Piano Pedaling

Piano pedaling – how to properly do it

A famous piano teacher once remarked that piano pedaling is seventy-five per cent of good piano playing a pardonable exaggeration if one remembers the number of times one has heard competent keyboard work ruined by a careless right foot. It must in fairness be admitted that the conventional signs for the depression and release of the sustaining pedal are often responsible for the sins of students in this respect. As well as being clumsy, these signs are often incorrectly placed in the process of piano pedaling. This is closely related to an other piano lesson, more exactly with How to play the piano (Part 3/3 – holding and releasing the piano keys)

There is only one reliable guide to correct piano pedaling, and that is the ear. Busoni used to say that, at his concerts, no one in the audience ever listened more carefully than he himself to every sound coming from the piano. In this remark by a very great pianist lies a lesson that none of us dares forget.

In piano playing, listening must be of two kinds:

  1. we must listen with the inner ear with the imagination to our preconceived mental image of the sounds we wish to produce;
  2. and with the physical ear we must, with supreme detachment, listen critically to the sounds we actually achieve.

In some ways this is the most exacting feat demanded of a pianist. It is so difficult to listen with detachment to our own playing. It is so easy, in concentrating upon our mental conception, to let the imagination deceive the ear, and persuade us that the sounds we produce more nearly approach that mental conception than is in fact the case.

Wrong use of the sustaining pedal is rarely attributable to lack of knowledge. The action of this pedal in lifting all the dampers from the strings. Thus allowing the notes played to continue to sound for as long as it is depressed. It is too simple to cause any difficulty. But perhaps one or two illustrations may be helpful.

Chopin a flat

In most editions of waltzes by Chopin and other composers one finds pedal indications like this. And the uncritical student of course puts down the pedal promptly on the first beat of the bar when piano pedaling. But if the right hand melody is played legato,, as it should be, the damper of the D natural will not have time to return to the strings and arrest their vibration before all the dampers including this one are lifted by the pedal. This will produce an unpleasant clashing of D natural against D flat when piano pedaling. In any case, is the use of the pedal really desirable during the first two beats of this bar? It will only obscure the melodic line, and, as far as the left hand is concerned, the fourth or the fifth finger is quite capable of holding down the dotted minim F without its aid, during the playing of the A flat and D flat on the second and third beats. Would it not be much better to pedal the opening bars of the Valse like this?

vals lento

In any form of legato piano pedaling, whether in an example such as that given or in a series of chords (as in Chopin: Prelude in C minor, Op. 28 No. 20) the pedal should be lifted precisely as the new harmony is played, and not depressed again until the sounds forming the previous harmony have ceased. In this way a blur is avoided and legato achieved. In other words, as the keys go down the pedal comes up when piano pedaling.

In piano pedaling staccato notes or chords, on the other hand, as in the following example, the keys and the pedal should go down simultaneously:

Beethoven Sonata in G

This is an instance of the use of the sustaining pedal, not to prolong sounds when the keys cannot be held down by the fingers, but as a means of influencing tone color. When the pedal is depressed, thus raising all the dampers, all the strings of the piano are left free to vibrate in sympathy with those that are struck.

In this way the tone takes on an added richness and fullness that fingers alone are incapable of giving. The use of the pedal in such a passage as this is entirely optional, and it is conceivable that one might prefer the clearer, slightly drier effect of the chords when played with no pedal whatever.

Although the pedal may be used in many cases, as in the following, without causing a clashing of harmonies, it by no means follows that its use is aesthetically justified:

Sonata in D

Music of this period needs to be played with especial clarity, and the pedaling indicated, if used on a modern piano, will produce an effect of sonority appropriate, perhaps, in a passage of similar construction by Chopin or Liszt, but quite wrong for Haydn. This is much better :

Haydn Sonata

To know when not to use the pedal when piano pedaling is sometimes of even more importance than to know when one might use it.

In music of the nineteenth century and later, the pedal really comes into its own. A performance of the following example would be impossible without its use:

Chopin - Nocture in C minor

Here the minim chord (forte) has to be sustained solely by means of the pedal when piano pedaling, whilst the semiquaver octaves are played with a much softer tone. The result is a blur, unthinkable in connection with earlier music, which here gives an effect of sonority. The pedal is raised with the playing of the following chord, so that the discord is immediately resolved.

So much was the use of the pedal taken for granted by Chopin and Ms successors that some sounds, obviously meant to be prolonged, are often written in note-values not greater than, say, a crotchet. In the following example, for instance, the initial chord must be sustained by means of the pedal throughout the ensuing arpeggios:

Chopin - Scherzo in C minor

The resistance of the piano pedal and the amount of its up and down movement vary considerably on different instruments. Students, when playing on an unfamiliar instrument, do not always take these possible differences into account. They often apply just that amount of pressure which they are accustomed to use on their own pianos, with the result that in the case of the sustaining pedal, the dampers may not be adequately lifted. The only way to combat such a tendency is to cultivate the habit of taking the pedal down always as far as it will go, until the foot can push it no further. In releasing the pedal care must be taken that it is allowed to rise completely, otherwise we can never be sure that the dampers will return to the strings in order to cut off unwanted sounds.


Occasionally, as in the following example where a low note has to be sustained during changing harmonies at a higher pitch, the device known as “half-pedaling” should be used:

Debussy - La Cathedrale Engloutie

Half-pedaling does not, as the term might seem to imply, mean taking the pedal half way down. It means that the pedal, having been depressed (in this case immediately after the low C) is allowed to rise about three-quarters of the way as each chord is played, and is very quickly depressed again. (Obviously we need not release the pedal at all until the third minim of the bar, yet it is surprising how many students quite irrationally allow it to rise with the second minim.) By means of this use of the pedal an undue blurring of the upper chords is avoided, while the low C continues to sound.

This device is only available when sounds of a particularly low pitch have to be sustained against harmonies moving above them when piano pedaling. The bass strings of the piano are longer and thicker than the higher ones, and vibrate more slowly; therefore they need a stronger application of the dampers to arrest their vibrations than do the shorter strings of a higher register. A very light touch of the dampers will cut off the higher sounds, while allowing the low-pitched strings to go on sounding.

In music written for the piano at an earlier stage of its development, we sometimes find pedal indications which are known to be authentic but which seem strange in view of our experience of playing a modern piano. Such an example occurs at the beginning of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 37:

Beethoven's Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 37

However great our reverence for Beethoven and this pedal marking is known to have been given by him we cannot obey such an indication literally today. The instruments of Beethoven’s time had much less sustaining power than ours, and to keep the pedal down as indicated when playing this passage on a modern piano would be to produce a most unpleasant muddle of sounds.

The solution in such a case is to change the pedal very quickly with the changing harmonies, so that the veiled effect which is obviously required will be preserved. Similar pedal indications can be found in the last movement of the Waldstein Sonata, Op. 53.

Sometimes when we do the piano pedaling, the piano pedal may be used during rapid scale passages. We have already quoted (page 35) from Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, where a ‘growling* effect is needed. The pedal, used as indicated, will help to produce this. Similar pedaling is required in Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15:

Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15

Liszt was one of the first composers to use the ‘impressionistic’ effects which we associate particularly with Debussy and Ravel. Many passages in his works call for this somewhat exceptional use of the pedal. Consider the following:


Chopin-Lizst 2

Here the prescribed pedaling, provided the passage is played sufficiently piano* is quite possible on a modern instrument; it will give a magical, veiled quality quite unlike that produced by a clearly articulated, Czerny-like execution.

Enough has been said to show the necessity for extreme sensitivity in the use of the sustaining pedal sensitivity, that is, in the exact timing of its descent and release.

Although pedaling can and must be worked out in a general way during practicing, it should never become automatic; we must, at every performance, listen afresh to the sounds we produce and to the way in which we influence them by means of the pedal. Our piano pedaling must, in fact, be capable of some modification according to the response of different instruments and the acoustic properties of different rooms or concert halls.

From the point of view of an experienced performer the ‘instrument’ upon which he plays comprises, in addition to the piano itself, the room or hall in which it is placed. In a very resonant hall, for instance, with a good deal of echo, comparatively little use must be made of the pedal if clear definition is to be obtained. In a ‘dead’ hall (one with little or no resonance) a more lavish use of the pedal will be necessary. Only by experience, and by renewed listening on the occasion of each performance, can we deal satisfactorily with such problems.

And now for a few words on the use of the soft pedal. In the horizontal or grand piano all the hammers, together with the entire keyboard, are moved slightly to the right when the soft pedal is depressed. In this position the hammers strike two strings instead of the three which are tuned to each note in the case of the middle and upper registers, and one string instead of two in the case of notes of lower pitch. The string which is not struck is left free to vibrate sympathetically, and the hammer now touches the other strings with the less used, and therefore softer, part of its felt covering. These two factors result in a remarkable change of tone-quality.

Piano pedaling in an upright piano

In an upright piano the action of the soft pedal is less satisfactory. Usually, the hammers are moved a little nearer to the strings. This gives a softer tone because the hammers now strike the strings with less momentum; but the actual quality of the sound is unchanged. In older upright pianos, one sometimes finds that the depression of the soft pedal causes a strip of felt to be inserted between the hammers and the strings. Certainly a very drastic change of tone-quality results, but the muffled sound is capable of scarcely any gradation.

Piano pedaling in an grand piano

In a grand piano the soft pedal mechanism opens up fascinating possibilities of tonal variation. So much, though, depends upon the tone-quality of individual instruments that it is impossible to give any but the most general suggestions for its use. In pianissimo passages of music written since the beginning of the nineteenth century say from the time of the middle – period sonatas of Beethoven onward – the soft pedal may often be used with good effect. Its use is usually inappropriate in eighteenth and “per-eighteenth century music” where a bright quality of tone is needed even in softer passages; but here, as in most cases, the discretion of the performer and the tone quality of the actual instrument being played are the deciding factors.

When playing on an instrument with a particularly hard or bright tone, the soft pedal may sometimes be used with advantage in the playing of cantabile melodies, even if these need so loud a tone as mezzo-forte. If the resulting tone quality is satisfactory or more satisfactory^than it would be without the soft pedal then the use of this pedal is justified.

Let us repeat that our object in playing the piano is to make music. All the resources of this splendid instrument, the modern grand piano, are at our disposal and for our use in accomplishing this object. The only requirements and the only justification for their use are “that the result the sounds that we produce shall be aesthetically satisfying and artistically appropriate to the music we seek to interpret.

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