If you’ve played piano before or seen a concert pianist work their magic, you’ve surely noticed the pedals beneath the keys by your feet. There are three pedals on modern pianos, the sustain pedal, the una corda pedal, and the sostenuto pedal. While the latter two pedals may not be used quite as often as the sustain pedal, they all have their uses and know their place.
While the sustain pedal may be used more often, the other two bring a lot of life and character to your playing. This article will take a closer look at all three pedals, delving deep into their functions, how they work, and what they’re used for.
This pedal is the one on the furthest right. It has three main functions:
When a note is played, the hammer rises and hits a string which creates the sound of the key. A damper is a piece of felt that’s connected to the wood the string sits on. When the hammer raises and hits the string, the damper will raise and stay up until either the note has disappeared or you lift your finger off the key. When you take your foot off the pedal, the damper returns to its original position.
This is the far left pedal. It has three main functions:
When used on a grand piano, the action of the piano is shifted to the right when the pedal is depressed. This leads to fewer strings being struck when a hammer rises. The remaining strings are struck with a part of the hammer that doesn’t normally make contact with the strings, which earns you a duller sound.
It’s a bit different on an upright piano. When the pedal is pressed, a strip of felt is slid between the hammer and the strings to muffle the sound and quiet your playing.
Both types of pianos may have different mechanisms, but it results in the same type of sound. It won’t help you play softly, though it seems as if that’s exactly the purpose. You’ll still have to press your keys more gently for a quieter sound.
This is the middle pedal. It has one primary function:
When the pedal is depressed, this will catch and hold onto any dampers that are already fully raised off the strings. It can be used with either of the other pedals and in fact, all three pedals can be used at once.
When this one is pulled off successfully, it gets a pretty striking and effective result. You usually see the sostenuto pedal used in more advanced pieces, such as those by Debussy.
Using the pedals is a pretty simple and straightforward process. Simply choose your pedal for the desired effect and press it down with your foot. Use your right foot for the sustain pedal and your left for the soft and sostenuto pedals.
Introducing any number of these techniques to your playing will drastically change the sound of your piece. The only warning here is to make sure you’re not overdoing it with the pedals. The pedal use and technique you want to use should fit the piece. You can totally ruin a speedy lively song by holding down your sustain pedal too long or often, whereas a slower piece will gain quite a lot of nuance from the exact same technique.
This is when you press down the pedal after a note is played. This is the most common technique, as it helps the notes blend into the next and reduces a muddy sound.
This is when you partially press down the sustain pedal, so the dampers only very slightly touch the strings. This gives a rich sound without blurring the notes. This is often used to make Mozart sound less “dry,” as the pedals are never included in his notation.
This is when you press down the sustain pedal before you play a note. This takes the hamper completely off the string before the hammer strikes, which creates a rich and deep, resonant tone.
You very likely won’t be using this technique very often.
This is when you press the pedal and the key at the same time. This will accentuate the note and create more emphasis on rhythm.
Claude Debussy once said, “abusing the pedal is only a means of covering up a lack of technique, making a lot of noise to drown the music you’re slaughtering!”
While he was pretty harsh, he really had a point. The sustain pedal is the most often overused pedal, which creates a muddy and noisy sound. There are ways to avoid this, though. Just don’t hold it down! Use the delayed/legato pedal technique. Press the pedal after you play your note. It takes some time for the dampers to mute your strings.
A good thing to keep in mind: be careful when you’re using the sustain pedal if your melody has a lot of neighboring notes and around changing chords. This can muddy up your sound instead of making all the notes flow together in lovely harmony. Follow your ears and let them guide you; the more experience you have as a pianist, the easier it’ll be.
While a modern piano may have three pedals, you’ll really be making the most use of the sustain pedal. All three of them have their place. It’s worth it to learn how to use all of them and what applications they have.
Linda Ritter is a passionate pianist and a songwriter for more than 7 years. With a Masters in Music, she has explored the world of music and has collaborated with several musicians and brands like Roland, Tune Core, and plenty of blogs.