Pedaling at the Piano

Every acoustic piano has pedals, but what are those things for? That varies slightly based on the make and style of piano, but here are the basics.

Damper Pedal (Sustain Pedal)

Every piano has a damper pedal, and it is always located to the far right of the set of pedals. (If you purchase an electric piano, make sure it has a sustain pedal since you will need it.) The mechanism for every key on the piano is connected to a damper, which is a thick piece of compacted felt that sits on the string(s) for each note of the piano. When the piano is silent without any notes depressed, the dampers are all touching the strings. When one note is played, the damper for that note is lifted off of the string(s) as long as the key is pressed down. That allows the strings to vibrate and produce sound. When the damper pedal is pressed down, ALL of the dampers are lifted off of ALL of the strings until the damper pedal is lifted, allowing sympathetic vibrations to occur. This makes the piano sound louder due to the increased vibration, and it also allows the pianist to connect sounds differently. Played with skill, the damper pedal helps to create a warm, continuous sound quality. The use of this pedal is marked in beginning music, but only marked in very specific instances in advanced music as its use is assumed at that point.

The Soft Pedal

The soft pedal is always the far left pedal. When this pedal is depressed on a grand piano, the hammers are moved slightly to one side so that they strike two instead of three strings on most notes, reducing the volume somewhat (only the lowest notes use only one string). When shifted, the hammers strike the strings in a less packed down and grooved area of the felt surface, which also results in a softer tone quality. On an upright piano, the soft pedal reduces the striking distance of the hammers by moving them closer to the strings, but its usefulness is limited since it does not change the tone quality. In music this pedal is marked as the una corda, dating from 18-19th century instruments that shifted the hammer from a one string (una corda) position to a two string position (due corda), with tre corda (three strings) indicating a release of the pedal.

The Sostenuto Pedal

Located in the center, the sostenuto pedal is used the least. When this pedal is depressed on a grand piano, it will hold any dampers that are raised at that moment, allowing the damper pedal to function normally for the remaining notes or allowing the other notes to be separated. On some pianos this pedal only sustains notes in the bass range. The purpose is to be able to sustain bass notes or chords in situations where both hands are quickly needed to do something different in another area of the piano.  On many upright pianos today this pedal has been replaced with a practice pedal that drops a piece of felt in front of all of the strings and locks into place, greatly reducing the sound for practicing purposes only.