What Do The Pedals On The Piano Do? A Beginner’s Guide

piano-pedals-explainedThe piano, with its intricate design and nuanced sound, is an instrument capable of expressing a broad range of emotions and dynamics. Integral to its complexity and versatility are the pedals, which enhance the piano’s sound in various ways.

Typically, a standard acoustic piano comes equipped with three pedals, each serving a distinct purpose: the soft pedal (or una corda), the sostenuto pedal, and the sustaining pedal (or damper pedal).

This article delves into the functions of these pedals, exploring how they transform the piano’s sound and expand its expressive capabilities.

Types of Piano Pedals

The Soft Pedal (Una Corda)

The soft pedal, located on the left, is historically known as the una corda pedal. On a grand piano, engaging this pedal shifts the entire action mechanism slightly to the right, causing the hammers to strike one fewer string for each note (in the case of a three-stringed note) or to strike the strings with a different, less-used portion of the hammer felt.

This action produces a softer, more mellow tone. The effect is not merely a reduction in volume but a change in timbre, or color of the sound, offering a subtler texture that is particularly useful for delicate passages or to achieve a sense of intimacy.

In upright pianos, the mechanism functions differently due to the vertical orientation of the strings and action. The soft pedal modifies the hammer’s position so that it hits the strings with less force, achieving a similar, though not identical, softening effect.

The Sostenuto Pedal

The sostenuto pedal, found in the middle of the pedal layout, is a selective sustaining pedal. It allows pianists to sustain specific notes or chords while leaving others unaffected. By depressing the keys they wish to sustain and then pressing the sostenuto pedal, pianists can hold those notes for as long as the pedal is engaged, even if they release the keys.

This selective sustain capability is invaluable for compositions requiring held bass notes or chords under moving lines, enabling clearer texture and separation between the sustained and unsustained sounds.

While standard on most grand pianos, the sostenuto pedal is less commonly found on upright pianos. In some models, the middle pedal may serve different functions, such as a practice pedal that mutes the sound by inserting a layer of felt between the hammers and strings, allowing for quieter practice sessions.

The Sustaining Pedal (Damper Pedal)

The sustaining pedal, or damper pedal, located on the right, is the most frequently used pedal. It lifts all the dampers off the strings, allowing them to vibrate freely. This action sustains all played notes and chords as long as the pedal is depressed, creating a richer, fuller sound by letting the strings resonate together.

The damper pedal also enables legato playing beyond what is possible with the fingers alone, connecting notes smoothly across large intervals.

The use of the sustaining pedal is a critical aspect of piano performance, adding depth and dimension to the music. It requires precise timing and control, as indiscriminate use can blur the musical texture and obscure the intended harmony and articulation. Mastering pedal technique is essential for achieving the desired balance between clarity and resonance.

How to Use Piano Pedals

Mastering the piano involves not only skillful coordination of one’s fingers but also nuanced control of the pedals at one’s feet. Among these, the sustaining pedal is a powerful tool that, when wielded with expertise, can transform a piece from mere notes on a page to a vivid, breathing entity.

Yet, the art of pedaling is intricate, requiring pianists to adopt various techniques based on the musical context and desired effect. This includes legato pedaling for seamless connections, half pedaling for subtle sustain, preliminary pedaling for immediate resonance, and simultaneous pedaling for clean starts with full sound.

Each technique serves a unique purpose, enriching the musical tapestry with depth, clarity, and continuity. Understanding when and how to use these pedal techniques is crucial for any pianist looking to elevate their performance, allowing them to express the full emotional and dynamic range of the music.

Legato Pedaling

Legato pedaling, often associated with the sustaining pedal, is crucial for achieving a smooth, connected line of music where notes flow seamlessly into one another without gaps.

To execute legato pedaling, press the damper pedal just after playing a note and release it as you play the next note, ensuring the pedal is lifted and pressed again quickly to connect the sounds without blurring them. This technique requires precise timing to maintain the musical line’s legato while avoiding a muddy texture.

Half Pedaling

Half pedaling allows pianists to partially sustain notes while controlling the degree of resonance. This nuanced pedaling technique involves depressing the damper pedal only partway, rather than fully, to sustain the sound with less accumulation of harmony and prevent the sound from becoming overly blended.

Mastery of half pedaling depends on the pianist’s ability to feel the pedal’s resistance and control it to achieve the desired sound.

Preliminary Pedaling

Preliminary pedaling is used to ensure that the first notes or chords of a piece or section are resonant from the very beginning. To accomplish this, the damper pedal is pressed down before the notes are played. This technique ensures that the piano’s strings are already free to vibrate as the music starts, creating an immediate fullness of sound.

Simultaneous Pedaling

Simultaneous pedaling requires pressing the damper pedal at the exact moment a note or chord is struck. This technique is essential for sustaining a chord or note right from its onset without any initial dryness in the sound. It’s particularly useful in passages where a clean but connected sound is desired, allowing for clarity of attack with the benefit of sustain.

The Role of Pedals in Musical Expression

The pedals are not merely mechanical accessories; they are expressive tools that significantly expand the piano’s sonic palette. Composers and performers alike exploit the pedals’ capabilities to achieve a range of effects, from the ethereal sustain of impressionist compositions to the crisp articulation of Baroque counterpoint. Pedaling techniques vary widely, with some pieces calling for detailed pedal markings and others leaving much to the performer’s discretion.

The art of pedaling is as much about timing and foot control as it is about listening. The subtle nuances of pedal use, such as half-pedaling (partially depressing the damper pedal) and flutter pedaling (quickly alternating between engaged and disengaged positions), require keen auditory sensitivity and years of practice to master. These techniques allow pianists to fine-tune the instrument’s response, tailoring the sound to the demands of the repertoire and their artistic vision.


The pedals on a piano do far more than merely alter the instrument’s volume. They are fundamental to the piano’s expressive capacity, enabling pianists to shade the music with nuances of tone, sustain, and articulation that would be impossible to achieve otherwise.

Understanding and mastering the use of the soft, sostenuto, and sustaining pedals is crucial for any pianist seeking to fully explore and express the depth and breadth of the piano’s musical possibilities.

As students progress in their study of the piano, they learn not just to play with their hands but to “play” the pedals with as much intention and sensitivity, crafting sounds that resonate with the complexity and beauty of the music they bring to life.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do piano pedals enhance musical expression?

Piano pedals, particularly the sustaining pedal, enrich musical expression by allowing notes to resonate longer than the fingers alone can sustain, adding depth and fullness to the sound. The soft pedal modifies the timbre and volume, offering a palette of sonic shades crucial for dynamic and emotional nuance.

Can you explain the difference between legato and half pedaling techniques?

Legato pedaling connects successive notes smoothly without blurring them, achieved by precise timing in pedal release and depression, while half pedaling involves partially depressing the pedal to sustain notes with a controlled resonance, preventing excessive blending of harmonies.

What is the purpose of using preliminary pedaling in piano playing?

Preliminary pedaling is employed to ensure that the piano’s strings are free to vibrate before the piece or passage begins, creating an immediate resonant sound that enhances the opening notes or chords.

When should a pianist use simultaneous pedaling?

Simultaneous pedaling is used when a pianist aims to achieve a clean start of a note or chord with full resonance, pressing the pedal at the exact moment the keys are struck to blend clarity of attack with sustained sound.

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