What Do The Pedals On A Piano Do? Putting the Pedal to the Metal

Written by: Leslie Carmichael

“Too much blurry pedal!” the flute teacher scolded as I desperately tried to keep up with the piano accompaniment for my roommate’s challenging flute piece. “Less blurry pedal!” She was exasperated, and so was I. She was an excellent flutist, but she had a hard time communicating what she wanted me to do with piano pedals. 

The piano pedals add depth, richness, and beauty to your piano playing if you know how to use them. However, they seem like a mysterious aperture to the piano that some students are afraid to use. So let’s clear up some of this mystery and take a look at what the pedals on a piano do. 


What the Pedals on a Piano Actually Do 

Some pianos have two pedals, and some pianos have three. A digital piano will likely have all three, while a keyboard might only have one. Each pedal has its own function and can add even more richness and beauty to your piano playing.

The Pedal on the Right: The Sustain or Damper Pedal 

Every piano and digital piano and most keyboards will have a sustain or damper pedal. If there is more than one pedal, this will always be the one on the right. And you’ll always want to play this one with your right foot! 

A hammer hits the strings when you press a key, allowing the note to ring out. When you remove your finger from the key, a damper comes down to stop the strings from vibrating, which also stops the sound. 

When you press down the sustain or the damper pedal, it stops the dampers from touching the strings after you remove your finger from the key. The sound will continue to ring out or be sustained. You can control how much the sound is dampened by how far down you push the pedal.

The pedal is sometimes called the sustain pedal because it sustains the notes, but it is also called the damper pedal because it controls the dampers on the piano.

There aren't any physical strings or dampers if you’re playing a keyboard or a digital piano. So this effect is recreated digitally. In addition, some keyboards use a footswitch rather than a sustain pedal, which simply turns the digital dampers on and off. In contrast, an actual sustain pedal can give you more control over how much sustain you use. 

Most advanced music requires the use of the damper pedal, but enthusiastic pianists often use too much. In some cases, the composer will mark where they want the pedal to be used with the use of a line underneath the music. When in doubt, use less pedal than you think you need. Here’s a short video that shows you how to use your sustain or damper pedal well. 

If your instrument only has one pedal, it will always be a sustain or damper pedal. However, if your instrument has two pedals, the one on the left will be the soft pedal.

The Pedal on the Left: The Una Corda Pedal or Soft Pedal 

The Una Corda pedal works differently depending on what type of piano it is. However, the purpose is the same: to soften the volume of the piano. 

Una Corda is an Italian musical term meaning one string. On an acoustic or digital grand piano, all of the notes have three combined strings to create the sound except for the lowest ones. When you press the una corda pedal, it will shift the mechanism of the piano to the right so that the hammer can only hit 1 of the three strings at a time, making the resulting sound softer. Since the hammer hits the string differently, the tone also has a muted sound. You can see the una corda pedal in action here. 

On an upright piano, this mechanism may work a little bit differently. Instead of shifting the piano mechanics so that the hammer only hits one string, the una corda pedal will move the hammer closer to the strings. This way, the hammer cannot hit the strings as hard, resulting in a softer sound that doesn’t change the tone of the piano.

On a digital piano or keyboard piano, this pedal will simply reduce the overall volume that you are playing. 

The Mysterious Middle Pedal

Many pianos and digital pianos don’t have a middle pedal at all. But for those who do, their purpose can seem confusing and completely mysterious. If you can’t figure out what that middle pedal is actually for, you’re not alone. Let’s see if we can unravel some of this mystery! 

You might find this middle pedal confusing because not all of the middle pedals do the same thing, and some don’t actually work at all. 

Sometimes, the middle pedal of the piano is not even connected to the piano – it’s a placeholder for a function that was never completed. 

Most of the time, though, the middle pedal is called the sostenuto pedal. It is similar to the sustain pedal in that it causes the notes to be sustained when you stop playing them. However, there is one small caveat – it only sustains the notes that you are already playing when the pedal is depressed. The notes you play afterward while still holding the pedal down will continue to play as normal. Typically, only more modern composers will incorporate this type of pedaling in their music, but you can see how it works here. 

Sometimes, though, this pedal has a different function. Sometimes, it is a bass sustain pedal, which will only sustain the bass notes. This is pretty useful if you have long, sustained bass notes with a faster-moving melody line overtop. 

Lastly, your middle pedal might be a practice pedal. You’ll be able to tell if it has a slight notch in the cabinet to the left of the pedal. You can press the pedal down and slide it into the little notch to ‘lock’ the keys in practice mode. This produces a softer, muted tone so that you can practice quietly without having to hold the una corda pedal down the entire time you are playing.

Final Thoughts: Practice Using Each Pedal Until It Becomes Second Nature

Each pedal on the piano has its own purpose, depending on the type of piano or keyboard that you have. 

  • Sustain or Damper Pedal, located on the right, which sustains all of the notes played for as long as the pedal is depressed
  • Una Corda Pedal, located on the left, softens the volume of the piano 
  • The optional Sustenuto, Bass sustain, or practice pedal is located in the middle. which either sustains some of the notes or locks the piano into a quieter, practice mode

Now that you know what each pedal does or can do, you can incorporate pedaling into your playing. Have fun changing the sounds and tones of your piano or keyboard by using any or all of the pedals. Keep practicing until using the pedals becomes second nature. Pedal carefully or put the pedal to the metal – whichever you think sounds the best! 

Written By:
If anyone knows a thing or two about pianos, it's Leslie. Having played piano for the past 25 years and teaching for the past 15 years, she has vast experience compared to most. She loves to share her honest opinions about the brands and manufacturers in the industry. In her free time, Leslie loves to play with her dogs and go on hikes.

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