The beauty of a piano lies not only in its elegant appearance but also in its enchanting music. However, playing the piano goes beyond merely hitting the keys in harmony. It also involves the use of pedals to create a richer, more complex sound.
This brings us to a question: How many pedals does a piano typically have?
For more modern and digital pianos, you’ll notice that it typically comes with three pedals: soft pedal, sostenuto pedal, and sustain pedal. However, their vintage acoustic counterparts may only have two. Each pedal has a specific purpose and comes with a proper technique for using each.
Bear in mind that if you’re a beginner and just learning to play the piano, whether on your own or with a teacher, you won’t likely encounter these early on during your lessons. They’re considered to be fairly advanced techniques, and won’t be introduced to you until you’re at the latter parts of your piano lessons.
What are the Functions of the Different Pedals on a Piano?
While it’s true that you can play the piano without having to step on these pedals, having them as part of your repertoire gives you more freedom to explore and express yourself in your music. Here are the different pedals and their supporting functions:
1. Soft Pedal
Located on the leftmost side, the una corda pedal conjures sonic enchantment through a fascinating mechanism. Typically, each note on an acoustic piano is represented by three strings, all tuned in unison. When a key is pressed, the corresponding hammer strikes these strings with gusto, producing a bright and full-bodied sound.
The una corda pedal works its magic by deftly shifting the entire mechanism to the right, leaving the hammer to strike just two strings. This subtle change results in a gentler note, perfect for the more delicate pieces and passages.
2. Sostenuto Pedal
The sostenuto pedal is located in the center of the three pedals and has two functions. First, it allows you to sustain only certain notes while playing so that they will continue ringing out while other notes are played over them.
Second, it can also be used as a practice tool since it prevents notes from ringing out further than originally intended—giving you an idea of what your piece should sound like without having any odd overlapping dissonance.
Take note, however, that the sostenuto pedal is mostly found on pianos produced after the late 20th century. This is why you won’t be able to find this pedal on older piano models and grand pianos.
There are also some cases where the middle piano is also replaced with a bass sustain pedal. This type of pedal is used to sustain bass notes, allowing the player to give more depth and character to their piece.
3. Sustain Pedal
The sustain pedal is the rightmost of the three pedals and its purpose is plain to see. When pressed, it will enable all notes on the keyboard to sustain their sound until the pedal is released. This effect is most commonly used in slow songs where a continuous sound would be desirable for the majority of the song.
The sustain pedal can also be used as a practice tool, as it enables you to play chords and extended passages without having to worry about releasing each key after playing them.
How Do the Pedals on a Piano Affect the Sound?
The ability to play the piano without stepping on the pedals is enough to create a beautiful sound. However, when the pedals come into play, they can make your music even more soulful and powerful.
As mentioned earlier, each piano pedal has its own function and produces a slightly different effect. Here’s how each pedal works:
1. Soft Pedal
With the hammer striking only two strings instead of three, the sound produced is much gentler and more delicate. This effect can be used to create a beautiful mellow tone in a slow song that would otherwise be too loud or abrupt.
This is often used in more classical pieces where maintaining a certain volume and tone are necessary to capture the emotion of the piece.
2. Sostenuto Pedal
The sostenuto pedal allows you to sustain only notes that are currently being played, allowing for a more focused and clean sound. This can be used to create a beautiful ambient atmosphere in a piece or to accentuate certain notes that are being played.
This effect is often used in more contemporary pieces, as the focus it provides helps to keep the music interesting and engaging.
What happens inside the piano when this pedal is stepped on? The jack mechanism lifts the dampers off of the strings so that they will continue to vibrate and produce sound until they are released.
3. Sustain Pedal
The sustain pedal is the most commonly used of all the piano pedals since it can be used to create an almost infinite range of effects. It can be used for a slow build-up or to add depth and power to a piece.
The sustain pedal can also be used as an effect to make a song sound more emotional or romantic, as it allows for the notes to linger and evolve into something beautiful. For this reason, it is often used in ballads and love songs.
When a sustain pedal is stepped on, the damper is lifted from the strings and it allows all notes to keep ringing until the pedal is released. This can create a beautiful long-lasting sound that can add emotion and depth to any piece of music.
How to Use a Pedal for the Best Effect?
When sitting in front of a piano, make sure that both of your feet are firmly resting on the floor with your legs bent at the knees. This will ensure that you have maximum control over the pedals. With your left foot lined up with the soft pedal and your right foot lined up with the sustain, you should be able to easily access both pedals. Use your right foot for the sustain pedal, with your left foot used for pressing down on the soft and sostenuto pedals.
Feel free to experiment and see how each pedal reacts to the notes being played. Eventually, you’ll get used to how these pedals change the sound of your piece, and you’ll be able to use them with confidence. Here are some of the common practices when using these pedals:
1. Delayed Pedalling
From the name itself, this technique is commonly done by pressing the pedal right after playing a note, then immediately releasing it, then stepping down on it after playing your next note. This is one of the most common techniques and can help one note flow from one to the next without all that muddy noise.
2. Preliminary Pedalling
This is another useful technique that requires pressing the pedal right before you hit the note. This helps lift the damper from the strings even before the hammer strikes them, allowing for a richer sound. This then gives off a fuller tone, allowing the notes to ring for longer.
Although useful, some musicians don’t use this technique often as it can lead to too much reverberation in the piano’s sound.
3. Half Pedalling
Just like how you’d press the notes on the piano, the pedals can be pressed similarly. By pressing down the pedal halfway, the dampers will then only partially lift from the strings. You want to use this technique when you want to add some subtle nuance to your playing and when you don’t want the notes too loud or too soft.
A common piece that uses this technique is Moonlight Sonata. Some other pianists also try to use this technique when playing Mozart’s pieces to make the notes sound more expressive and less dry. Take note, however, that pedals aren’t included in all of Mozart’s notations, so you don’t necessarily have to use the pedals when playing his pieces. Use them at your own discretion.
4. Simultaneous Pedalling
This is also referred to as direct pedaling. This means that you’ll step and release on the pedals simultaneously as you press and release the keys. Doing this helps accentuates the chords or notes, making your piece sound fuller and more expressive.
As exciting as this sounds, this technique is rarely used. Not only does it require a lot of skill, but misuse and overuse of this can lead to muddy and loud tones.
Some of the world’s most renowned and acclaimed pianists, like Vladimir Ashkenazy, Evgeny Kissin, and Martha Argerich are known to use this technique.
The three pedals found in your piano (two if you have an older one), can be used to add a unique sound and atmosphere to any song or piece. Each pedal has its own purpose and should be used accordingly. Keep in mind, too, that these pedals are there to help you give a performance that is as expressive and dynamic as possible.