For most people, the keyboard is what you notice first about the piano, but there are also those two or three mysterious foot pedals lurking down below. What are they, and what are they for?
Let’s find out!
The Damper Pedal
Starting out on the right, you’ll see the damper pedal. This pedal controls the dampers inside the piano. Dampers are little felt pads, which rest against the metal strings inside your piano. When you press a piano key, the individual damper for that key is raised, allowing the piano strings to vibrate and make sound. When you lift your finger and release the key, the damper presses against the strings again and the sound stops. But, if you press down the damper pedal with your foot, ALL the dampers are lifted, and every note you play will continue making a sound even when you stop pressing the key! The damper pedal can create a beautiful, resonant sound as it allows notes to blend together, but if there are too many notes at once the sound can get muddy. That’s why pianists will often hold down the damper pedal for only a few notes at a time, and then lift their foot to lower the dampers and “clear” the sound before pressing the pedal down again. Go ahead and open up the lid of your own piano and take a peek inside to see how the damper mechanism works as you press and release the damper pedal.
The Soft Pedal (Una Corda)
On the left you’ll find the soft pedal, technically called the “una corda” pedal. As its informal name suggests, it makes the sound of the piano a little softer. In a grand piano, it shifts the hammers over slightly so that only one string for each note is struck (una corda = one string). In an upright piano it moves the hammers closer to the strings so the hammers can’t strike as hard. You can use the soft pedal when you want your piano a little quieter, like when you’re accompanying a singer, or practicing in the morning before anyone else is awake.
The Center Pedal
Depending on your piano, the center pedal can have several different functions. On some grand pianos, the center pedal is the sostenuto pedal, which is like a selective sustain pedal. If you hold down a note and press the sostenuto pedal, that note will continue to sound even when you lift your finger, but all the notes you play afterward will only last as long as you hold them down. It’s a way to hold out a long note or chord while your hands are busy playing other notes. On some upright pianos, the center pedal lowers a piece of felt or cloth between the hammers and the strings to make the sound very soft and muffled. In this case, this pedal is sometimes called a “practice pedal” presumably to allow someone to practice the piano without disturbing other people. Still other pianos have no center pedal at all, or if there is a center pedal, it’s just for show and doesn’t do anything.
How to Pedal
To correctly play the foot pedals on a piano, rest your heel on the ground and set the ball of your foot on the pedal. Lower the ball of your foot firmly, but not too fast. Don’t stomp on the pedal or press down too hard. To release, keep your heel on the ground and lift the ball of your foot, keeping contact with the pedal to make sure it doesn’t thump when it’s released.
If you want to experiment with the sound of the damper pedal, try holding it down while you play “Listen for Bells” from Lesson 17. If you are a more advanced player, or you really want to learn the ins and outs of piano pedals, check out Lesson 217.
Many young children are too short to reach the pedals and still maintain good piano posture, so I usually don’t have my students use the pedals regularly until they’re about 10 years old. If you want your child to start using the pedals sooner, you can purchase piano pedal extenders. They’re somewhat expensive, but they fit on the piano pedals and create a pedal mechanism that younger kids can use to successfully pedal the piano.