A Guide To Piano Pedals: What are they and what do they do?
For many new pianists, something that is often misunderstood is your piano pedals. They’re easy to overlook, but in reality your pedals are some of the most powerful parts of your piano and when used correctly open your playing up to a whole new world of musical expression and possibility.
Today we’ll be breaking down not only why your pedals are so important, but what each one means and how you can use them.
Which Pianos Use Which Pedals?
Unless you’re buying a portable piano, almost all digital, grand or upright pianos will usually have either 2 or 3 pedals. These pedals may differ slightly depending on the brand and models for specific functionality, however this guide will give you a general rule of thumb to follow when looking at your first piano.
Generally speaking most grand pianos (and most digital pianos) use the following pedals from left to right: The una corda, the sostenuto, and then the sustain pedal.
Upright pianos differ slightly, by having from left to right: The soft pedal, the practice pedal, and the sustain pedal.
Some higher-end upright pianos however, (such as Yamaha U3) have a sostenuto pedal in the middle, and a lever under the keybed to engage the practice pedal.
What does each pedal do?
Now that you have a rough understanding of the kinds of pedals that you’ll be coming across and where to find them, we will now explore what each one does and how you can use them to enhance your playing.
The Sustain Pedal
Let’s kick things off with the most common pedal and the one that most players are first introduced to. The sustain pedal does exactly what the name suggests, it allows you to play notes for longer, giving a warming and powerful tone whilst other notes can be played over the top.
This effect is achieved by the pedal as it lifts all of the dampers away from the strings when pressed, allowing the notes played to ring on after the keys are released, and then allows the other strings in the piano to vibrate sympathetically.
Many piano teachers will start with this pedal as it gives the students access to a far larger range of songs and techniques that you can then begin to introduce into your playing
The Sostenuto Pedal
The sostenuto pedal is similar to the sustain, however is mostly found on grand pianos. The big difference however is that this pedal will only lift the dampers on the keys that are depressed when it is engaged, so you have a selective sustain on chosen notes.
The ‘Una corda’ Pedal
Next up, let’s look at the ‘Una Corder’, which is Italian for ‘one string’.
As mentioned, you’ll typically only find ‘Una Corder’ features in grands, digitals and selected high end upright pianos. In a grand piano, this pedal is able to actually move the entire action assembly slightly to the right when it is pressed, shifting the hammers so they only strike one or two of the strings instead of the full three.
The result is a quieter, softer sound, making it perfect for not only quiet play when you don’t wish to disturb others, but also allowing for a more delicate sensation when playing music that requires a more emotionally soft touch.
The Soft Pedal
Another version of the una corda pedal is also known as a soft pedal, sometimes called the ‘half-blow’ is meant to reproduce the effect of the una corda, but as the action in an upright is fixed in place, instead the hammers are pushed closer to the strings when the pedal is pressed. The sound is therefore quieter and allows for delicate play. The effect of this pedal is very subtle and many newer pianists will barely notice the change in sound, however the keys will feel ‘looser’ to press.
The Practice Pedal
Another pedal that is designed to help allow for quieter play is the practice pedal, also known as the celeste. Many upright pianos do come with a practice pedal, this pedal essentially puts a strip of soft felt between the hammer and string, making the whole piano quieter. Unlike the other pedals, this is not used when playing, instead it is turned on or off before playing so that you don’t disturb neighbours or family members.
Many silent and hybrid pianos have also introduced this pedal as a way to make the piano fully playable through headphones for silent play.
Other Types Of Pedals
As with most things piano, not every manufacturer will follow the same blueprint for pedals and there are those that have been experimented with over the years, some with other uses and some with additional pedals. For example, some American piano makers have used the left or middle pedal as a sustain just for the bass strings. Other makers, like Feurich, have tried adding a fourth pedal, which inverts the effect of the sostenuto, damping only the notes played.
Others have augmented the practice pedal by using different materials such as small metal clips instead of felt, to further change the sound of the piano. However, like the additional low notes found on some large Bosendorfer pianos, without many composers making use of these things, they haven’t become mainstream.
So there you have it! Next time you approach your piano, you’ll know exactly what each pedal is doing and how to use it! If you have any questions on your next piano or would like any further advice, our team would love to help!