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Piano Pedals

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Upon inspection, the modern concert grand piano will confront you with three piston-like contraptions that extend downwards from the main body of the instrument. Don't panic. Contrary to the misguided belief of many a first-time observer, the correct operation of these 'pedals' does not involve the synchronised use of three limbs. The simultaneous operation of a clutch, brake, and accelerator would probably cause just as much damage.

The Sustain Pedal

The right-most pedal moves the damping mechanism away from the strings inside the piano, thus allowing any notes played to have their full duration even though the finger(s) have been removed from the keys. For this reason it is known as the 'sustain' pedal but, as the most important and frequently used of the three, it is more simply referred to as 'the pedal'.

A Brief History of the Sustain Pedal

Piano pedals were introduced by the Englishman John Broadwood (of 'Broadwood Pianos' fame) in 1784. Before John came along however, the position of the damping mechanism was regulated by a device placed directly under the keyboard. Naturally, the use of this particular pedalling facility was somewhat restrictive, as it could only be operated by the player's knee. Once repositioned though, the pedal became all the rage. Mozart was the first composer to use the odd pedal marking here and there, but it was in fact Beethoven who, through meticulous indications in his piano works, considered the effect of the pedal to be an integral part of his sound world. The composers of the subsequent Romantic era followed his train of thought, using the pedal imaginatively in order to expand the piano's tonal palette. Some even paused to leave meaningful quotations for the sake of posterity, such as Anton Rubinstein when he romanticised about the pedal being 'the soul of the piano'. Busoni waxed lyrical about 'the moonlight streaming down a landscape'. The great Franz Liszt even said that, without the pedal, the piano would be some kind of Hackbrett (German for 'chopping board').

The piano music of Debussy and Ravel would be unimaginably different without the use of the pedal, as it allowed them to translate into musical terms the aesthetics of their painter-counterparts, the Impressionists. The importance of the sustain pedal to the exploration of the resonances and sonorities of the piano has remained so ever since1.

At about the same time as Debussy and Ravel's creative use of the sustain pedal, Ragtime pianists in New Orleans were finding it handy for holding on to an 'oom' while they got to a 'pah'.

The late Hungarian-born pianist Louis Kentner believed that proper use of the sustain pedal constitutes about half of what we call 'good tone' on the piano. A pianist with a 'good tone', in other words, is able to produce a pleasing sound with the instrument. What he does with his right foot is just as important as what he does with his hands - the individual ways of using the sustain pedal differ so greatly from artist to artist even if they may share the same level of skill, or even the same piano.

Pedal Timing

So why do pianists differ so greatly in their use of the sustain pedal? In a word - timing. One can employ the sustain pedal in three different ways in relation to how one produces a sound on the keyboard. The pedal may be used:

  • Before the sound (known as 'anticipated' pedalling)
  • Simultaneously with the sound
  • After the sound (known as 'syncopated' pedalling)

Timing plays an particularly crucial role2 when this type of pedalling is to help produce piano-playing of good clarity, and it is the vital time-lapse between key-depression and pedal-depression throughout a simple sequence of chords which controls this clarity. Get it wrong, and the sounds of one chord will ooze inevitably into the next, creating the musical equivalent of a water-logged fruit trifle.

Other Pedals

A long time ago, certain over-zealous American piano makers appalled discerning music lovers by enriching their pianos with pedals that operated attached cymbals, drums and rude-sounding wind machines. Mercifully, history saw to it that these contraptions fell bumpily by the wayside. The only additional pedals that have remained until today are the una corda and sostenuto pedals.

The Una Corda Pedal

It is probably worth mentioning at this point that not all pianos have three pedals. The majority of grand pianos indeed possess all three, but others (as well as small 'upright' pianos) offer two pedals which tend to be the sustain and una corda types. The latter, and left-most, controls a mechanism which works in two different ways depending on the type of piano. In grand pianos, the depression of this pedal will move the whole set of hammers very slightly sideways so as to leave unstruck one out of every three strings for each note, hence the name una corda, Italian for 'one string'3.

On upright pianos, the whole set of hammers is moved closer to the strings so that the force of their blow is diminished. The resulting sound in both cases, upon depression of a key, is a somewhat muted sound and consequently this pedal also bears the name 'the soft pedal'.

The Sostenuto Pedal

Back to grand pianos. Located in between the 'soft' and 'sustain' pedals is a handy little gadget that can offer hours of amusement - introduced by Steinway and perfected in 1874, it is known as the sostenuto pedal and enables the pianist to make (within limits) a selection as to the notes he wishes to sustain. In order to ensure success, it can only be used after the keys themselves have been depressed. The process is as follows:

  1. Choose a note or chord that you want to sustain.

  2. Play it.

  3. While the key(s) is(/are) depressed, press down on the sostenuto pedal with your left foot.

  4. Let go of the note(s).

  5. Keep the pedal pressed for as long as you want the note(s) to sustain.

  6. Play any other notes on the piano, which will not sustain.

Naming Confusions

Misnomers abound when discussing the piano and its pedals. For starters, the sustain pedal also bears the confusing name of 'loud' pedal, even though it is also used for soft passages. If we're going to be really pedantic, the use of the term 'sustain' is also dubious - the undamped vibration of a string is, in reality, its natural state, and the sustain pedal simply reduces the extent to which the note's natural length is reduced. Perhaps it should simply and more universally be known as the 'damper' pedal?

The una corda or 'one string' pedal doesn't, in actual fact, make each hammer strike only one string out of three - more precisely, it makes every hammer avoid a string, each one striking the remaining two strings out of three.

And finally, regarding the middle pedal - sostenuto is Italian for 'sustain'.

The Right Way to Do It

Just so that your pedal technique is au fait: keep your heel on the ground when using the pedal, and move it with the tip of your toe so that your whole foot acts as a pivot. This is essential for good control, and to being able to vary the depth to which the pedal is depressed, an aspect that also has influence upon the clarity of sound produced.

The Wrong Way to Do It

  • Don't kick it
  • Don't use it to beat time
  • Don't use it for ragtime foot-stomping

The Squeaky Pedal

There is nothing quite as infuriating as a noisy pedal, or worse: one that, just like a lonely mouse, squeaks whenever depressed. Usual form is to administer a little lubricant directly, or call a piano technician. All the mouse will need is a little love and attention.

1A bit of acoustics jargon here... The harmonics of the sounding strings are enriched by the sympathetic resonance of those derived from other freely vibrating strings, resulting in a fuller sound, or what most simply describe as a 'glow' to the tone of the instrument. This is of course an exclusively acoustical phenomenon - if you've ever wondered why synthesised pianos don't sound like the real McCoy, this is the reason.2Timing is especially important in concert halls when there is a high level of reverberation.3The modern piano has one string for a few of the lowest notes, two for the middle register notes, and three strings for the highest notes, on account of the decrease in resonance of the shorter strings.

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