Monday, July 16, 2007

The Three Pedals of the Piano

The three pedals of the piano are some of the most intriguing devices piano students encounter at the instrument. Playing the piano with authority requires thorough knowledge of what these pedals do and why we use them to alter the sound.

There is a nicely detailed overview of the functions of these pedals at Jeffrey Chappell’s website. I also inserted a link in my right-hand sidebar to the same page for future reference (located under the “Information on Pianos and Piano Repair” link list).

Read these brief clarifications about piano/keyboard pedals and then head over to Chappell’s article to get more details. (I actually do give a bit more information on the sostenuto pedal below. I also give some indications of how pianos and digital instruments may have different or missing pedal functions.)

The Damper Pedal (aka Sustain, Loud, Forte, or Right Pedal)

Regardless of the type of piano one has, the right-hand pedal is always reserved for the production of sustained sounds that reverberate within the framework of the piano. All of the dampers are lifted from the piano strings so that any played piano tones ring freely and resonate. When the right pedal is pushed down, the keys do not have to be held down to sustain the tones. It is the most commonly used pedal and its use is required in virtually all piano music.

If you buy an electronic keyboard, it is absolutely necessary that you get an electronic footswitch that functions as a sustain pedal. On most of the larger electronic/digital pianos the pedal comes attached in exactly the same place it would be on an acoustic piano. (See an example of the Yamaha Clavinova.)

The Soft Pedal (aka Una Corda or Left Pedal)

This pedal is only found on acoustic pianos and a few of the electronic models. Located on the left, it is used to change the quality of the piano tone to a more muted and veiled timbre. Una Corda means “one string” and tells you how this pedal works on a grand piano. When depressed, the soft pedal will move all of the dampers (and the keyboard!) slightly right so that only one or two of the strings assigned to each note are struck when you depress a key. This results in a different tone quality (or “color”). It is usually employed for extremely soft passages, though it is often overused by pianists who lack the technique to play softly. (OK, I can admit it, I’ve been known to “cheat” myself…)

The soft pedal works a little differently on upright (console) pianos. In these pianos pushing the soft pedal moves the hammers closer to the strings. This makes the key action produce a softer strike than when the pedal is not engaged because the hammer has less distance to travel (and thus less overall force).

The Sostenuto Pedal (aka Middle Pedal)

The sostenuto pedal (located in the middle) is often confused with the damper pedal because we also call the damper pedal the sustain pedal (which is what sostenuto means). Confused yet? I wouldn’t blame you. The point is that it has a completely different function from the damper pedal. You can selectively sustain specific notes while leaving the rest of the keyboard “dry”. For example, if you play a C major chord on middle C (the other tones being E and G above that C), and then press down the sostenuto pedal, only the dampers for C, E, and G will remain off of the strings. As long as the pedal is held down, those specific notes will ring freely when they are played. If you play any other notes on the keyboard, they will not ring freely (in other words, when you let go of the key the sound will be damped). It can be used by a skilled pianist in conjunction with the other two pedals. You can sustain as little or as many notes as you want with it. It is a stunning piece of mechanical engineering.

This pedal is found almost exclusively on the larger grand pianos. It is the least used of the pedals and the most misunderstood. The sostenuto pedal did not become incorporated into the grand piano until the late nineteenth century. It is used chiefly in more modern music and for special effects. Piano composers are beginning to use it more, which of course requires that performances occur on adequately functioning grand pianos.

On some smaller grand pianos the middle pedal acts as a bass sustain, whereby only the dampers below a certain note (such as bass C) are released from the strings. In other words, it acts as a kind of half-sustain pedal.

To make things even more confusing, sometimes upright or console pianos also have a middle pedal with yet another different kind of function. Usually the middle pedal on these pianos acts as a “silencer” by moving a piece of felt cloth onto the strings. This mutes the sound to such a considerable degree that one can play the piano without disturbing sleeping neighbors, disgruntled roommates, etc. The piano will often have a sideways slot at the bottom of the pedal’s movement so that the pedal can be locked into down position without needing to hold it with the foot. (I’ve always thought it would be interesting to write music specifically for a muted piano. Maybe I’ll do it someday…)

For additional information check out the pedals section for the Wikipedia entry on pianos.


KCLau said...

Nice explanation. I haven't been using The Sostenuto Pedal for many years since I switch to a digital piano

Joshua Nemith said...

Thanks for the compliment, KC. It's also been my experience that digital pianos don't have the sostenuto pedal. But there might be some instruments that have a "sostenuto" function one could assign to a separate foot pedal via MIDI. I might just look into that.