Piano Pedals - What Are They For and How to Use Them

One of the first questions a new student asks when sitting at the piano bench is, “What do those three pedals do?” Great question!

Before diving into the details of each pedal, let's look at the history of them.

Piano Pedals - Long, Long Ago

Piano pedals have been around almost as long as the modern piano itself, but they had a rocky start. The Father of piano himself, Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the first tone-modifying mechanism in 1722. Today, this pedal is in the left-most position and is known as the una corda or soft pedal. Soon after, Gottfried Silbermann — a renowned European constructor of keyboard instrumentscreated a mechanism that lifted the dampers (the felt pads you see on the hammers of an acoustic piano) off of the strings, causing a reverb effect. Initially, treble and bass notes could be controlled separately from one another in this early sustain pedal and did not start as a foot pedal, and made it unpopular in the beginning. Today, the sustain is the most favored piano pedal. By the mid-1800s, Boisselot & Sons created the underdog, misunderstood and often replaced - or removed entirely - the sostenuto pedal.

Sustain Pedal

The sustain pedal or the damper pedal are one-in-the-same. It is the most frequently used, and often overused, pedal on the piano. 

Many people think that the sustain pedal down makes the piano sound louder. This is partly true, but there is more to it.  

When you play a piano key without holding the sustain pedal down, the sound stops as soon as you release the key. When the sustain pedal goes down, the strings continue to vibrate (causing sound waves) until releasing the pedal or until the sound naturally dies away. While our ears hear the illusion of loudness, the continuous vibration of the strings is creating a fuller or bigger sound.

Pianists use the sustain pedal frequently to create a very fluid and connected sound. Moving around the keyboard without the sustain pedal can make the music sound disconnected or choppy.

Sustain Pedal Technique

Pianists learn pedaling techniques over time. At first, it will feel clumsy to use the pedal. It can be hard to split your attention between what your hands are doing and coordinating your foot to move simultaneously. Practice. Practice. Practice. And, just like you learned to coordinate both hands at the piano, adding the sustain pedal will become second nature. 

Music Notation

Using the pedal in piano music can be notated in two different ways. The first way is with the “ped” and asterisk symbols. The “ped” marking indicates that you should press the pedal down, while the asterisk indicates that you should release the pedal. 

Alternatively, a line below the staff also indicates when to depress and release the pedal. Press the pedal down when the pedal line starts and release the pedal when the pedal line ends. When you see a notch in the pedal line, quickly release the pedal but immediately depress it again. This technique, called overlapping pedaling, is how you create a continuous sound from the piano.

Advanced piano music may use the words “con pedale” at the beginning of the piece, meaning “play with the pedal.” Once you become comfortable with using the sustain pedal, this instruction won’t be nearly as intimidating!  

Soft Pedal

The una corda or soft pedal is the pedal on the leftmost side. This pedal changes the tone of the piano to a slightly softer sound. It is also known as changing the color or timbre of the sound.

Upon striking a piano key, the hammer hits three strings for each given pitch. Depressing the soft pedal causes the keys and hammers to shift slightly, allowing the hammer to reach only two strings.

Initially, piano strings had a little more space between them, which allowed the hammer to truly only touch one string when the soft pedal was depressed, thus the name “una corda.”  Modern-day piano strings are a little closer together, so the hammer often makes contact with two strings instead of just one.

Soft Pedal Technique

Use the soft pedal to create a very noticeable distinction between soft dynamics or to play music in a quiet setting. Use it at your discretion.   

The soft pedal is only noticeable if you are already playing softly. It does not change the dynamic from loud to soft. Instead, using the pedal softens the sound even more. 

Music Notation

You will see una corda written into the music when it is time to depress the soft pedal. Tre corda, meaning “three strings,” means to release the soft pedal.

Sostenuto Pedal  

The middle pedal on a piano may vary from piano to piano, or may not even exist. Generally, here are some options of what you can expect:

  1. The sostenuto pedal: The most authentic use of the middle pedal, and is explained further below.
  2. A practice pedal: A practice pedal replaces the sostenuto pedal. A practice pedal locks into place when depressed, causing a piece of felt to drop between the hammers and keys, creating a muted sound. As the name implies, this pedal is primarily used for practice purposes, keeping the volume down when a pianist practices. You will not find music notation for a practice pedal.
  3. Absence of a third pedal. Some pianos only have two pedals, and in this case, it is always the sostenuto pedal that is missing.

Sostenuto Pedal Technique

Use of the sostenuto pedal is rare. It’s a relatively recent addition to the piano and became a more common feature in the second half of the 1800s, after the writing of much piano repertoire. 

A true sostenuto pedal is similar to the sustain pedal with a couple of differences. First, it only sustains notes from Middle C and lower. And second, it only sustains notes that you are already playing when the pedal is depressed. Any other key on the piano will not sustain while the sostenuto pedal is down unless you are also using the sustain pedal.

In Claude Debussy’s “Claire deLune” (measure 15) there are two low Es played by the left hand, they are held an entire measure, then half a beat later, both hands immediately play chords in the treble clef.

Playing the sostenuto pedal on the left-hand Es helps them sustain throughout the measure, allowing the left hand to play the subsequent chords quickly. The pianist would also use the sustain pedal to help the chords to sustain and connect without disrupting the continuous sound of the bass E.

Music Notation

Music notated to use the sostenuto pedal has an abbreviation such as “sos.” or “S.P.”. Use the sostenuto pedal to sustain a left hand while simultaneously playing another voice. 

A Final Word on Pedaling

Here are a few pedaling hacks for beginners:

  • Be sure to sit far enough back from the piano. Your legs should extend out to reach the pedal. If your legs form a 90-degree angle at your knee, you are too close.  
  • Always keep your heel on the ground while pedaling. Think of your heel as the hinge, and the ball of your foot as the door. With a stable hinge, the door can swing open and shut with ease.  
  • Never allow your foot to rest continuously on the sustain pedal unless called for in the music. Pianists often get in the bad habit of using the sustain pedal as a crutch to cover mistakes or play with a sloppy technique. Be careful not to fall into this trap. It can make your music sound too heavy and messy.
  • Sometimes piano sheet music does not notate pedaling. If your piece sounds choppy, don’t be afraid to try pedaling. Experiment, first pedaling with each phrase, then moving to each measure or subdividing further if the sound is too mushy. Use your ears and let sound and creativity be your guide.  

Remember, you are the musician and the interpreter of the written page of music. Proper pedaling can make it come alive and more beautiful.