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How to Use the Piano Pedals

 

Note: This article contains material from another on our site: The Inside Story of the Piano.

 

This article is copyright (c) AVGPA 2012.  It should not be distributed in any form pursuant to federal copyright law.

 

PEDAL DIFFERENCES AMONG PIANO TYPES

 

This article assumes the gold standard performance/recording studio piano, referred to as a grand.  It is shaped like a harp and has a horizontal soundboard.  Vertical pianos, erroneously referred to as "uprights" (the largest size of vertical), have three pedals, but only one--the right/damper pedal--operates  identically to a grand piano. 

 

Electronic keyboards are piano simulators, and their pedal functionality varies too much from one model to another to address it in this short article. 

 

However, one important point to note is that most (but not all) electronic keyboards have an on-off function for the damper pedal, rather than allowing it to vary in intensity like an acoustic vertical or grand piano.  This is a serious limitation that will hold back the progress of an older, advancing student who is studying on a non-acoustic piano.

 

THE DAMPER PEDAL

 

A damper is a felt-bottomed block of wood that rests on the piano's strings when the keys are not in use.  When a key is pressed, and the associated hammer strikes the strings for that note.  At the same time, the damper rises so these strings can vibrate and produce audible sound.  When the key is released, the damper falls back on to the strings, and the note is silenced.

 

Pressing down on the damper or "loud" pedal prevents the felt dampers from falling onto any of the strings, so the strings are free to vibrate.  Therefore, if this pedal engaged and a key is pressed and released, you can still hear the note.  Also, other un-played, un-dampered strings in the piano resonate along with the note to produce a rich, colorful sound with much greater sustain.  The sound is also airy and reverberant.  (See the topics of harmonics/overtones and sympathetic vibrations in the article Piano Tone Production Theory.)

 

The primary purpose of the damper pedal is to allow notes whose keys are beyond the reach of one hand to sustain together. 

 

A good example is a chord whose notes are beyond the span of eight keys. Below are two chord forms that illustrate this: arpeggio (playing one note at a time) and broken (e.g. playing a bass note first, then an interval of two notes, then a three-note chord).  In these cases, without the damper pedal, the fingers would have to release lower notes to play higher ones. 

 

 

In the example on the left from the Chopin Nocturne op. 27, no. 2, the same arpeggio (Db major) is repeated.  Thus, the damper pedal stays down to blend and build up the sound of these two arpeggios.

 

In the example on the right from the Chopin Nocturne op. 9, no. 2, the first group of notes connected by a diagonal beam represents "chord 1".  After that, a new chord is played ("chord 2").  To avoid the two different chords overlapping each other and producing an unpleasant sound, the damper pedal must be lifted briefly, then immediately engaged to sustain the second chord. 

 

Note: Down pedal is indicated by a small vertical line at the left end of a horizontal line.  Up pedal is indicated by a small vertical line at the right end of a horizontal line.  The older system of pedal marks includes "Ped." for down, and a large "*" for up:  

 

 

There are two methods of pedaling diagrammed in the Nocturne op. 9, no. 2 example.  The first, called "syncopated" or "legato" pedaling, minimizes the break between the last three notes of chord 1 and the first note of chord 2.  As a result, it will sound as though chord 1 is flowing seamlessly into chord 2.  This is achieved by lifting the pedal when the first note of chord 2 is played, and immediately pressing it down again.  The quick "up-down" action of the foot (U-D) is symbolized by an upward slanted line followed by a downward one.

 

The second method is called "waltz" pedaling, as appears to be indicated in the Paderewski edition of Chopin's Nocturne op. 9, no. 2.  

 

For waltz pedaling, the pedal is released when the last block of three notes of chord 1 are played.  Therefore, the fingers alone must sustain these notes.  In addition, the last three notes of chord 1 will naturally be less intense without the extra resonance of un-dampered sympathetic strings.  Finally, when the first note of chord 2 is played, there will be slight gap in the sound. 

 

Waltz pedaling is similar to "rhythmic pedaling" in that the pedal goes down at the start of a broken chord.  It differs from waltz pedaling because the pedal goes up after the last note.  Below is example as applied to Chopin's Nocturne op. 9, no. 2:

 

 

Some modern editions show this type of pedaling.  In any event, it can be considered "non-legato" pedaling because there will be a small gap of silence between chords.

 

Melody notes can be connected with damper pedaling for a dreamy, blurred effect, especially in pieces from the Romantic Period and in popular music.  The damper pedal can also maintain "legato" connections between melody notes when hand leaps are necessary.  (For notes that are within reach of the hand, one should learn to achieve legato by holding a prior note as long as possible before playing the following one.)

 

The damper pedal can also be pressed down to "color" the sound of notes that might otherwise sound plain, or to produce an accent or emphasis.  Often, this approach is used for a single note, harmonic interval or chord, after which the damper pedal is released.  In piano scores, this is indicated by a short up-down pedal bracket:

 

 

PARTIAL DAMPER PEDALING

 

In many cases, pressing the damper pedal all the way down (full pedaling) produces too much resonance or blurringIn particular, low bass notes sometimes sound too thick or muddy with full pedal. 

 

Instead, we can move the damper pedal down only part way (partial pedaling).  Halfway down is the most convenient for those who are exploring partial pedaling for the first time, because it is easy to estimate this distance. 

 

PARTIAL/FULL DAMPER PEDALING AND DYNAMICS

 

Increasing the depth of the pedal increases volume.

 

LATE PEDALING

 

In some cases, you may find that pedaling at the beginning of a chord does not produce the effect you want.  If so, pedaling a bit after the chord is played can be effective.

 

DAMPER PEDALING OF PIANO MUSIC FROM DIFFERENT PERIODS

 

Modern-day use of the damper pedal in Baroque Period keyboard music (e.g. Bach) is usually very limited.  The reason: Baroque music was composed on instruments such as harpsichords that did not have this device.  As a result, the composer's intention was a clean, well-articulated sound with no blurring together of notes. 

 

Some concert pianists reject this idea. They feel that the resources of the modern piano should  be fully used, and that confining the playing of Bach on the piano within the limited sustain possibilities of a harpsichord is mistaken.

 

In Classical Period piano music (e.g. Mozart), the pedal is used more frequently by concert artists, but not to the point where the clarity of the music and the subtle volume/tone contrasts between "voices" or layers of notes are obscured.

 

Some scholars insist that the damper pedal should never be used for Mozart, but he owned a piano with a damper pedal operated by the knee.  On the other hand, no damper pedal marks appear in his piano music, and only a miniscule number of passages seem impossible to play correctly without this pedal.

 

In the Late Classical Period, (e.g. some Beethoven) and the Romantic Period, (e.g. Chopin), it was common for composers to write in their pedal marks.  Students should follow these carefully, as long as the edition of music used is academically legitimate.  Since composers in these periods did not always indicate every pedal effect they used, advanced pianists can experiment with their own pedaling ideas.

 

THE UNA CORDA OR SOFT PEDAL

 

The una corda or "soft" pedal causes the entire keyboard of a grand piano to shift slightly to the right.  As a result, hammers that normally strike three strings strike only two; hammers that strike two strings strike only one, and hammers that strike one thick bass string hit the string off-center. 

 

The main goal is to change the tone of a grand piano, primarily due to the fact that fresher, less compacted felt is striking the strings.  The fact that fewer strings are struck also reduces volume, hence the name "soft pedal".  Although any pianist can easily play softly without the aid of this pedal, it is useful for wholesale volume reductions, e.g. terraced dynamics in Baroque music. 

 

On most vertical pianos (or perhaps all), the una corda pedal moves the hammers closer to the strings than normal, thereby producing a softer sound without the degree of tone change possible on a grand.

 

The term "una corda" was devised when pianos had a maximum of two strings per key.  When the una corda pedal was engaged, only one ("una") string ("corda") of the two was struck by the hammer.

 

Nonetheless, later composers may use the words "una corda" in their music when they want this pedal used.  When they want it released, the term "tre corda" ("three strings") may appear.  Another possible term is "tutte corde" ("all strings").

 

THE SOSTENUTO PEDAL

 

The middle pedal on three-pedal grand pianos is called "sostenuto".  If one or more keys are played and this pedal is immediately depressed, a mechanism inside the piano props up their dampers.  Thus, when the fingers release these keys, the notes continue to sustain as long as the sostenuto pedal stays down.  Other keys played later are not sustained, and are dampered as soon as their keys are released. 

 

Use of the sostenuto pedal is rarely indicated in classical piano music.  Debussy was one exception, in his work "Pagodes".  Another is Rachmaninoff.

 

No vertical piano we are aware of has a sostenuto pedal function.  In some cases, it acts a mute.

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