Several months ago, I joined a forum, and one of the questions frequently raised in that forum was about the function of the foot pedals of piano. What are those foot pedals? What are their functions? These questions seem easy to answer for a pianist like me. Yet, for someone who has not yet played the upright piano or has only decided to learn the piano, these questions may seem puzzling.
The piano, as a musical instrument, has a long history dating back several centuries ago. Compared to the tuba, for example, the piano may appear ancient. Of course, the invention of the piano can be dated back to Bartolomeo Cristofori (17th century), who was credited for inventing the first piano.
The early pianos, of course, did not have foot pedals. They instead had hand stops that were operated by hands. Sometime in 1765, the hand stop was replaced by the knee lever. Somewhere between 1772 to 1775, the first piano with a damper pedal appeared. Since then, the piano pedals had been an integral part of the piano.
Understanding Pedals and The Different Types of Pedals
Modern pianos are equipped with three lever controls called “foot pedals, and each pedal has a different function. If you are only new to playing the piano, you should be cognizant of these pedals and learn their different functions. Here are the three pedals of the piano:
1) Right Sustain Pedal
By its name, you will already have an inkling as to its functionality. The right sustain pedal prolongs the sound of the note even if the key is no longer held down. If you pry open the piano, you will see that, inside the piano, there is a damper pad that stops the note from ringing out after you have removed your finger from the key. If you want to sustain a note, for example, you can simply step on the sustain pedal to remove the dampers from the specific string so that the note would resonate longer.
Most pianists utilize the sustain pedal, being the most often used among the pedals. Moreover, it is a crucial foot lever for playing well certain music pieces. Due to the critical role played by the sustain pedal, you will see this foot pedal even in most basic beginner keyboards.
Still confused as to how this pedal function, let us once again pry open the piano lid, and figure out the mechanism inside the acoustic piano. As you peek inside the piano, you will see a series of strings inside. Each of these strings has a corresponding hammer that strikes it to make it ring. When you release the key, the hammer reverts to its original position, stopping the ringing of the note.
There is a damper bar that stops each note from resonating even after the finger is removed from the key. This damper bar deadens the string by sitting on it. Yet, when the sustain pedal is pressed, the dampen bar is removed, letting the note to resonate further, enriching the harmonics. This enhanced resonation is referred to as the sympathetic resonance. Most manufacturers of digital piano try to mimic this sympathetic resonance to create a more realistic feel of their digital pianos.
2) Una Corda Pedal or Soft Pedal (Left)
To understand the soft pedal, we need to pry open once again the acoustic piano and look at the strings inside. But beforehand, let us first look back at the history of the soft pedal. The soft pedal was an invention of Bartolomeo Cristofori. This pedal is usually the left pedal on most modern pianos. This pedal not only modifies the volume but also enhances the timbre. Soon after Cristofori invented it, it has become an integral part of most pianos.
At the end of the 18th century, manufacturers of piano started to string together triple notes. So, a group of these stringed notes is tuned to a specific note. When played, the hammer then hit these three strings simultaneously, rendering a brighter and fuller sound. If you are using a grand piano, when you press on the soft pedal, it shifts the whole mechanism toward the right. This makes the hammer strike only two of the stringed notes.
On most modern pianos, the soft pedal enables the treble section’s hammers to hit only two strings. Further down the bass strings, the hammer usually strikes one, or it may strike two strings per note. With the help of the una corda, the hammer’s action hits the string differently using its not-frequently-used hammer nose. This shift of action produces a softer sound. Moreover, by hitting the string at a different angle, the string sound becomes less bright and quite muted.
The modern upright piano is so constituted in such a way that the shift of action is not sideways. Its strings are wrought at an oblique angle relative to the hammers. Thus, with the sideway action, the hammer tends to strike the wrong note. It is a misnomer, therefore, to call this pedal Un Corda pedal. It is more accurate, instead, to refer to it as a half-blow pedal. This is because when you press on this pedal, the upright piano’s pedal slid near the strings. Hence, the hammer takes lesser distance to swing itself.
3) The Middle or Sostenuto Pedal
There is a great similarity between the Sostenuto Pedal and the sustain pedal. The main distinction between their actions is that the sostenuto only sustains the notes that are already playing when the pianist kicked on the pedal. Notes that are played—before the pedal is pressed—are not enhanced by the pedal. So, the time the notes are played matter most when you step on the sostenuto pedal.
You will notice too that most musical compositions—that were wrought before the 20th century— do not require much the use of the sostenuto pedal. This is because the sostenuto pedal has been added only recently.
Furthermore, the term “sostenuto is not precise enough to refer to this pedal. This is because this word etymologically means sustained. The term tone-sustaining might be a more accurate description of this pedal.
Differences Between Digital Piano Pedals and Acoustic Pedals
The digital piano pedals are engineered to mimic the effects and the dynamism of the acoustic pedals. The acoustic pedals, being copied by the digital piano pedals, are designed to sustain a note or notes. However, as the designs of pianos improved, the sizes likewise of pianos began to decrease. Because the inner space of the cabinets of pianos is becoming more cramped, the hammers tend to strike two strings simultaneously. This action alters the volume and tone of the note.
With the arrival of upright pianos, the inner dimensions of pianos even became more cramped. Thus, the una corda was devised to move the hammers even nearer the strings. This, however, decreased the volume, yet, prevented tone changes.
Engineers of digital pianos have been trying to digitally recreate the acoustic pedals and their dynamism. Hence, you can use the digital pedals to perform as if you are using acoustic pedals. Learning what the digital pedals can do may take a lot of practice. Yet, once you have gotten the hang of it, you wouldn’t likely forget it.
When using a digital piano, it is good to have the two essential pedals to get a feel of playing the acoustic piano. The third pedal may not be that important and hence, should be optional. More often, you will only need the third pedal if you intend to take your piano skill to the next level.
Useful Techniques On How To Use the Piano Pedals
Proper posture is required if you want to master the use of the pedals. It would be best if you ground your feet flatly on the floor. Align your big toes with the left pedal and right pedal. To use any pedal, just elevate the fore of your foot and move it forward. Set the ball of the foot on the pedal. Pivot smoothly down while keeping your heel grounded.
You should use your right foot to press on the sustain pedal. Utilize your left foot on the sostenuto pedal. Then, try to get the hang of the use of each pedal. You should practice using them while you play the piano to get used to how they enhance the notes that you play. To further master their usage, you can check out the following techniques:
1) Legato Pedaling
It refers to the pressing down of the pedal right after you have played a note. Then, release the pedal, and then, press it down once again after you have played the next note to allow for a smooth transition from one note to another.
2) Preliminary Pedaling
It entails the pressing of the sustain pedal down right before another note is played. This action immediately releases the damper from the string before the striking of the hammer. This builds a richer and deeper tone that rings out longer. This pedaling is not often utilized by pianists.
3) Half Pedaling
Half pedaling entails a partial pressing down of the sustain pedal. This makes the dampers to lightly dab the strings to create a tone that is a bit richer in sound without necessarily muddling the sound. This technique is often used by modern pianists to make Mozart less bland, while others utilize this pedaling technique for the Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven.
3) Simultaneous Pedaling or rhythmic pedaling
It entails pressing, and then, letting the pedal go while playing a chord or note. This technique is seldom used, but its effect enhances the note or chord, rhythmically emphasizing the note or chord.
The piano is a complicated instrument that requires a more intricate study. Yet, if you are a beginner who wants to further hone your playing skill, mastering the use of pedals will greatly enhance your piano playing skill. Moreover, by learning the different techniques of using the pedal, you can further improve your piano playing skill and make your rendition of a musical piece more enlivening and appealing to your audience.