One of the most common questions we get at Riverton Piano Company is “What do the three pedals do?”  Well, put simply, the function of the pedals is to alter the tone of the piano in some way.

early piano

The first “pedal” wasn’t a pedal at all. It was a damper knob.

In fact, the first piano didn’t have pedals at all.  Part of the reason for this was the first pianos’ lack of sustaining power.  They were essentially harpsichords with unique actions that struck the keys with a felt hammer (much like hammer dulcimers of the day) instead of plucking the strings with a quill.  They had little power, a small dynamic range and very little sustain.  As the piano evolved, however, each of these qualities improved – creating a need for some kind of mute or “dampening” mechanism that would only allow the piano to sustain as desired.  This first mechanism was actually a control knob to the left of the piano keyboard and not a pedal at all.  This knob could be used to lift felt “dampers” (or “mutes”) off of the strings – allowing them to ring freely.  This mechanism would become what we now call the “damper” or “sustain” pedal.  On both uprights and grand pianos, it is the right-most pedal.

Before the pianos had pedals, they had knee levers.

As the “fortepiano” gained popularity, builders tried a variety of new ideas – replacing the “damper” knob with knee levers (which were activated by holding one’s knee up against the bottom of the piano, thus pressing up on the pad and activating the effect).  During this era, some manufacturers had as many as seven levers!  These knee levers could do a variety of things – from allowing all or some of the notes to sustain – to adding effects that mimicked other instruments.

Over time, composers and players alike agreed that some of the effect levers were undesirable or at least unfashionable.  The number of these levers diminished until the late 1770s when English piano builders began to use foot pedals instead of knee levers.  Other builders preferred the knee levers, however, and some pianos even had both foot pedals and knee levers.

Some pianos had up to six or seven pedals.

Then, in 1803, Beethoven received a piano from the French builder, Erard, which had four pedals – a damper pedal, a “una corda” pedal (which shifted the keyboard slightly so the hammers would strike a single strong instead of two or two strings instead of three – thereby removing one note from the chord), a lute stop (which mimicked the sound of a plucked lute by activating mechanisms that pluck the strings) and a moderator for softening the piano’s tone.

Modern grand pianos have three pedals.

As the piano matured and the music for it became more standardized, most of the novelty pedals and effects went away.  Eventually, grand piano builders were content to build pianos with the “standard” three pedals:  the “damper” or “sustain” pedal on the right, the sostenuto pedal (…which only dampens notes played after the pedal is depressed – allowing previous notes to ring.  This creates the illusion of more than two hands on the piano.), and the “una corda” pedal on the left.  Due to the expense of the sostenuto system, some builders have replaced sostenuto with a less expensive bass sustaining mechanism on lower priced grand pianos.

Most upright pianos were designed with two pedals initially – the “sustain” or “damper” pedal on the right and a variation of the “una corda” pedal on the left (On a grand piano the soft pedal actually shifts the entire keyboard to the right about 3/16 of an inch whereas the soft pedal on a vertical piano tilts the action forward  – reducing the hammer impact on the strings and making the tone softer).  As these pianos matured, builders often included a bass sustaining middle pedal in place of the sostenuto.  Today, most vertical pianos feature a “practice pedal” that – when engaged – lowers a piece of felt into the space between the hammers and strings – thus decreasing the piano’s volume significantly.

The “practice pedal” lowers a piece of felt into the space between the hammers and strings – cutting the piano’s volume dramatically.

While few but the very advanced classical music students ever use the “una corda” pedal (and fewer still use the sostenuto pedal), they have remained a staple of modern piano design.  The “sustain” or “damper” pedal, however, is commonly used – beginning in the first year of piano study.  Markings below the music indicate when to depress the pedal and when to release it.  For example, here is the initial part of the song “Für Elise” Lv Beethoven, with markings regarding the use of the “damper” or “sustain” pedal. You can see the place where pedal are marked as “Ped” and released at the end of the horizontal line.

So that’s the piano’s pedals demystified. Don’t forget to share this article with your friends – or use it to wow your piano teacher!