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The Piano Pedals: How To Use Them Effectively?

Updated on December 4, 2010
A grand piano usually has three pedals.
A grand piano usually has three pedals.

The curious piano pedals

Among the most fascinating thing for new piano students generally seems to be the foot pedals. This may be the case because their purpose is not instantly clear. This is in stark contrast to the piano's keys, the function of which is certainly apparent. As you watch a pianist play, the fact that hitting the keys produces the sound you hear is unmistakable. Though you may not immediately understand how the keys relate to one another to produce particular combinations, or how musicians are able to play so rapidly, but that constitutes a different set of issues altogether.

Foot pedals are far more enigmatic. If you were to try to meticulously monitor a pianist's foot movements as they played, you would likely find it quite difficult to determine what they were accomplishing by using the foot pedals. Thus, what follows is a brief, simple discussion of their purpose, and some suggestions about how to utilize them yourself.

Should there be two or three?

The pedal on the right side works to raise the dampers off of the piano strings, which accomplishes two tasks: 1) Any note or combination of notes you strike while that pedal is depressed will be held for the entire period of time the strings are vibrating, or until the foot comes off the pedal. 2) The remaining strings will begin to vibrate in conjunction with the chord which has already been hit, resulting in a deeper, more amplified tone than the string would have without the pedal.

The pedal on the left side works either to relocate the hammers nearer the strings (if on an upright piano model), or shift them a bit to the left (if a grand piano). For upright pianos, this action produces a lighter tone. For grand pianos, because the leftward shift changes the number of strings the hammers strike for each note and also changes the point of impact between string and hammer, the tone grows softer but also takes on a muted sound.

Some pianos have a middle foot pedal, some do not, they often have different effects and are not of great importance. Concert grand pianos equipped with middle pedals permits certain notes to be held while others are not sustained.

Out of the two common pedals, the one on the left poses the least challenge. Anyone performing on an upright piano can just utilize it in order to produce a lighter, more subtle tone. When playing a grand piano, this pedal should be applied more deliberately, because as it shifts the hammer, it changes the sound more substantially. Try not to depress this pedal whenever you want to play more lightly, but reserve it for times when you really need to produce a distinctive sound.

The right foot pedal: The piano's heart and soul.

Because of its incredible versatility and importance, the right foot pedal on the piano provides a rich topic for discussion. At this point, however, this exploration will be restricted to a couple of thoughts and impressions and some guidelines on proper use.

In the broadest sense, pianists are advised to utilize this pedal to hold notes they cannot hold with fingers alone, and to provide a deep, full tone to legato melodies and chord combinations. With certain styles of music, it would be simpler to articulate instances when the right pedal is not needed than it would be to explain when it should be applied. For example, anyone performing a Chopin Nocturne ought to be utilizing the pedal with tremendous frequency, really only letting up on the pedal briefly for a pedal change, or a clearing out of the sound.

Novices or pianists of moderate skill are likely to require a fair amount of guidance regarding the proper use of the right foot pedal. Newer piano students are generally in danger of muddling their sound by applying the pedal to frequently or at the wrong times. It is helpful to use sheet music incorporating pedal instruction, and to heed the commands of the instructor. In most cases, it is wise to learn a new composition without the pedal, only adding it in later as a final embellishment. Once a player has acquired greater skill and seasoning, pedal usage will become more intuitive and can therefore be incorporated into new pieces at the outset.

But, it makes sense to occasionally work on various pieces of music without any pedal work whatsoever, because it permits you to concentrate on finger placement and speed. I also find this practice to be useful in terms of memorization, because you have no choice but to practice more slowly, deliberately, and with greater care.

A piano pedalling lesson

Listen critically, and adjust accordingly

It is important to keep in mind the fact that various musical venues may call for adjustments to your pedal usage. There are times when a larger venue may provide on it own some of the sound effects normally created by foot pedals, and smaller venues with different acoustical qualities may require a greater amount of pedal use.

It is also quite possible for different pianos to produce different sound reactions to pedal usage. Therefore, best practices require you to listen critically as you practice, and test the pedals until you are happy with the result. Becoming truly skilled at using the right foot pedal is one of the hardest parts of learning the piano, but you should always proceed with confidence if you are committed to refining your abilities.

Curious to know more?

Do you have more questions about the use of the pedals? Do put them to us in the comments section below, and we will do our best to answer. Also check out Pianostreet's other Hubs, where we continually deal with the whys and hows of piano playing.


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      Mei Mei 6 years ago

      When to introduced Legato pedalling to the pupils?

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      Tiara 7 years ago

      thanks a lot, now I know :)