What do the Pedals do?

"What do the pedals do?" is one of the most asked questions in beginning piano lessons, and not surprisingly so. They're intriguing, and most beginning students can't quite resist testing them out to see what they do. I like to take that curiosity as a learning opportunity to talk about how we need treat the instrument (pedals are not for stomping on), as well as how they work mechanically within the instrument. So here's the quick run-down for those of you studio parents who may have curious piano kids at home, or maybe you're just wondering for yourself.

Most acoustic pianos have 3 pedals, and in today's post I'll be outlining the functions of each one, and quick examples of when we might use them.

Starting all the way on the right we have our most commonly used pedal called the Damper Pedal, or sometimes the Sustain Pedal. It's job is to lift all the dampers to prevent the strings from being silenced when the keys are released. This sustains the sound for longer, and creates a sustained, more full resonance for our playing. Because this pedal is used so commonly it doesn't often require as much of an explanation for students. To see it in use, watch the piano & cello duet of Canon in D below, you can see the pianist using the Damper Pedal to add some extra resonance to the Ostinato (repeated pattern) part she is playing. 

Next, we'll talk about the pedal all the way on the left. This is the Una Corda pedal, sometimes called the Soft Pedal. It's job is to shift the hammers inside the piano so that instead of striking all 3 strings connected to the note, they only strike ONE string. This subtly changes the sound quality, and when used effectively can add a very different tonal color and nuance to the music. I like to describe it as sounding like the music is coming from further away, because the sound is 'thinner' and less resonant with only a single string vibrating. An excellent example of this pedal in action (along with the damper pedal) is Debussy's Submerged Cathedral. The concept of this piece is that there is a cathedral submerged under water; partway through the song the cathedral emerges from the water, and later sinks back down. The Una Corda pedal is used for the 'underwater' sections. The video I'm including is from an angle where you can see the pianist's feet. Watch his left foot, and listen to the change in the tone quality of the music when he is using that pedal and versus when he is not. There's something that shifts beyond just the volume, and that something is the Una Corda.

And I saved the trickiest for last, the Mysterious Middle Pedal. This pedal is a bit of a wild card depending on the make & type of your piano. On grand pianos it is most commonly a Sostenuto Pedal. But it can also be a Bass Damper, Piano Mute, or a few piano manufacturers have put their own novelty pedals in that spot. To really know this pedal's function on your instrument, you'll have to try it out. Here's how to find out what you've got:
  •  If you push down the pedal and the piano sounds really quiet, you have a Piano Mute. This is a pretty modern piano innovation, and is seen in console or upright pianos marketed for home practice instruments. The purpose is to allow a pianist to practice quietly without being a disturbance, and for that reason it is sometimes known as the Practice Pedal. These often have a notch that you can slide the pedal into so it stays depressed while you practice. This pedal is not really used for performance purposes.
  • If you push down your middle pedal and it works like the Damper Pedal (by lifting the dampers) but only on the lower third of the piano, you have a Bass Damper. This is what the baby grand in our piano studio has. I like to think of this a modified Sostenuto, because it can often be used to create the same effect, but the internal mechanism is a little simpler.
  • And the final option is a true Sostenuto Pedal. A Sostenuto only sustains the notes being played at the time the pedal is pushed. So it is used when you want both long sustained notes AND shorter, un-sustained notes. A good example of this is the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C-sharp minor. In this piece, you'll see long notes being held in the bass while shorter notes are being played up above; this is particularly noticeable in the second half of the piece. This effect is much easier to execute with a Sostenuto or Bass Damper pedal, because the basic Damper Pedal tends to muddy up the treble clef part too much.

And that's a quick rundown of what the pedals do. Hopefully that sheds a little light, and next time your piano kid sits down to make up their own music and starts jamming their feet down on the pedals, you can turn it into a productive learning moment by watching some of these videos and talking about when we want to use them. Each pedal does have some techique, timing and finesse associated with using it well, and as students progress to more advancing levels they will get to try them out. In the meantime though, I think it is great to encourage their curiosity and understanding of the amazing instrument they are learning to play.