Pedal keyboard

Pedal keyboard
The 30-note pedalboard of a Rieger organ.

A pedalboard (also called a pedal keyboard, pedal clavier, or, with electronic instruments, a bass pedalboard[1]) is a keyboard played with the feet that is usually used to produce the low-pitched bass line of a piece of music. A pedalboard has long, narrow lever-style keys laid out in the same semitone scalar pattern as a manual keyboard, with longer keys for C, D, E, F, G, A and B, and shorter, higher keys for C#, D#, F#, G# and A#. Training in pedal technique is part of standard organ pedagogy in church music and art music.

Pedalboards are found at the base of the console of most pipe organs, theatre organs, and electronic organs. Standalone pedalboards such as the 1970s-era Moog Taurus bass pedals are occasionally used in progressive rock and fusion music. In the 21st century, MIDI pedalboard controllers are used with synthesizers, electronic Hammond-style organs, and with digital pipe organs. Pedalboards are also used with pedal pianos and with some harpsichords, clavichords, and carillons (church bells).



13th century to 16th century

The first use of pedals on a pipe organ grew out of the need to hold bass drone notes, to support the polyphonic musical styles that predominated in the Renaissance. Indeed, the term pedal point, which refers to a prolonged bass tone under changing upper harmonies, derives from the use of the organ pedalboard to hold sustained bass notes.[2] These earliest pedals were wooden stubs nicknamed "mushrooms"[3][4] which were placed at the height of the feet. These pedals, which used simple pulldowns connected directly to the manual keys, are found in organs dating to the 13th century. The pedals on French organs were composed of short stubs of wood projecting out of the floor which were mounted in pedalboards that could be either flat or tilted. Organists were unable to play anything but simple bass lines or slow-moving plainsong melodies on these short stub-type pedals. Organist E. Power Biggs, in the liner notes for his album Organs of Spain noted that "One can learn to play them, but fluent pedal work is impossible".

A diagram of one type of "short octave" as used on a manual keyboard; while this exact layout was not used on pedalboards, it shows the different note layouts that were used on some instruments

There were two approaches used for the accidental notes (colloquially referred to as the "black" notes). The first approach can be seen in the 1361 Halberstadt organ, which uses shorter black keys which are placed above the white keys. Other organs positioned the black keys on the same level and depth as the white keys. The first pedal keyboards only had three or four notes.[3] Eventually, organ designers augmented this range by using eight notes, an approach now called a "short octave" keyboard, because it does not include accidental notes such as C#, D#, F#, G#, and A#.[3] The 17th-century north German organ builder Arp Schnitger used an F# and G# in the lowest octave of the manuals and pedal keyboards, but not a C# and D# . From the 16th to 18th centuries, short octave keyboards were also used in the lowest octave of upper manual keyboards.

By the 14th century, organ designers were building separate windchests for the pedal division, to supply the pipes with the large amount of wind that bass notes need to speak. These windchests were often built into tall structures called "organ towers." Until the 15th century, most pedal keyboards only triggered the existing Hauptwerk pipes already used by the upper manual keyboards. Beginning in the 15th century, some organ designers began giving pedal keyboards their own set of pipes and stops. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the pedal division usually consisted of a few 8' ranks and a single 16' rank. By the early 17th century, pedal divisions became more complex, with a richer variety of pipes and tones. Nevertheless, the pedal division was usually inconsistent from one country to another.

17th century to 18th century

This 1609 organ shows the short, button-style pedals of early pedal setups

By the beginning of the 17th century, organ designers began to give pedalboards on large organs a larger range, encompassing twenty-eight to thirty notes. As well, German organ designers began to use longer, narrower pedals, with a wider space between the pedals. By this point, most pedals were given a smoother lever-action by including a fulcrum at the back of each pedal. These design changes allowed performers to play more complex, fast-moving pedal lines. This gave rise to the dramatic pedal solos found in German organ works from composers from the Lutheran Organ School, such as J.S. Bach. In Bach's organ music the cantus firmus melody, which is usually a hymn tune, is often performed in the pedal, using a reed stop to make it stand out.

Several sources, including an encyclopedia on the organ, claim that the pedalboard design improvements of the 17th century allowed the organist to actuate the pedals either with the toe of the foot or with the heel.[3] However, organist Ton Koopman argues that "Bach's complete oeuvre [can be played] with the pedal technique of his time, in other words without the use of the heel." Koopman claims that in "Bach's day toe and heel pedalling was not yet known, as is evident from his organ works, in which all the pedal parts can be played with the toe."[5] Interestingly, what evolved as "German" pedal technique in the late eighteenth and early 19th century promoted heel-and-toe pedaling, while the "French" style was predicated on "toe only" pedal technique.

This 1776 diagram depicts the setup of the manuals and pedal keyboard

In the 17th century and 18th century, pedalboards were rare in England. A critic for the New York Times in 1895 argued that this may explain why Handel's published organ works are generally lighter-sounding than those of J.S. Bach.[6] In the 17th and 18th centuries, the pedal part of organ music was rarely given its own staff. Instead, the organ part would be put into two staves, which were mostly used for the upper and lower manual parts. When the composer wanted a part to be played with the pedal keyboard, they marked "Pedal", "Ped.", or simply "P". Often these signs were omitted entirely, and the player would have to decide if the range of all the parts or the lowest part was appropriate for the pedal keyboard.[7] This lack of specification is in keeping with many other aspects of Baroque musical performance practice, such as the use of improvised chords by organists and harpsichord players in the figured bass tradition and the use of improvised ornaments by solo singers and instrumentalists.

19th century to 20th century

In the late 1820s, the pedalboard was still fairly unfamiliar in the UK. In the organ at the Church of St James at Bermondsey in 1829, "a finger [manual] keyboard was added for those unable to play with their feet." If an organist was performing a piece with a pedal part, "an assistant was needed to play the bottom line of the finger keyboard, offset on the bass side of the console." [8] In 1855 in England, Henry Willis patented a concave design for the pedalboard which also radiated the ends keyboard outward and used longer keys, bringing the end keys closer to the performer. This design became widely used in the UK and in the US in the late 19th century, and by 1903, the American Guild of Organists (AGO) adopted it as their standard.

In the 19th century and early 20th century, the pedal division also underwent changes. The pedal divisions from the Baroque era had tended to include a small number of upper pedal stops, which allowed performers to perform higher-range melodies with the pedalboard. In the 19th century and early 20th century, organ designers removed most of the upper pedal stops, and used pedal divisions which were dominated by 8' and 16' stops. This design change, which coincided with the musical trend for music with a deep, rich bass part, meant that the pedalboard was used mainly for the performance of bass parts.

By the mid-19th century, the pedal part of organ music was increasingly given its own staff, which meant that organ music began being printed in three-stave systems (upper manual, lower manual, and pedal keyboard).[7] Whereas early organ composers left the way that pedal keyboard lines were played to the discretion of the player, in the later 19th century, composers began indicating suggested foot usage.

In addition to indicating whether the left or right foot should be used, symbols indicate whether the toe or heel of the foot should be used. The toe is indicated with a "^" symbol, while the heel is indicated with a "u" or "o" symbol. Symbols below notes call for the left foot, while symbols above notes indicate the right foot.

Swedish organist L. Nilson published a method for the pedal keyboard, the English translation of which was titled A System of Technical Studies in Pedal Playing for the Organ (Schirmer, 1904). Nilson lamented that it " a melancholy fact that only very few eminent organists since Bach's time have made it their business to lift pedal-playing out of its primitive confusion..." (page 1 of Preface). He argued that the great organ pedagogues such as Kittel and Abbe Vogler did not make any efforts to improve the "...system of playing on the pedals". Nilson makes one exception from this critique: the organ method of J. Lemmens, who he praises as having reformed pedal playing by introducing "...sound principles of execution" (page 2 of Preface). Nilson's pedal method includes scale and arpeggio studies, polyphonic studies with both feet playing in contrary motion, studies written in parallel octaves, and studies written in thirds.


In the 1990s, standalone electronic MIDI controller pedalboards became widely available on the market. MIDI pedalboards do not produce any tones by themselves, and so they must be connected to a MIDI-compatible electronic keyboard or MIDI sequencer and an amplified loudspeaker to produce musical tones. In the 1990s and 21st century, some churches[which?] began using electronic-trigger equipped pedalboards for the 16' and 32' stops. The MIDI information from the electronic pedalboard sensors triggers pipe organ sounds from digital sound modules (e.g., Wicks CM-100, Ahlborn Archive Modules, or Walker Technical sound generation)[citation needed], which are then amplified and fed through loudspeakers.

These MIDI systems can be much less expensive than metal or wooden bass pipes, which are very costly to purchase and install, due to their heavy weight (up to one ton per pipe), large size, and need for large amounts of wind. Another rationale for using MIDI systems is that it may be easier to get a focused sound with a MIDI system, because all of the bass tone emanates from a single speaker or set of speakers. With traditional pipes, it can be difficult to give the pedal division a focused sound, because the large pipes tend to be spread out over the entire organ pipe chest.

This cost-saving measure has been the subject of controversy in the organ scene. Advocates of the use of MIDI pedal divisions[who?] argue that a good quality MIDI system will produce a better tone than an inexpensive set of bass pipes with money-saving "shortcuts" such as using stopped pipes and resultant tones to reduce the number of pipes that are needed. However, critics[who?] dislike the way that the use of MIDI pedal divisions blends electronically amplified lower voices with the natural, wind-driven upper ranks. Willi Apel and Peter Williams argue that by definition, an organ must make its sound by air flowing through pipes. Some critics[who?] argue that the bass tone from a MIDI pedal division, which comes from an amplified 12" subwoofer, is not as "natural" and "open-sounding" as the vibrations from a massive, wind-driven 32-foot pipe.



Pedalboards range in size from 13 notes on small spinet organs designed for in-home use (an octave, conventionally C2-C3) to 32 notes (two and a half octaves, C2-G4) on church or concert organs. Modern pipe organs typically have 30- or 32-note pedalboards, while some electronic organs and many older pipe organs have 25-note pedalboards.

Besides the number of pedals, the two main identifying aspects of a pedalboard are: (1) whether all the pedals are at the same height relative to the floor ["flat"], or whether the pedals in the middle are lower than those on the outer edges, forming a curved-in shape ["concave"], and (2) whether all the pedals are completely parallel to each other ["parallel"], or whether the pedals are closer together at the far end than at the end closest to the organ console ["radiating"]. Specifications vary by country, organ builder, era, and individual tastes.

Exact design specifications for pedalboards are published in Great Britain by the RCO, in the United States by the AGO (which requires a design similar to the RCO's), and in Germany by the BDO (which allows both 30- and 32-note pedalboards, of both concave/radiating and concave/parallel varieties).

Pedal division

In an organ with more than one keyboard, the stops and the ranks that the stops control are separated into different divisions, in which the ranks of pipes are grouped together so that they will make a "focused" or coherent sound. The pedal division, which is played from the pedal keyboard, usually includes more stops of 16' pitch. The sound of the pedal division is generally voiced so that the pedal division will complement the sound of the Great division. Common 16' stops found in the pedal division include the 16' Bourdon, the 16' Principal, and the 16' Trombone. Eight foot stops include the 8' Open Diapason. Pedal divisions may also include higher-register stops, such as the 4' Choral Bass or various mixtures. When pedal parts are performed, a 16' stop is usually paired with an 8' one to provide more definition. For pedal parts that need accentuation, such as the Cantus Firmus melody in a 17th century organ piece, many organs have a nasal-sounding reed stop in the pedal division, or a 4' Principal designated on the stop knob as "Choralbass".

A small number of pedalboards have a pedal divide system which enables the organist to split the pedal board at its mid-point. With this system, an organist can play a melody with the right foot and a bass part with the left foot.[9]


In some organs, a wooden panel called a "kickboard" or "kneeboard" is installed above the pedalboard, between the pedals and the lowest manual keyboard. Expression pedals, coupler controls and toe studs (to activate stops or stop combinations) may be located on or set into the kickboard. Expression pedals are used to open and close shades or shutters that enclose the pipes of a given division. Combination pistons are used to make rapid stop changes from the console on organs with electric stop action. Toe studs are pistons that can be operated by the feet which change either the pedal stops or the entire organ.

In some organs, a "pedalboard check" mechanism is used as a safety catch, to shut off the pedalboard keys when it is engaged. The mechanism prevents the pedalboard notes from being accidentally sounded during a part of a performance which is only written for the upper manuals.

This photo of a BDO pedalboard shows the variety of other controls that are positioned near the pedalboard, including foot pistons and expression pedals.


The works of Dutch composer, organist, and pedagogue Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562–1621) contain the earliest example of an independent part for the pedal, rather than a sustained bass drone. His work straddled the end of the Renaissance and beginning of the Baroque eras, and he helped establish the north German organ tradition.

Dieterich Buxtehude (1637–1707), who was the most renowned composer of his time, was famous for his "virtuosity and innovation at the pedal board." The young Johann Sebastian Bach was influenced by Buxtehude, who used the pedal board "as a full-fledged keyboard and devot[ed] virtuoso passages to it."[10] J.S. Bach used the pedal to perform the melody in works such as his setting of the Christmas hymn, In Dulci Jubilo, in which the main theme in the tenor voice is played in the pedal on a higher-pitched stop. Bach also wrote compositions that use the pedal for dramatic virtuoso displays of scales and figurated passage-work in preludes, toccatas, fantasias and fugues.

There are a small number of organ compositions that are written solely for the pedal keyboard. English organist and composer George Thalben-Ball (1896–1987) wrote a piece entitled “Variations on a Theme by Paganini” for pedal keyboard. Based on Paganini's “Caprice No. 24”, a virtuoso work for solo violin, it includes pedal glissandi, leaps from one end of the pedalboard to the other, and four-note chords.[11]

Firmin Swinnen (1885–1972) was a Belgian organist who became famous in the US in the 1920s for his theater organ improvisations during silent films. Swinnen wrote a pedal cadenza for an arrangement of Widor's Fifth Symphony. The cadenza was published separately by The American Organist. The publisher promoted the cadenza it as the "most daring, the most musical Pedal Cadenza obtainable"; this praise is corroborated by reviewers who were at the performance, who remarked at the complex footwork required by the work.[12] The symphony was performed 29 times during the week of its premiere, to "...literally screaming audiences...who had never seen such a sight as an organist up on a lift [platform] in the spotlight playing with his feet alone".[13]

Although the pedalboard is most frequently used for the bass part, composers from the 17th century to the present have often used it for higher parts as well. In his serene Le Banquet Céleste Olivier Messiaen places the tune, registered for 4' flute (and higher mutation ranks), in the pedals.

From the early 20th century composers have increasingly demanded an advanced pedal technique at the organ. Performers display their virtuosity in such works as Wilhelm Middelschulte's Perpetuum mobile, Leo Sowerby's Pageant (1931), and Jeanne Demessieux's Six études, Op. 5 (1944), which recall the dramatic organ pedal solos of the Baroque era.

Use on instruments other than organs

Pedal harpsichord

Peter Watchorn pedal harpsichord.jpg

Pedal keyboards were developed for the clavichord and harpsichords during the Baroque era so that organists could practise the pedal parts of their organ repertoire when they had no-one available to work the bellows for a church organ or, in the wintertime, to avoid having to practice on a church organ in an unheated church. Johann Sebastian Bach owned a pedal harpsichord and his organ trio sonatas BWV 525-530, Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582, Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565, and other works sound well when played on the instrument.

Pedal piano

An upright pedal piano

The pedal piano (or pedalier piano)[14] is a kind of piano that includes a pedalboard[15] There are two types of pedal piano: the pedal board may be an integral part of the instrument, using the same strings and mechanism as the manual keyboard, or, less frequently, it may consist of two independent pianos (each with its separate mechanics and strings) which are placed one above the other, a regular piano played by the hands and a bass-register piano played by the feet. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart owned a fortepiano with independent pedals, built for him in 1785. Robert Schumann had an upright pedal piano; his pedal keyboard had 29 notes. In the 21st century, pedal pianos are made in the Borgato workshop in Italy. The bass pedalboard has 37 notes (rather than the standard 30 or 32 on an organ).


Some large carillon systems for playing church bells include a pedalboard for playing the lowest-pitched bells. Carillon pedal keys activate a pull-down coupler which visibly moves the keys of the manual clavier and heavy clappers for the largest bells. These keys resemble the "button keys" of very early organs, and are played only by the player's toes. Because this non-legato technique involves no sliding, shoes with leather soles are not required.

Carillon keyboard for playing church bells; the pedals play the lowest-pitched bells.

In non-Classical music

Jazz organ

After jazz organist Jimmy Smith popularized the Hammond organ in jazz in the 1950s, many jazz pianists "... who thought that getting organ-ized would be a snap ..." realized that the Hammond "... B-3 required not only a strong left hand, but studied coordination on the foot pedals to create the strong and solid "jazz bass" feel."[16] Jazz organists from more recent decades[who?] typically perform the bass line with their left hand on one of the keyboards, rather than by using the pedalboard. Organists who play the bassline on the lower manual may do short taps on the bass pedals – often on the tonic of a tune's key and in the lowest register of the pedalboard – to simulate the low, resonant sound of a plucked upright bass string.

In popular music, the pedaling style may be more varied and idiosyncratic, in part because jazz or pop organists may be self-taught. As well, the pedaling styles may differ due to the design of electromechanical organs and spinet organs, many of which have shorter pedalboards that are designed to be played primarily with the left foot, so that the right foot can control a volume (swell) pedal.

This Hammond spinet organ shows the relatively short pedals and 13-note range used on spinet organs

Rock and Fusion

In the 1970s, some progressive rock groups such as Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Atomic Rooster and Rush used standalone Moog Taurus bass pedalboards. Other groups, such as Led Zeppelin and Van Der Graaf Generator used the bass pedals of the Hammond Organ in place of a bass guitar for several of their recordings, and for live performances.

Other users included metal and hard rock bands such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Styx, and Francis Buchholz of the Scorpions, and Justin Harris of Menomena. Ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett had a set mounted waist high which his brother, John Hackett, used to play with his hands for the intro of Clocks - The Angel Of Mons from the album Spectral Mornings. Adam Jones of Tool uses the Moog Taurus along with an Access Virus B synth to trigger live effects. The keyboardist for the rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer took this idea to its logical conclusion by performing all of the first movement, and part of the second of The Three Fates on the organ of Royal Festival Hall in London.

A 1970s-era Moog Taurus synth

As well, some pop groups (e.g., The Police, Muse, U2) and fusion bands have used bass pedalboards to produce sounds in the bass range. They are most commonly used by keyboard players as an adjunct to keyboards, but can be played in combination with other instruments (e.g., by the bass guitar or electric guitar player), or by themselves.

Standalone pedalboards usually have a 13-note range and short pedals, which limits the types of basslines which can be performed to fairly simple passages. If the group's bass guitarist or electric guitarist is playing the pedalboard from a standing position, they could only use one foot at a time to play, which would further limit the types of passages which could be performed. The BASYN analog bass synthesizer is a 2 VCO analog synthesizer which uses a 13-note "button board". Instead of using organ pedalboard-style pedals, the player depresses momentary pushbutton switches. Another variant used in rock bands is a bass pedalboard in which the keyboard is laid out as a tabulature representation of part of the four strings of an electric bass guitar.

MIDI and synthesizer pedalboards

In the 1990s, standalone electronic MIDI controller pedalboards became widely available. Unlike the Moog Taurus pedalboards, MIDI pedalboards do not produce any tones by themselves; they must be connected to a MIDI-compatible electronic keyboard or MIDI sequencer to produce musical tones. In jazz organ trios, a keyboardist using this type of pedalboard will usually connect it to a MIDI-compatible electronic Hammond organ-style keyboard. On modern electronic synthesizers such as the Yamaha Electone, the pedals are not limited to traditional bass notes but may instead produce many different types of sounds, including high-register tones. MIDI pedalboards offer a range of features, depending on the price. Some MIDI pedalboards contain velocity-sensitive triggers, which allows a performer to use dynamics in their performance. MIDI pedalboards such as the 13-note Roland PK-5 include a row of MIDI toe switches above the pedal keyboard, to allow the performer to select preset tones or channels. Larger 25-note Roland pedalboards also include an expression pedal for controlling the volume or other parameters.

Some MIDI pedalboards are designed for the church pipe organ market, which means that they use AGO specifications such as a 32-note range. Most pipe organ-style MIDI pedalboards are too unwieldy for transportation, so they are typically installed under the upper manuals. However, a German company makes a MIDI pedalboard which has a hinge in the middle and wheels on the underside, which allows it to be moved more easily. Since AGO-specification MIDI pedalboards are often priced in between $1000 and $3000 USD, some amateur home organists make DIY MIDI pedalboards by retrofitting an old pedalboard with MIDI. Due to the popularity of theater organs and Hammond organs during the 1950s and 1960s, there are many organ parts on the market, including pedalboards (often with less than 32 notes, such as 20 or 25 notes) which cost under $300 USD. After the pedalboard is cleaned up and the glass reed switches are repaired or replaced, the pedal contacts are soldered into a keyboard matrix circuit-equipped MIDI encoder, which can then be connected to the MIDI input of a digital sound module to create a bass organ tone.[17]

See also


  1. ^ Hammond XPK100 MIDI Bass Pedals
  2. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica. "Pedal point"
  3. ^ a b c d The Organ: An Encyclopedia. Douglas Earl Rush and Richard Kassel
  4. ^ While the term "mushroom" may seem unusual to English speakers, in French, the term "champignon" (mushroom) is also used to refer to pedals, such as the accelerator pedal in a car.
  5. ^ With Heart and Mind - Ton Koopman (
  6. ^ "The Organ in Bach's Time". The New York Times. 1895-05-26. 
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^ The Restoration of the 1829 Organ at St James', Bermondsey, Lodon - Dominic Gwynn
  9. ^ 403 Forbidden
  10. ^ 403 Forbidden
  11. ^ "Olivier Latry Performs on the Spreckels Organ". 2007-07-24.,com_sdca/target,987cf78c-1c94-413c-ac39-c2847939cb95/. Retrieved 2008-05-24. 
  12. ^ 403 Forbidden
  13. ^ Rollin Smith. Stokowski and the Organ. Pendragon Press, 2004.
  14. ^ Logue, Karl (1997). "Images notes". Logue Rhythm Productions. Retrieved 2008-01-24. 
  15. ^ Belt, Philip (1997). The Piano. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 150. ISBN 0-3933-0518-X. 
  16. ^ [1]
  17. ^

External links

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