What do the Pedals on a Piano do?

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There are usually two or three pedals on a piano. On the left is the soft pedal or una corda, in the middle the sostenuto pedal, and the sustain or damper pedal is on the right. If your middle pedal is missing, no need to worry. This pedal is common mainly to the American-made grand pianos.

But what do the three pedals on a piano actually do and when would you need to use them?

What does the ‘una corda pedal’ do? (on the left)

The name we use more commonly today is ‘soft pedal’ because it allows the player to perform more quietly. On grand pianos, the soft pedal moves the entire keyboard and the hammers to the right. This way, the hammers that usually strike three strings only hit two of them, which ensures a softer sound. But it also makes the sound duller. The felts on the hammers harden over time and create the nice bright sound we expect from a piano. When the hammers move to the right, they hit the string from the side where the felt hasn’t been bedded in correctly. This can sometimes give off a duller sound.

Inside of a piano
The hammers (top row) with felts on them all move to the right when the soft pedal is pressed. When you hit a key, the hammer strikes two strings instead of all three.

Bartolomeo Cristofori, an Italian instrument maker who invented the piano had the amazing idea to hatch the soft pedal. In 1700 it was the first stop mechanism used to alter the sound of the piano.

The very first pianos only had two strings per hammer. When the hammers were moved to the right they would only hit one string. That is why this pedal’s name was ‘una corda’ or ‘one string’. Today, pianos have three strings per hammer. As the hammers now hit two strings under the soft pedal, we might as well call the pedal ‘due corde’.

piano strings and dampers
Modern pianos have three strings per hammer. The wooden pieces in this picture are dampers, which lift when the key is pressed and drop back when it is released.

On an upright piano, pressing the soft pedal does not move the hammers to the right. Instead, it moves them closer to the strings.

You will find that the sound this pedal creates differs greatly from one piano to the next, depending on how the mechanism works. If you have a piano at home or you happen to pass one by in a music shop, try it out for yourself.

Have a look at the beginning of Ave Maria sheet music by Franz Schubert. Press the left pedal and try playing the notes at the beginning. Will it help you play softer?

What does the sustain pedal do? (on the right)

Most often pianists use the sustain pedal. You will find this pedal on every upright and grand piano,with the exception of digital pianos. If you have one of those, you may need to buy the pedal separately and plug it in.

The strings on a piano always have dampers sitting on them. The damper moves away from the strings when you hit a note, so the hammer can strike the strings and allow the sound to project. Once you remove your finger from the note, the damper will instantly drop down onto the strings and cut off the sound.

dampers and string on a piano
Dampers and hammers inside of the piano

The sustain pedal removes the dampers completely from all of the notes to allow the sound to continue. Once you let go of the pedal the dampers return in place and cut off the sound entirely. A bit like strumming a guitar and then putting your hand back on the strings to stop the sound.

The performer has the freedom to use the pedal and create a smoother legato and more connected sound. You can hold the sustain until the sound dissipates by itself, or release it anytime to stop the sound immediately.

Try it yourself the next time you sit at a piano. Hold the sustain pedal down, then press a few notes one at a time and listen to what happens. Every single note you play continues to sound until you either clear the pedal, or let the sound wane completely.

Try playing Hans Zimmer’s Pearl Harbor Theme using the sustain pedal in each bar. It will help you achieve the powerful legato!

What does the middle pedal on a piano do? (sostenuto pedal)

The sostenuto pedal allows the player to sustain a certain set of notes and those notes only. In other words, when the performer presses the sostenuto pedal after playing a chord, only this chord would sustain and hold its sound. You can hold the pedal and continue to play around that chord. The pedal will not affect anything you press afterwards.

Try playing The Entertainer by Scott Joplin. Press the middle pedal on every first and third quaver in a bar. Listen how it allows you to sustain only the first and third note, rather than blurring all the notes together, which would happen if you pressed the traditional sustain pedal.

The middle pedal isn’t always a sostenuto pedal. You will see a practice pedal on some of the pianos instead. A practice pedal drops a piece of felt between the hammer and the strings and the tone dampens instantly. You can often lock the pedal by pushing it down and right (or left) so you don’t have to keep your foot down the entire time.

Jellynote decided to interview Martin Carline, a piano teacher specialising in blues and improvisation. Throughout 25 years of his musical experience, he has covered all styles including boogie-woogie and blues and has played with different bands at a whole range of venues across the UK. Martin loves sharing his knowledge and experience with all those who want to learn, regardless of experience. You can find blues and boogie piano lessons and plenty more tips on Martin’s website, www.learnpianoblues.com.

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