How to Use Piano Pedals
The two or three pedals on your piano help make your playing dynamic and interesting. Using the pedals adds to the ways you can dress up your music.
Sustaining the damper pedal
When piano players talk about using the pedal, they usually mean using the damper pedal, which is the one on the right as you sit at a piano. Because the damper pedal allows the notes to sustain after your fingers release the keys, it’s often called the sustain pedal.
Composers use a few different ways to indicate when to put the pedal down, when to lift the pedal, and when to make a quick up-down pedal change. The abbreviation Ped. tells you when to put the pedal down. Keep the pedal down until the asterisk or the end bracket of the pedal line. A notch in the pedal line indicates a pedal change: Lift your foot enough to allow the pedal to clear, and then press the pedal down again.
The best way to learn how to pedal is to just try it out as you play. Although all damper pedals have the same function, each instrument can have its own pedal personality, and just like you adjust to the accelerator and brake system of a car, you have to try out a damper pedal to get a good feel for it.
The most important thing about pedaling is simply not to overuse it. Things can get blurry in a hurry. Listen carefully to the music as you play to hear it as others hear it.
At its most basic function, the damper pedal connects one melody note or chord to the next where there would be a break in the sound without using the pedal.
Use the pedal to help your music sound more smooth (legato), hold a note or a chord for a long time, or give your music a more resonant quality.
When the composer wants you to use the soft pedal, which is on the far left as you sit at the piano, you see the indication una corda. Release it when you see the indication tre corda.
You can use the soft pedal anytime you like, of course, to play quietly or to create a hushed atmosphere or an intimate feeling.
Playing the pedal in the middle
Depending on the kind of piano you’re playing, the middle pedal can have two different functions.
The sostenuto pedal: The traditional grand piano has a pedal that acts like a damper pedal for only the note or notes your fingers are playing when you press the pedal down. For example, you play a big bass note, put the middle pedal down, and then noodle some staccato upper-register filigree, with the bass note sounding throughout thanks to the sostenuto pedal.
The practice pedal: Many upright pianos have a practice pedal in between the soft pedal and the damper pedal. This pedal mutes the strings, allowing you to hear what you play but softening the sound quite a bit. The practice pedal has a notch at the opening where you can lock the pedal into position with your foot as you play with the muted setting.