When we think of a piano, we think of keys, not pedals. Everyone knows that a piano has both black and white keys, and most people know that a piano has foot pedals.
However, unless you play piano, you might struggle to explain why a piano has pedals or what they do.
Even beginners already learning piano might not fully understand what each pedal does, and that’s OK because we’re about to answer all of your questions.
How many pedals does a piano have?
Before we go into more detail, let’s start with some basic facts. Modern acoustic pianos have three pedals, as do most digital pianos. The three-pedal configuration has been around since the late 19th century.
Although modern, and in fact most, pianos have three pedals, some exceptions have only two. For example, it’s not unusual to see vintage upright pianos with just two pedals.
Also, in some cases, you might find a digital piano with only two pedals.
What are the pedals called and what do they do?
Each pedal on a piano has a different name and function. In fact, there are several names for each pedal, and it’s good practice to get used to all of them.
Soft pedal (left)
The soft pedal is also known as the una corda pedal and was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori, who made the first pianoforte.
Other names for the una corda pedal are the left pedal, shift pedal, sordino, and muting pedal.
Since the early 19th century, most notes on the piano consist of three grouped strings tuned to the same pitch. A hammer will strike all three strings simultaneously when you play a note, producing a bright and unmuted sound.
When the una corda pedal is depressed, it shifts the entire action to the right, physically repositioning the hammers. Una corda means “one string”, and initially, depressing the una corda pedal would mean the hammer only strikes one string.
However, the three strings are grouped so closely on modern pianos it’s nearly impossible to produce a true una corda effect. Instead, the hammer strikes one string less, meaning it strikes two and not three.
The result is a softer, duller, and almost muted sound.
Moving the action to the right physically only occurs on grand pianos, not upright pianos.
In the case of an upright piano, the una corda pedal moves the hammers closer to the strings. The hammer hits all three strings, but it produces a similar softer sound with less distance to travel.
By hitting all three strings, the una corda doesn’t change the timbre of the sound on an upright as much as it does on a grand piano.
How it’s marked on a score:
- UC – Una corda, meaning depress the left pedal.
- DC – Due corde, meaning depress the left pedal partially.
- TC – Tre corde, meaning three strings, release the pedal.
Sostenuto pedal (middle)
The sostenuto pedal is the least used and most controversial of all three pedals. The pedal was invented by the Boisselot family of Marseille, France.
Piano maker Claude Montal adopted the invention and made some changes for use on his pianos. Steinway did a similar thing in the United States, which led to multiple patent disputes between Montal and Steinway.
It would appear that evidence of Montal’s version of the sostenuto pedal predates that of Steinway, but let’s move on to what it does and off of legal disputes.
We can think of the sostenuto pedal as a selective sustain pedal in simple terms. Any notes you play immediately before pushing down the sostenuto pedal will be sustained until its release. Any notes played after the sostenuto pedal is already down won’t be sustained.
While it’s a rarely used pedal, it can be very useful for specific styles, like contrapuntal music.
It’s also referred to as the bass sustain at times because it allows you to sustain bass notes without muddying everything you play over it.
Again, there is a difference between grand pianos and upright pianos. Upright pianos rarely have a sostenuto pedal; instead, they typically have a silent pedal and, less often, a bass damper.
We mentioned that the sostenuto pedal is sometimes called a bass sustain, but a dedicated bass damper will only work on bass notes.
A silent pedal mutes the entire keyboard by placing a thin layer of felt between the hammers and strings. The result is a far more muted sound than is produced by the soft pedal, and it’s commonly used for practicing.
You cannot use the sostenuto and sustain pedals at the same time.
How it’s marked on a score:
- Sost. Ped – Pedal down.
- Pedal up is signaled with an asterisk (*).
Sustain pedal (right)
The sustain pedal is the most used and the easiest to explain. It sustains every note that is captured when the pedal is pressed.
That includes notes that are held down from before the pedal is pressed and anything played after it’s pressed.
The sustain pedal is sometimes called the damper pedal. It gets this name because it functions by removing the dampers from the strings, allowing notes to ring out naturally.
Without using the sustain pedal, a note will stop ringing out when you remove your finger from the key.
Bad habits: The sustain pedal is not only the most used; it’s the most misused.
When beginners learn to use the sustain pedal, they often find it challenging to get the timing and amount of sustain right. Often, this leads to an absolute lack of clarity because everything becomes too muddy.
From that point, it’s easy to develop a terrible habit of hiding poor technique behind too much sustain. For example, students sometimes mask imperfections on a difficult/fast run with too much sustain.
How it’s marked on a score:
- Ped – Sustain pedal down.
- Pedal up is signaled with an asterisk (*).
When to use each pedal?
We touched briefly on a few examples of when you might use each pedal; here are some clearer examples.
A great but often tricky way to use the una corda pedal is to distinguish between accompaniment figures and melody notes. It allows you to mute accompaniment figures slightly to make melody notes brighter and stand out more.
Another handy way to use the una corda is to take some harshness away from the end of a high-pitch fast trill.
The best use of the sostenuto pedal is for bass or pedal notes. Sustaining bass notes while you play unaffected chords and melody notes is a fantastic performance tool and something that greats like Debussy and Rachmaninoff utilized.
Pedal notes are similar, although they can be anywhere on the keyboard and right out over various chord changes.
The sustain pedal features so heavily in most piano music, so it might be best to focus on when not to use it.
All guidelines are subject to exception and personal taste, but you should generally avoid using the sustain pedal over a chord change.
Similarly, it’s not usually a good idea to sustain over melodies that are contained within a small group of neighboring notes.
The golden rule with all three pedals (especially sustain) is never to overuse it. Pedals should enhance your sound and add impact, not muddy the waters.
Sustain pedal techniques
As the sustain pedal is the most misused, it’s essential to understand the different techniques.
Half pedalling: As the name suggests, this means pressing the pedal down only halfway.
This technique allows the dampers to maintain slight contact with the strings so the sound can sustain without becoming blurry.
Delayed pedaling: Delayed pedaling is what you should be doing almost always. It means pressing the pedal after playing a note and releasing it before you play the following note.
It creates a smooth legato transition between notes and passages without overdoing it.
Preliminary pedaling: If you want a deeper, more spacious sound, you can depress the pedal before playing the note.
Simultaneous pedalling: This is similar to delayed pedaling in the sense that you are pressing and releasing quickly.
This time, you press and release the pedal at the same time as they note/chord. It’s also known as rhythmic pedaling.
How to pedal?
Pressing down on a pedal might seem simple, but a few guidelines should help your performance and avoid unwanted noise.
Generally, you should use your right foot for the sustain pedal and your left foot for the other two.
You should place the ball of your foot on the rounded part of the pedal while keeping your heel on the floor.
Keeping your heel on the floor provides more control over the downward pressure you apply and the speed of the release. Releasing a pedal too quickly results in some unpleasant mechanical clunking noise.
How to practice?
Practicing the use of pedals is as important as playing the right notes. Keeping it simple is the best way to build solid technique.
Scales: Use scales over three/four octaves to practice sustain techniques while maintaining clarity.
Chord progressions: Practice cycling through chords progressions using different techniques. As you get comfortable, use more complex progressions to increase the challenge.
Beyond scales and chords, you can pick out various playing techniques like trills and turnarounds and get used to applying pedal work to them.
Do you really need all three pedals?
The short answer is no, you don’t. As we said, the sustain pedal is used almost all the time, the soft pedal is used far less, and the sostenuto pedal is rarely used.
There are talented pianists with years of experience who would struggle to explain the sostenuto pedal.
However, if you want to play everything you learn exactly as the composer intended, you should be familiar with all three pedals.
Do beginners need to use pedals?
It’s not so much a question of should beginners use pedals; it’s more about when and how they should use them.
Like anything, it’s best to start as you mean to go on, which means beginners shouldn’t ignore pedals.
However, the beginning is the easiest time to develop bad habits, and beginners tend to use the sustain pedal to mask poor technique. It can become a shortcut or encourage laziness in practice.
So, when learning a new or complex technique or piece, it’s crucial to get the fingers right before adding your feet to the mix. Adding pedals should be easier once you have the technique in your fingers.
Can you add pedals to portable keyboards or pianos?
Absolutely, yes. In fact, many keyboard pianos will come with a sustain pedal, and if it doesn’t, it will at least have a pedal input.
Some portable keyboard pianos will have an input for a three-pedal unit to give a realistic piano experience.
Smaller beginner keyboards are less likely to come with a sustain pedal included, but most have a pedal input.
Adding a sustain pedal to a portable keyboard will dramatically enhance your performance.
Now that you know what the pedals are and what they do, it’s time to practice.
Remember, never using pedals is a terrible waste, but misusing them is even worse. Get it right, and the results can be amazing.