Piano Pedalling: A Quick Guide

Decoding the Mystery of the Pedals

For the beginning pianist, foot pedals are often one of the most misunderstood aspects of playing the piano. It may be difficult for the beginner to understand the necessity of the pedals or what effects they create on the notes. It is hard to decipher to connection between the pedal and keys even by watching an experienced piano player. To help you better understand the role of the piano pedal, the following includes a straightforward description of their functions, along with a few pointers for effective use of the pedals during play.

The Elusive Nature of the Piano Pedal

The use of foot pedals is almost always the hardest concept to grasp for those first learning how to play piano. Whereas everyone knows that pressure on a piano key elicits a specific piano pedalssound, the effect of the pedal on the sound is not as apparent to the casual observer. Of course, knowing how to hit the right key for the right note or assembling the right combination of notes at the correct speed is not easy, but the concept and its effect on the music is easily understood by most. The integration of pedals with piano play, however, typically remains elusive to the novice pianist.

Even those that are able to carefully watch the movement of a pianist’s foot during play are rarely able to see the distinct effect of the pedals on the notes-which is the primary reason why the pedals are so elusive to the beginner. The motion happens so rapidly, it is hard to understand the correlation between sound and foot movement. To help further your understanding of the piano pedal and the way they should be used, take the following information into account the next time you play.

Basic Use of the Three Pedals

The distinct role of the right pedal is to raise the dampers off of the piano strings. This affects the sound of the notes in two separate ways. While holding down on the right pedal, any chord or note that is struck will continue to play until the pedal is lifted or the vibration of the string eventually stops on its own. In addition, the other piano strings will begin to vibrate, beyond the one that was actually played. This provides a much fuller sound than the individual string can produce by itself.

The left pedal operates in a different method depending on the type of piano. On a grand piano, the hammers are shifted to the left, while on an upright piano, the hammers are raised towards the strings. The effect on the play of the grand piano is more distinct, as the leftward shift of the hammers alter the strings hit for each note played. In addition, the contact point is altered, which produces a softer and subdued quality to the sound. On an upright piano, the sound is only affected by a softer resonance.

The middle pedal is the least used pedal. In fact, some pianos do not even have one. The ones that do can have a variety of functions that vary from piano to piano. The middle pedal on concert grand pianos allows the pianist to prolong the sound of some notes, but not others. All in all, the middle pedal is not an essential part of play for the average pianist.

The left pedal is the least complex of the two most important pedals. For upright pianos, this pedal is used only to provide a softer, muted tone. Those who play on a grand piano have to use the left pedal with a bit more care, as the effect is more dramatic and elicits a completely different timbre to the notes.

Why “The Soul of the Piano” is Created by the Right Pedal

The function of the right pedal is almost too much to discuss here. An entire book could easily be dedicated to the range of functions and effects that the right pedal provides. Of the three pedals, it is the one most vital for effective and exquisite piano play. However, there are a few key points to make about the right pedal to learn how to effectively use it for beginning piano play.

There are two primary uses of the right pedal. When the pianist needs to prolong the sound of a note or chord, but cannot do so with fingers, the right pedal can be depressed to sustain the sound. In addition, when the piece calls for a legato melody or the chords are in need of a deeper tone, the right pedal performs those functions. The right pedal is so critical to the execution of some musical pieces, that knowing when not to press the pedal is more important. Known as a “pedal change”, this momentary release of the pedal purifies the sound by stopping the sustained notes. In a lot of Romantic music, like many of the Chopin Nocturnes for instance, these short pedal releases are the only time that the right pedal is not depressed during play.

It takes many years to effectively learn how to use the right pedal. If you are just starting out, or even if you consider yourself a mid-level pianist, do not get discouraged while learning how to harness the power afforded by the right pedal. In the beginning, piano players tend to blur the notes when using the right pedal. This is a result of employing the pedal at the wrong time, not using pedal changes effectively, or by using the pedal too often. The best way to learn to use the pedal is to select pieces that incorporate pedaling and follow the guidance given by your piano teacher. Always learn a piece without the pedal and use it only as a finishing detail to polish the piece once you have sufficiently mastered it. Make sure you practice the pedaling separately from the rest of your practice. As your confidence in pedaling grows and your time at the keys increases, you will noticeably become more familiar with the concept of pedaling, along with how and where to apply it. In time, you will effortlessly learn to play a piece with use of the pedal from the very beginning.

Take Notice of your Surroundings and Explore the Effects 

The type of space where you play also has an effect on the amount of pedaling needed. For instance, a large concert hall can provide a resonance similar to that supplied by the right pedal, which means the amount of pedaling needed will be less. In small and confined spaces, however, you will likely need to use the pedal more frequently.

Every piano is different as well. Any time that you are playing on a different piano, it might take a moment to acclimate to its unique pedaling effects. Just listen to the sound and adjust your pedaling technique for the desired effect. The right pedal is truly one of the most elusive aspects of the piano. To truly master its power, it may take years of dedicated study. However, do not be overly apprehensive about learning how to use it. With dedicated practice and careful attention to sound, learning how to pedal effectively is easily attainable.

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