What do the Pedals on the Piano Do? A Brief Guide

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The piano is one of the most wonderfully diverse instruments in existence. Part percussion and part string, it adds unique sound and rhythm to music of every genre. It is one of the few musical instruments that does not require an ensemble. The three-foot pedals tucked at the bottom center of the piano add even more technical options to the rang of the piano.

Here is a guide to understanding each pedal’s purpose and how and when to use them properly.

Types of Pedals on a Piano

Most pianos will have 3 different types of pedals although some will only have two.

The three most common are:

  • the sustain pedal
  • the soft pedal (una corda)
  • the sostenuto pedal

Each one allows the pianist to create a unique sound technique with the most commonly used pedal being the sustain pedal which we’ll look at now.

The Sustain Pedal

How to use the Sustain Pedal

The sustain pedal, located on the right is the most commonly used of the three pedals found on a piano.

Pressing the sustain pedal removes the dampers from the internal strings, allowing them to vibrate for longer, which causes the note to continue sounding after you’ve played it.

It will either stop when you release the sustain pedal, or it will continue, gradually decreasing in volume, until the vibrations naturally stop.

The original sustain pedal was actually a mechanism used by hand and only used as an occasional special effect.

The foot pedal was added as its function gained popularity and began being written in more frequently in the music of the Romantic era.

The Sostenuto Pedal

The Sostenuto Pedal

The middle pedal is called the sostenuto pedal and is probably the rarest of the piano pedals.

Sostenuto actually also means sustained and this pedal is indeed very similar to the sustain pedal.

But, while the sustain pedal removes the dampers entirely and applies to all notes, the sostenuto pedal only sustains notes that are currently being played when the pedal is pressed.

Any notes played after this will sound normally.

In many pianos, the sostenuto pedal only works on lower notes, as this is how it was originally intended.

The sostenuto pedal was not added until the late 1800s, so music written before that time usually will not even call for it.

The Soft Pedal (Una Corda)

The pedal on the left is called the soft pedal and it’s also known as the una corda pedal which means one chord.

Each note on the piano is actually made up of three strings (although the lowest notes are usually two strings and sometimes only one).

When a note is played it causes the hammer to hit these strings which then creates the sound.

But, the soft pedal causes the hammers to shift to the right and only strike two of the three strings and sometimes only one string which is where the name una corda (one chord or one string) comes from.

This causes any notes played while that pedal is pressed to be played more softly and in a muted tone.

Early versions of this pedal have been included by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the piano, since his original invention.

Practice Pedal

Not as common but still found on some pianos is the practice pedal.

Practice pedals, when pressed down causes a muffler rail to go in between the hammers and the strings which makes the piano become even quieter than when using the soft pedal.

It can usually be locked in place by pressing it down and to the side.

This way you can play the piano and no disturb others if it’s late at night or if you live in close proximity to others.

How to Use the Pedals

When used correctly, the functions of these piano pedals open up opportunities for a wide variety of dynamics in music.

The sostenuto and soft pedals are indicated by the composer for very specific purposes, and pressing and releasing them is the only technique needed.

There are four common techniques that have evolved on the sustain pedal that most advanced pianists aim to master which are:

  • Legato pedaling
  • Half pedaling
  • Preliminary pedaling
  • Simultaneous pedaling

Let’s take a look at each one in a bit more detail.

Legato Pedaling

Legato pedaling, also known as syncopated pedaling or delayed pedaling, is the most common sustained piano technique, and the first one pianists usually learn.

This is when the pianist plays a note or chord, uses the pedal, removes it, plays the next note or chord, uses the pedal, and so on.

Delayed or legato pedaling is the piano method to achieve legato, the technique of making notes and chords flow seamlessly from one to the other.

It must be done with each tone and chord, rather than being pressed for entire passages, to prevent the muddy cacophony of all notes and chords playing continuously.

Half Pedaling

Another type of pedaling is half-pedaling which is when you partially press down the sustain pedal while the key is still depressed.

Using the sustain pedal doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation and pressing it down halfway allows you to experiment with the amount of sustain you want.

Preliminary Pedaling

Preliminary pedaling is when you press the sustain pedal before playing any notes or chords.

This is the method for achieving the fullest, richest sound, as well as the most sustained sound the longer you leave it pressed because the hammer strikes completely free strings.

Simultaneous Pedaling

Simultaneous pedaling is the rarest and the most difficult pedaling technique.

This is when you press the pedal and play the note or chord at the exact same time, lifting and pressing in unison.

This technique creates an accent on the tone rather than sustaining it.

How to Read Pedal Notation

Fortunately, composers have developed a rather simple system for noting pedal use in written music.

As the sustain pedal is the most common, Ped. is used to note when to press the sustain pedal, and * is used to note when to release it.

Sost. Ped. is used to note when to press the sostenuto pedal, and * is also used here to indicate its release.

Una corda signals pressing of the soft pedal, and tre corda signals its release.

Tre corda essentially means return to three chords.

The placement of the notation will indicate the difference between preliminary, simultaneous, and legato pedaling, because it will be directly under, under, and just before, or under and just after the note or chord.

Half pedaling may be indicated or may just be used at the pianist’s discretion.

In Conclusion

That about wraps up our guide to the pedals on the piano, we hope it helps.

Even if you’re a beginner, it pays to learn the basics of how your piano works.

Knowing where each pedal is and what they do can save time for beginners and help you play more pieces that require them.

Most pieces written for the piano call for at least a sustain pedal or two, so it is important to at least learn legato pedaling.

Happy pedaling!

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Written by Robert Jackson
Robert is a professional pianist and writer who's been playing the piano for over 20 years. He studied music education at college and now works as a full time musician and piano teacher all over the country.