Pianos have had pedals, or some close equivalent, since the earliest days. [In the 18th century, some pianos used levers pressed upward by the player’s knee instead of pedals.] My Dad used to play organ in church and used the swell pedals with his knees, and his right foot on a volume pedal, or in a very early organ, he had to pump air through the reeds with both feet – hard work. Piano pedals from left to right are:- Soft, Sostenuto, and Sustain pedals.
The sustain or damper pedal, which is on the right, is used to raise the dampers above the strings,allowing a more sustained sound and helps with a more legato or smooth style of playing – but beware of holding it down for too long as the notes will all sound simultaneously and a hideous blurring sound will result. By lifting the dampers from all keys, it alters the overall tone quality by allowing all strings, even the ones not directly played, to vibrate sympathetically.
SOFT PEDAL Grand Pianos
The soft pedal or una corda pedal is placed to the left in the row of pedals. In grand pianos it shifts the entire action/keyboard assembly to the right so that the hammers hit two of the three strings for each note.The earliest pianos were built with two strings rather than three, the action shifted so that hammers hit a single string, hence the name una corda, or ‘one string’. The effect is to soften the note as well as change the tone..
SOFT PEDAL Upright Pianos
In uprights, the action of moving the action sideways is not possible, so instead the pedal moves the hammers closer to the strings, allowing the hammers to strike with less kinetic energy. This produces a slightly softer sound, but no change in timbre.
THE MIDDLE PEDAL Grand Pianos
On grand pianos, the middle pedal is a sostenuto pedal. This pedal keeps raised any damper already raised at the moment the pedal is depressed. This makes it possible to sustain selected notes [by depressing the sostenuto pedal before those notes are released] while the player’s hands are free to play additional notes [which aren’t sustained]. This can be useful for musical passages with pedal points.
THE MIDDLE PEDAL Upright Pianos
On many upright pianos, there is a middle pedal called the “practice” or celeste pedal. This drops a piece of felt between the hammers and strings, greatly muting the sounds. Often this pedal can be shifted sideways while depressed, into a “locking” position. Our old 1896 Thiirmer did not have a practice pedal to reduce the volume of music while I was practicing, so as a way of keeping our family sane, I covered as much of it as I could with blankets – even had a blanket draped behind to reduce the volume from the soundboard.
In Europe, the standard for grand pianos is two pedals: the soft pedal and the sustain pedal, and in the US three pedals: the soft pedal, sostenuto, and sustain pedal. Most modern upright pianos also have three pedals: soft pedal, practice pedal and sustain pedal, though older or cheaper models may lack the practice pedal. Again, in Europe the standard for upright pianos is two pedals: the soft and the sustain pedals. Strangely enough, my Yamaha C3 grand piano has two pedals, and the C3 at the club where I work has three !
NON STANDARD Pedals
On some pianos the middle pedal can be a bass sustain pedal: that is, when it is depressed, the dampers lift off the strings only in the bass section. Players use this pedal to sustain a single bass note or chord over many bars, while playing the melody in the treble section. On the ” Aussie ” Stuart and Sons Piano as well as the largest Italian Fazioli Grand Piano, there is a fourth pedal to the left of the principal three. This fourth pedal moves the hammers closer to the strings, and works in the same way as the soft pedal of an upright piano.