Mysteries of the sustain pedal

“The more I play, the more I am convinced the pedal is the soul of the pianoforte!”

Arthur Rubinstein

“….abusing the pedal is only a means of covering up a lack of technique, and that making a lot of noise is a way to drown the music you’re slaughtering!”

Claude Debussy

Piano dampers and strings

Pedaling is an aspect of piano technique which is frequently misunderstood and abused. Ask a junior student what the right hand pedal is for and they will invariably reply “to make the piano louder”. The right hand pedal is often wrongly called “the loud pedal”, or is regarded as an “on-off switch”, which shows a complete lack of understanding of the purpose and uses of the “sustain” or “damper” pedal. Pedaling is hard to do well, and I regularly come across instances of sloppy, lazy or misjudged pedaling when I am reviewing at professional concerts.

The sustain pedal has two principal purposes:

1. Allowing the sound to continue even after we release the keys;

2. Changing the timbre of the sound, making it deeper, warmer, more intense, more ‘alive’.

In order to pedal well, it is important to understand what is happening, mechanically, inside the piano, and to engage the ears so that they are alert to all the subtle sounds and variations the pedal can produce. When the pedal is depressed, all the dampers are lifted off the strings so that they can continue to vibrate and sound after a note on the keyboard has been released. The effect of the vibrations is to create a fuller, warmer and more intense sound. When I demonstrate this to students, I play a C-major chord without the pedal, and then play the chord again with the pedal. A student who is listening carefully will notice the cloud or “bloom” of sound which seems to rise from the piano (as opposed to just saying “it sounds louder”). This bloom of sound is the result of ‘sympathetic vibrations’, and will mostly be pitches related to the principal note. Since the resonance of the entire instrument is called into play when the dampers are lifted off the strings, the chief effect of the damper pedal is a change in the sound quality of the piano. And this, I think, is the key point to remember – that the damper pedal is about quality of sound, rather than volume of sound

The point when the pedal is depressed can have a particular effect on the sound of the piano. For example, when the pedal is depressed before the note is struck, all strings are available to resonate, and the sound will have a richness from the beginning. While it is held down, the pedal accumulates sound with each additional note struck. This property can be used to create or enhance a crescendo, particularly in a context of more rapid notes where little pedal is being used. Conversely, by lifting the pedal slowly, there is a gradual decrease in the sound, which creates a diminuendo.

There are also degrees of pedal, such as half, quarter or even eighth pedal. This technique of pedaling is particularly useful in Mozart, or during runs and passagework, where it gives substance to the tone without blurring the sounds. For example, in Schubert’s E flat Impromptu from the D899 set, I use one-eighth pedal throughout the rapid triplet runs to provide depth without losing clarity: we want to hear every single note, but we don’t want the music to sound too dry.

Every piano is different and so it is important to experiment – and listen carefully: special colours and immediacy of effect can be achieved by synchronising pedal changes with finger attack, while pedaling before playing can soften the opening of a phrase. Pedal use is also determined by the size and location of the instrument.

Experienced pianists use the pedal instinctively. I often get ticked off by cheeky students for pedaling music which has no pedal markings. This usually prompts a discussion on the use of the pedal to create certain effects, and how pedal markings are written into the score. Good pedal technique is based on experience, careful listening, and thoughtful practice.

Legato pedal

Legato pedaling, in its simplest form, is the act of joining two otherwise unconnected notes or chords together. Logically this can only happen when the sound of the first note/chord stops and the sound of the second note/chord begins at the same time. To achieve this, the pedal must come up exactly at the point at which the next chord sounds. Where it then goes down is a matter of judgement to do with the type of musical context or the effect desired, speed of the passage etc.

Here is a simple but effective exercise, easily comprehensible for junior piano students, to practice good legato pedaling.

Practice this exercise by depressing the pedal on the 2nd beat of each bar and bringing it up exactly on the downbeat of the next new chord. Legato pedaling makes use of coordination opposites: in other words, the foot releases the pedal exactly when the hand goes down. The pedal then goes down again without being snatched and rushed at some point after the first beat.

(source: E-MusicMaestro)

And how not to do it:

(source: E-MusicMaestro)

Download the complete legato pedalling exercise

Pedal markings

Ped and * marks are often placed inaccurately, which can make interpretation of the composer’s intentions regarding pedaling confusing. For example, the Ped…….* pedal markings in Chopin are often misleading, and should not be interpreted literally: it is more likely that Chopin intended continuous use of the sustain pedal, and that this type of pedal marking would be more accurate: __/\_/\__ (etc.).

It is said that Chopin “used the pedals with marvelous discretion,” (Auguste Marmontel, Debussy’s teacher and a former student of Chopin), and Chopin himself declared that “The correct employment of the pedal remains a study for life.”

When writing a legato pedaling scheme onto music for both my students and myself, I tend to use this marking __/\_/\__, rather than the more traditional Ped…….*, simply because it’s clearer, the “peaks” indicating when the pedal should be lifted and depressed.

Direct, finger and “dirty” pedalling

Direct pedaling is where the pedal goes down exactly as the hands do. The style of the music will influence how the pedal is used: for example,  in classical repertoire, a direct pedal, corresponding with the hands, can often be applied to two-note slurs, sfzorzandi, and cadential chords without distorting articulation and phrasing. “Finger pedaling” should be considered with Alberti bass figures.

“Dirty” pedaling requires acute listening skills and is appropriate when a more misty sound and colour are desired, or when the texture needs to be thinned out gradually. Lift the pedal very slowly. I have found this technique particularly useful in Liszt when the composer designates a smorzando with a diminuendo.

Debussy and the sustain pedal

Pedaling was – and is! – very important in the playing of Debussy’s piano music, though Debussy almost never marked pedaling on the score. Where he does, it should be observed carefully. Too many pianists, professional and amateur, believe that the pedal in Debussy is used to create the famous “impressionistic blur” so often associated with his music. In fact, “he wanted the pedal used in long harmonic strokes, without breaks or confusion. Occasionally he allowed the pedal to encroach a tiny fraction from one harmony into the next………….. In any case, the blur should be used only for special effects, and with utmost discretion.” [Nichols]

Debussy’s works often imply the use of pedal, because he writes bass notes that cannot be sustained without the help of the pedal. At the same time there are often chord changes that require the pedal to be lifted in order to avoid blurring. Techniques such as half-pedal and “dirty” pedal can be used to create satisfying effects in his piano music.

4 thoughts on “Mysteries of the sustain pedal”

  1. Great article Fran. It’s amazing how hard legato pedalling is for students learning it the first time. I teach it in exactly the same way as you with held chords until they get the idea of pedalling AFTER they’ve played the new chord. With focus and a week of practice, most of them seem to get it!

    I also note a comment from another reader above about digitals. I’m finding most new digital pianos are just as good at pedals as acoustics. Manufacturers have finally realized its importance in playing. My fp7f can do everything a grand piano can do (which is more than I can say for my upright!!) and feels and sounds completely authentic. Kudos to Roland!

  2. As ever, Fran’s teaching here is to the point, easy to follow, accurate and helpful. I am just discovering, after taking up piano seriously in middle age, that a digital piano falls very short in this area. No sympathetic vibrations occur with a digital damper pedal and this ‘bloom’ of sound is wholly missing. I had no idea about 1/8th pedalling! I would be interested to know what others think about pedalling with Bach. I am very familiar with the dictum that one shouldn’t pedal Bach and won’t do it in my exams, but at home I love to play Bach with loads of pedal.

    1. Thanks, Ian. There are purists who think it’s sacrilegious to pedal Bach – and there are the rest of us who think it’s acceptable within the bounds of taste & appropriateness. I’d say a little (1/8th) to add depth & colour & sometimes to assist in legato playing. It must never interfere with the voices & interior architecture of his writing though…..

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