Piano pedals

Piano pedals

Piano pedals are foot-operated levers at the base of a piano which change the instrument's sound in various ways. Modern pianos usually have three pedals, from left to right, the soft pedal (or una corda), the sostenuto pedal, and the sustaining pedal (or damper pedal). Some pianos omit the sostenuto pedal, or have a middle pedal with a different purpose.

The development of the piano's pedals is an evolution that began from the very earliest days of the piano, and continued through the late nineteenth century. Throughout the years, the piano had as few as one modifying stop, and as many as six or more, before finally arriving at its current configuration of three.

Una corda

The una corda mechanism, invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in 1722, was the first stop invented to modify the piano's sound. The common name many use today for the una corda is the soft pedal, which is not an entirely accurate description of the pedal's function. The una corda primarily modifies timbre and color of the tone, not just the volume of the tone. Siepmann, J. (1996). "The Piano: The Complete Illustrated Guide to the World’s Most Popular Musical Instrument", Hal Leonard & Carlton Books, 17.]

Soon after its invention, the una corda was integrated on pianos of all makers as a standard fixture. Banowetz, J. (1985). "The Pianist’s Guide to Pedaling", Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 5.] On Cristofori’s pianos, the una corda mechanism was operated by a hand stop, not a pedal. The stop was a knob located on the side of the keyboard. When the una corda was activated, the entire action shifted to the right so that the hammers hit one string (una corda) instead of two strings (due corde). Parakilas, J., et al. (1999). "Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano", New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 48.]

Dominic Gill says that when the hammers strike only one string, the piano "produces a softer, more ethereal tone".Gill, D., ed. (1981). "The Book of the Piano", Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 27.]

By the late eighteenth century, piano builders had begun triple stringing the notes on the piano. This change, affecting the una corda’s function, is described by Joseph Banowetz:

The sound of the una corda on early pianos created a larger difference in color and timbre than it does on the modern piano. On the modern piano, the hammers of the treble section hit two strings instead of three. In the case of the bass strings, the hammer normally strikes either one or two strings per note. The lowest bass notes on the piano are a single thicker string. For these notes, the action shifts the hammer so that it strikes the string on a different, lesser-used part of the hammer nose.Williams, J. (2002). "The Piano: An Inspirational Guide to the Piano and Its Place in History", New York: Billboard Books, 45.]

Edwin Good states,

Beethoven took advantage of the ability of his piano to create a wide range of tone color in two of his piano works. In his Piano Concerto No. 4, Beethoven specifies the use of una corda, due corda, and tre corde. He calls for una corda, then "poco a poco due ed allora tutte le corde", gradually two and then all strings, in Sonata Op. 106.

ustaining, or damper pedal

The sustaining pedal is often called "the soul of the piano". The right pedal on the modern piano, it raises all the dampers off the strings so that they can continue to vibrate and sound after a note on the keyboard has been released. This pedal adds much expressivity to piano music, allowing notes to resonate, and certain harmonies and notes to be connected together.

Hand stops

The sustaining, or damper stop, was first controlled by the hand, and was included on some of the earliest pianos ever built. Stops operated by hand were inconvenient for the player, who would have to continue playing with one hand while operating the stop with the other. If this was not possible, an assistant would be used to change the stop, just as organists do even today.Good 1982:48] Johann Zumpe’s square piano, made in London in 1767, had two hand stops located inside the case, which acted as sustaining stops for the bass strings and the treble strings.

Knee levers

The knee lever to replace the hand stop for the damper control was developed in Germany sometime around 1765. According to David Crombie, "virtually all the fortepianos of the last three decades of the eighteenth century were equipped with a knee lever to raise and lower the dampers ... ". Crombie, D. (1995). "Piano: A Photographic History of the World’s Most Celebrated Instrument", San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books, 19.]

Sometime around 1777, Mozart had an opportunity to play a piano built by Johann Stein, who had been an apprentice of Gottfried Silbermann. This piano had knee levers, and Mozart speaks highly of their functionality in a letter: "The machine which you move with the knee is also made better by [Stein] than by others. I scarcely touch it, when off it goes; and as soon as I take my knee the least bit away, you can't hear the slightest after-sound". Bie, O. (1899). "A History of the Pianoforte and Pianoforte Players", London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd, 136.]

The only piano Mozart ever owned was one by Anton Walter, c. 1782-1785. It had two knee levers; the one on the left raised all the dampers, while the one on the right raised only the treble dampers. A moderator stop to produce a softer sound (see Other pedals, below) was located centrally above the keyboard.Williams 2002:35.]

Foot pedals

Although there is some controversy among authorities as to which piano builder was actually the first to employ foot pedals rather than knee levers, one could say that foot pedals are a characteristic first developed by manufacturers in England.Good 1982:62.] James Parakilas states that the damper stop was introduced by Gottfried Silbermann, who was the first German piano builder. Kennedy, Michael. (1980). "The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music", 3rd ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 598.] Parakilas, however, does not specify whether Silbermann’s damper stop was in the form of a hand lever, knee lever, or foot pedal. It is of importance to note here that many successful English piano builders had apprenticed with Silbermann in Germany, and then left for London as a result of the disturbances of the Seven Years War in Saxony. Among those who re-located to England were Johann Zumpe, Americus Backers, and Adam Beyer.Good 1982:40-42.] Americus Backers, Adam Beyer, and John Broadwood, all piano builders in England, are credited as being among the first to incorporate the new feature. Americus Backers' 1772 grand, his only surviving instrument, has what are believed to be original pedals, and is most likely the first piano to use foot pedals rather than knee levers.Williams 2002:21.] A square piano built by Adam Beyer of London in 1777 has a damper pedal, as do pianos built by John Broadwood, ca. 1783.

After their invention, foot pedals did not immediately become the accepted form for piano stops. German and Viennese builders continued to use the knee levers for quite some time after the English were using foot pedals. Knee levers and foot pedals are even used together on the same instrument on a Nannette Streicher grand built in Vienna in 1814. This piano had two knee levers which were Janissary stops for bell and drum, and four foot pedals for una corda, bassoon, dampers, and moderator.Good 1982:79).]

Novelty pedals

In the early years of piano development, many novelty pedals and stops were experimented with before finally settling on the three that now grace the modern piano. Some of these pedals were meant to modify levels of volume, color, or timbre, while others were used for special effects, meant to imitate other instruments. Banowetz speaks of these novelty pedals: "At their worst, these modifications threatened to make the piano into a vulgar musical toy".

Janissary or Janizary pedals

During the late eighteenth century, Europeans developed a love for Turkish band music, and the Turkish music style was an outgrowth of this. According to Good, this was possibly started "when King Augustus the Strong of Poland received the gift of a Turkish military band at some time after 1710".Good 1982:111-112] "Janissary" or "janizary"" refers to the Turkish military band that used instruments including drums, cymbals, and bells, among other loud, cacophonous instruments. Owing to the desire of composers and players to imitate the sounds of the Turkish military marching bands, piano builders began including pedals on their pianos by which snare and bass drums, bells, cymbals, or the triangle could be played by the touch of a pedal while simultaneously playing the keyboard. Dolge, Alfred. (1911). "Pianos and Their Makers: A Comprehensive History of Development of the Piano", New York: Dover Publications, 35.]

Up to six pedals would control all these different sound effects. Alfred Dolge states, "The Janizary pedal, one of the best known of the early pedal devices, added all kinds of rattling noises to the normal piano performance. It could cause a drumstick to strike the underside of the soundboard, ring bells, shake a rattle, and even create the effect of a cymbal crash by hitting several bass strings with a strip of brass foil". Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, from Sonata K. 331, written in 1778, was meant to use these Janissary effects.Crombie 1995:26.]

Other pedals

Among other pedals sometimes found on early pianos are the lute stop, moderator or celeste, bassoon, buff, cembalo, and swell. The lute pedal created a "pizzicato-type sound".Good 1982:74.] The moderator, or celeste mechanism used "a layer of soft cloth or leather ... interposed between hammers and strings to give a sweet, singing and muted quality". According to Good, " [the piece of leather or cloth was] graduated in thickness across its short dimension. The farther down one pushed the pedal, the farther the rail was lowered and the thicker the material through which the hammer struck the strings. With the thicker material, the sound was softer and more muffled. Such a stop was sometimes called a pianissimo stop."Good 1982:110.]

The moderator stop was popular on Viennese pianos, and a similar mechanism is still sometimes fitted on upright pianos today in the form of the practice rail (see Functions of the upright piano's middle and left pedals, below). Joseph Banowetz states that for the bassoon pedal, paper or silk was placed over the bass strings to create "a buzzing noise that listeners of the day felt resembled the sound of the bassoon".Banowetz 1985:5-6.] The buff stop and cembalo stops seem to be similar to each other in method of manipulation and sound produced. The buff ("leather") stop used "a narrow strip of soft leather ... pressed against the strings to give a dry, soft tone of little sustaining power". The cembalo stop pressed leather weights on the strings and modified the sound to make it resemble that of the harpsichord.Banowetz 1985:6] . Johannes Pohlmann used a swell pedal on his pianos to raise and lower the lid of the piano to control the overall volume.Crombie 1995:18-19).] Instead of raising and lowering the lid, the swell was sometimes operated by opening and closing slots in the sides of the piano case.

Often called "the father of the pianoforte", Muzio Clementi was a composer and musician who founded a piano-building company, and was active in the designing of the pianos that his company built. The Clementi piano firm was later renamed Collard and Collard in 1830, two years before Clementi’s death. Clementi added an interesting feature called a harmonic swell.

" [This pedal] introduced a kind of reverberation effect to give the instrument a fuller, richer sound. The effect uses the sympathetic vibrations set up in the untuned non-speaking length of the strings. Here the soundboard is bigger than usual to accommodate a second bridge (the ‘bridge of reverberation’)."Crombie 1995:31.]

The Dolce Campana pedal pianoforte c. 1850, built by Boardman and Gray, New York, demonstrated yet another creative way of modifying the piano's sound. A foot pedal controlled a series of hammers or weights attached to the soundboard that would fall onto an equal number of screws, and created the sound of bells or the harp.Gill 1981:248.]

Beethoven and pedals

Throughout his lifetime, Ludwig van Beethoven owned several different pianos by different makers, all with different pedal configurations. His pianos are fine examples of some experimental and innovative pedal designs of the time. In 1803, the French piano company Erard gave him a grand, " [thought to be] the most advanced French grand piano of the time .... It had ... four pedals, including an una-corda, as well as a damper lift, a lute stop, and a moderator for softening the tone".Williams 2002:36.]

Beethoven’s Broadwood grand, presented as a gift to him from the Broadwood company in 1817, had an una corda pedal and a split damper pedal — one half was the damper for the treble strings, the other was for the bass strings.Crombie 1995:37-38.] In an effort to give Beethoven an instrument loud enough for him to hear when his hearing was failing, Conrad Graf designed an instrument in 1824 especially for Beethoven with quadruple stringing instead of triple. Graf only made three instruments of this nature. David Crombie describes this instrument: "by adding an extra string, Graf attempted to obtain a tone that was richer and more powerful, though it didn’t make the instrument any louder than his Broadwood".Crombie 1995:36.] This extra string would have provided a bigger contrast when applying stops keyboard-shifting stops, because this keyboard shift pedal moved the action from four to two strings. Crombie states, "these provide a much wider control over the character of the sound than is possible on Graf’s usual instruments". This piano had five pedals: a keyboard shift (quad to due corde), bassoon, moderator 1, moderator 2, and dampers.

As a composer and pianist, Beethoven experimented extensively with pedal. His first marking to indicate use of a foot pedal in a score was in his first two piano concertos, in 1795. Earlier than this, Beethoven had called for the use of the knee lever in a sketch from 1790-92; "with the knee" is marked for a series of chords. According to Joseph Banowetz, "This is the earliest-known indication for a damper control in a score".Banowetz 1985:144.] Haydn did not specify its use in a score until 1794. All in all, there are nearly 800 indications for pedal in authentic sources of Beethoven’s compositions, making him by far the first composer to be highly prolific in pedal usage.Banowetz 1985:143-144.]

Pedal piano

Along with the development of the pedals on the piano came the interesting phenomenon of the pedal piano. Some of the early pedal pianos date back to 1815.Banowetz 1985:4.] The pedal piano developed partially in order for organists to be able to practice pedal work away from the organ. In some instances, the pedal piano was actually a special type of piano with a built-in pedal board and a higher keyboard and bench, like an organ. Other times, an independent pedal board and set of strings could be connected to a regular grand piano.

Mozart had a pedalboard made for his piano. His father, Leopold, speaks of this pedalboard in a letter: " [the pedal] stands under the instrument and is about two feet longer and extremely heavy".

Alfred Dolge writes of the pedal mechanisms that his uncle, Louis Schone, constructed for both Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn in 1843.Dolge 1911:191.] Schumann preferred the pedal board to be connected to the upright piano, while Mendelssohn had a pedal mechanism connected to his grand piano. Dolge describes Mendelssohn’s pedal mechanism: "The keyboard for pedaling was placed under the keyboard for manual playing, had 29 notes and was connected with an action placed at the back of the piano where a special soundboard, covered with 29 strings, was built into the case".Dolge 1911:191.]

In addition to using his pedal piano for organ practice, Schumann composed several pieces specifically for the pedal piano. Among these compositions are Six Studies Op. 56, Four Sketches Op. 58, and Six Fugues on Bach Op. 60.Williams 2002:40.] Other composers who used pedal pianos were Mozart, Liszt, and Gounod.Banowetz 1985:3-4.]

The piano, and specifically the pedal mechanism and stops underwent a lot of experimentation during the formative years of the instrument, before finally arriving at the current pedal configuration. Banowetz states, "These and a good number of other novelty pedal mechanisms eventually faded from existence as the piano grew to maturity in the latter part of the nineteenth century, finally leaving as survivors of this torturous evolution only today’s basic three pedals".


The location of foot pedals on the piano was another aspect of pedal development that fluctuated greatly during the evolution of the instrument. Piano builders were quite creative with their pedal placement on pianos, which sometimes gave the instruments a comical look, compared to what we are used to seeing today. The oldest surviving English grand, built by Backers in 1772, and many Broadwood grands had two foot pedals, una corda and damper, which were attached to the legs on the left and right of the keyboard. James Parakilas describes this pedal location as giving the piano a "pigeon-toed look", for they turned in slightly. A table piano built by Jean-Henri Pape in the mid-nineteenth century had pedals on the two front legs of the piano, but unlike those on the Backers and Broadwood, these pedals faced straight in towards each other rather than out. A truly unique design is demonstrated in the "Dog Kennel" piano. It was built by Sebastien Mercer in 1831, and was nicknamed the "Dog Kennel" piano because of its shape.Crombie 1995:42.] Crombie 1995:42.] Under the upright piano where the modern pedals would be located is a semi-circular hollow space where the feet of the player could rest. The una corda and damper pedals are located at the left and right of this space, and face straight in, like the table piano pedals. Eventually during the nineteenth century, pedals were attached to a frame located centrally underneath the piano, to strengthen and stabilize the mechanism. According to Parakilas, this framework on the grand piano "often took the symbolic shape and name of a lyre", and it still carries the name "pedal lyre" today.

ostenuto pedal

The last pedal to be added to the modern grand was the middle pedal, the ‘sostenuto’, which was inspired by the French. By using this pedal, a pianist can sustain selected notes, while other notes remain unaffected. The sostenuto was first shown at the French Industrial Exposition of 1844 in Paris, by Boisselot and Sons, a Marseille company. French piano builders Alexandre François Debain and Claude Montal built sostenuto mechanisms in 1860 and 1862, respectively. These innovative efforts did not immediately catch on with other piano builders. In 1874, Albert Steinway perfected and patented the sostenuto pedal.Williams 2002:26.] He began to advertise it publicly in 1876, and soon the Steinway company was including it on all of their grands and their higher class uprights.

Other American piano builders quickly adopted the sostenuto pedal into their piano design. The sostenuto was never well-received in Europe, however. Even German-made Hamburg Steinways only put the sostenuto on their 9 ft. grands. Today, the sostenuto is on a few more European pianos, but it remains a standard fixture primarily on American-made grands.Good 1982:22.]

The term ‘sostenuto’ is perhaps not the best descriptive term for what this pedal actually does. ‘Sostenuto’ in Italian means "sustaining". This definition alone would make it sound as if the sostenuto pedal accomplishes the same thing as the damper, or "sustaining" pedal. The sostenuto pedal was originally called the "tone-sustaining" pedal. That name would be more accurately descriptive of what the pedal accomplishes.

It is interesting that, of all the pedals that were experimented with on the piano throughout its development, the sostenuto pedal is one that took up permanent residence on the modern grand. Most pianists can go the majority of their playing career without using the pedal; very few compositions actually call for its use. Only a handful of composers, including Debussy, Ravel, Griffes, call for the use of this pedal; the sostenuto still remains the least used pedal of the three on the piano.

Functions of the upright piano's middle and left pedals

It is common to find uprights and even grand pianos that do not have a middle pedal. Even if a piano has a middle pedal, one cannot assume it is a true sostenuto, for there are many other functions a middle pedal can have other than that of sostenuto. Often an upright's middle pedal is another half-blow pedal, like the one on the left, except that the middle pedal will slide into a groove to keep the pedal engaged. Sometimes, the middle pedal may only operate the bass dampers. Good, E. (1982). "Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos: A Technological History From Cristofori to the Modern Concert Grand", Stanford: Stanford University Press, 22.] The middle pedal may sometimes lower a muffler rail of felt between the hammers and the strings to mute and significantly soften the sound, so that one can practice quietly (also known as a "Practice Rail").Crombie 1995:94.] True sostenuto pedals are rare to find on an upright piano, and they are an indication that the piano is a fine, higher-end instrument.

On the modern upright piano, the left pedal is not truly an una corda, because it does not shift the action sideways. This cannot happen because the strings "run at such an oblique angle to the hammers that if the action were moved sideways, the hammer might strike one string of the wrong note". A more accurate term for the left pedal on an upright piano is the half-blow pedal. When the pedal is activated, the hammers move closer to the strings, so that there is less distance for the hammer to swing. This produces a softer sound.

Recent development in pedal configuration

Although the piano and its pedal configuration has been in its current form since the late nineteenth century, there is a possibility that sometime in the future the pedal configuration may change again. In 1987, the Fazioli piano company in Sacile, Italy, designed the longest piano made until this time (10 ft, 2 in.). This piano has four pedals: damper, sostenuto, una corda, and half-blow.


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