it, and then press down again after the next note is played. This is among the most common techniques since it makes the notes flow into the next, without giving an awkward sound.

The best way to master this technique is to practice it on a song you already know pretty well, that might also have tempo variations. You should however start using this technique on slow songs, and progress as you feel comfortable to faster ones.

Preliminary pedaling

One of the simplest techniques to learn but the hardest to master as it offers an impressive effect on the piano sound and makes the sound deeper and richer. It is meant to be used on key parts of songs, and as such you will hear it rarely, compared to the other techniques.

All you have to do is to press down the sustain pedal before playing a note, and though it sounds easy, the right timing can be elusive. By doing this, the damper is taken off the string before the hammer will strike, and thus, the resulting sound will be deeper, and have a richer tone, ensuring a prolonged ringing.

Simultaneous pedaling

This involves pressing the pedal and the key of the note at the same time and releasing them both at the same time. Using this technique you can accent a note or chord, especially in sharp pieces and it is known as direct or rhythmic pedaling.  

It is a rarely used technique, however, it accentuates your playing, and helps in creating an emphasis in a more rhythmic manner regardless. It might be difficult to master as it can be distracting because it might make you shift from multitasking (while you play with one hand a theme, the other another,) – to a single task.

The best way to master this technique is by practicing it on very familiar yet slow songs and work your way up to faster pieces as you get used to it.

How to read pedal notation

Piano pedal symbols are found on partitures. There are 3 common pedal marks that are used for control: engage, release (both for the sustain pedal), and variable pedal marks which are lines to indicate the pressing and release of the sustain pedal.

Pedal markings such as horizontal lines show when the pedal is depressed, steep diagonals indicate a quick release, and vertical lines show a full release / ends the use of the pedal. 

You need to learn pedal notation in order to properly play a respective piece. Unless you are virtuoso or are studying music theory, you might not need to learn pedal notation, however, it will certainly help if you wish to write your compositions down. 

Another useful thing in learning pedal notation is that you will understand more in-depth how they are used, and the logic behind them, which will again help you out in your own compositions. Look for the pedal symbol on your DAW if you wish to compose digitally.

History of piano pedals

Pedals on piano have been around since the birth of the pianoforte, the invention of Bartolomeo Cristofori, who also invented one of the first pedals, the una corda, which changed the sound of the pianoforte instantly.  

The piano pedals’ use and popularity grew alongside the piano. The sustain pedal was invented by Gottfried Silbermann, a known organ maker, and it was first used with hands instead of feet, which caused inconvenience to the pianists. After that, an eminent builder, Johann Andreas Stein created the knee lever.

The last pedal to be invented was the sostenuto pedal and was patented and perfected by Albert Steinway, of Steinway & Sons, back in the late 1800s (~ 1874) and started to advertise it publicly in 1876 and was including it in all his piano designs. 

The sound versatility that the piano pedals brought made them very popular, evidenced by their use and constant improvement even to this day. In fact, we might witness a fourth pedal becoming a standard into our modern pianos very soon, and thus we will have the damper, sostenuto, una corda, and half-blow pedals. The harmonic pedal is also known as the fourth pedal.

FAQ

What do the pedals on a piano do?

The pedals on a piano do different things such as, dampening the strings even more, or removing the dampening completely or hitting just one string (una corda).

 What does the middle pedal on a piano do?

The middle pedal usually called “tone-sustaining” does the sustainment of a single tone or group of tones whose dampers were already raised at the moment it was depressed.

What does the left pedal on a piano do?

The piano left pedal or una corda, when pressed, shifts the action of the piano so that the hammers hit only una corda, one string. 

What does the right pedal on a piano do?

The right pedal is the sustaining pedal, which lifts all of the dampening at once off of the piano strings letting them ring out vibrantly until their vibration naturally ceases. 

What are the three pedals on a piano? 

The three pedals on a piano are the una corda, or one string, which shifts the action to hit only one string, the sostenuto, and the sustain pedal which lifts all dampening for the strings to ring out.

What does the sostenuto pedal do on a piano?

The sostenuto pedal, the middle one, sustains a single tone or group of tones and lifts the damping off of the tones whose dampening was already depressed. 

Do you need 3 pedals for the piano?

Pianos usually come with 3 pedals as standard, but you do not need all three pedals to perform or rehearse unless the sheet music specifically says that all 3 are used. 

What is the most important pedal on a piano?

All pedals are important, but the one used the most is the sustain pedal, which allows pianists to make legato passages smoother as the finger technique doesn’t exist.

Why does my piano only have 2 pedals? 

Most pianos, especially the studio/acoustic ones have a minimum of 2 pedals, the una corda, and the sustain pedal. The middle pedal is also called (in uprights) a practice pedal and it presses the dampeners to lower the sound of the piano.

Can you play piano without pedals?

You can play piano without the pedals. That gives you the most “vanilla” sound of the instrument, no sustain or low volume or just one string.

Is a sustain pedal necessary?

For certain melodies, a sustain pedal is necessary, especially in practicing and performing those pieces, but if you are a hobby pianist, you’re not going to use it much.

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