Learning how to use the pedals

I was taught to use the damper pedal for assisting legato playing. And even then I had to figure out some things for myself. What I was never ever taught was how the damper pedal can and should be used for the at least equally important function of tonal colouring. And of course I got zero instruction on the use of the soft pedal.

A few days ago I received two very useful books on pedaling.

The first is The Art of Piano Pedaling. It is a combined reprint of two books – the 1897 book Guide to the Proper Use of the Pianoforte Pedals by Anton Rubinstein, and the 1919 book Possibilities of Tone Color by Artistic Use of Pedals by Teresa Carreño. Rubinstein (not to be confused with the 20th century virtuoso Artur Rubinstein) was probably Liszt’s closest rival, while Carreño was the leading woman pianist of the late 19th century.


The second book is Joseph Banowetz’s book The Pianist’s Guide to Pedaling. This book is especially useful because it expands greatly on the techniques described in the first book.


Although both books appear to be aimed at the advanced pianist I think that a good number of the basic techniques for pedal legato and tone colouring should be taught to piano students from about ABRSM Grade 4 or 5 onwards.

To give an idea of how thorough and (for me) exciting Banowetz’s book is here are the topics and sub-topics covered in Chapter 2, ‘The Right Pedal’.

  • Legato pedaling
    • Legatissimo pedaling
    • Legato pedaling in a low register
    • Lifting the pedal early in legato pedaling
    • Large rolled chords in the left hand
    • Large rolled chords in the right hand
  • Finger pedaling
    • Maintaining an unbroken accompanimental texture
    • Finger pedaling by silently re-depressing notes
    • Finger pedaling indicated by the composer
    • Finger pedaling in Alberti bass figurations
    • Redistributing notes between the hands
    • Harmonic outline
    • Finger pedaling to sound sympathetic partials
  • Pedaling melodic material
    • Pedaling an unaccompanied melody
    • Pedaling a melody with accompaniment
    • Upward-moving melodies with accompaniment
    • Downward moving melodies with accompaniment
    • Diatonically moving melodies with accompaniment
    • Nonharmonic tones in a melody
    • Ornaments in a melody
    • Underplaying nonharmonic tones to minimize blurring
    • Avoiding breaks in a legato melody
    • Connecting a technically awkward passage
    • Connecting a melody played over a large roll
  • Pedaling accompanimental figurations
    • The relationship of melody, accompaniment, and bass line
    • Pedaling with chord inversions
    • Stressing the fundamental bass part
    • Unbroken sonority in accompanimental figuration
  • Pedaling as an aid to phrasing and articulation
    • Using the pedal when phrasing
    • Clarifying a tied note
    • Releasing the pedal slowly at the end of a phrase
    • Pedaling slurs
    • Pedaling a portato touch
    • Pedaling a non-legato touch
    • Pedaling a staccato touch
    • Passages with contrasting articulation
    • Pedaling through articulation indications and rests
  • Using the pedal to project rhythm
    • Pedaling written accents
    • Pedaling to accent a staccto sign
    • Accent pedaling
    • Pedaling unwritten accents
    • Pedal release as a form of accent
    • Pedaling to project a syncopated rhythm
    • Avoiding negative pedaling accents
  • Pedaling and dynamics
    • Swell effects on a single note or chord
    • Forte-piano effects
    • Dampening the sound after a loud chord
    • Pedaling a long crescendo
    • Pedaling a crescendo in a tremolo
    • Pedaling glissandos with crescendos
    • Scale passages with crescendos
    • Pedaling a long descrescendo
    • Anticipatory pedaling after a silence
    • Anticipatory pedaling for unbroken sonority
    • Simultaneous pedaling for richness of tone
    • Sudden drops in dynamic level
    • Echo pedaling
  • Blurring for color and special effects
    • Pedaling whole-tone and pentatonic scales
    • Pedaling cadenza figurations
    • Blurring in ostinato figures
    • Blurring for special mood effects
  • Partial changes of pedal
    • Partial changes with a bass line or pedal point
  • Flutter or vibrato pedaling
    • Using flutter pedaling for color
    • Flutter pedaling to reduce sonority
    • Combining finger and flutter pedaling
  • Partial releases of damper sound
    • Releasing 25 percent of damper sound
    • Releasing 50 percent of damper sound
    • Releasing 75 percent of damper sound
  • Passages without pedal
  • Achieving variety in repetitions
  • The pedal as an attaca device

Ironically, one of the problems with pedaling on the modern piano is that it is far more resonant and has longer sustain than pianos in the Classical and Romantic periods. A lot of the discussion is about how to get legato, resonance, and tonal colour while also controlling the build up of sound.

Chapter 3, “The Middle Pedal” contains the following topics:

  • Holding bass pedal points
  • Avoiding breaks in the melody
  • Contrasting touches during a pedal point
  • Catching notes within chords
  • Breaking the hands to catch a pedal point
  • Holding implied pedal points
  • Anticipatory use of the sostenuto pedal
  • Using the middle pedal to achieve a clear damper pedal change
  • Clarifying a melodic line
  • As a form of finger pedaling
  • Facilitating awkward technical passages
  • Catching and releasing notes by key level
  • Sounding sympathetic partials
  • Special acoustical effects

Chapter 4, “The Left Pedal” covers:

  • Positioning the left foot
  • Written directions for the left pedal
  • Echo effects
  • The left pedal in the middle of a phrase
  • Shaping slurs or phrase endings
  • In accompanied figuration
  • For intensity of tone
  • In transcriptions
  • Using all three pedals simultaneously

These are followed by chapters on using the pedals when playing Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Debussy and Ravel.

The use of the pedals is an art, some of which demands a great deal of skill. Banowetz stresses that ultimately the use of the pedals depends on one’s conception of the music, what one believes to be the composer’s intent, and on personal taste. What is also clear is that the music score has to be examined almost bar by bar in order to figure out how to pedal it, and use whatever is appropriate for the particular piano being used, the acoustics of the room, and your keyboard technique and touch.

Pedant Alert: The modern piano’s soft pedal is often also referred to as the una corda pedal. Strictly speaking this is wrong because una corda means ‘one string’ (in a 3-string unison). On the modern grand piano the soft pedal shifts the action to the right so that a 3-string unison hammer strikes 2 or 2.5 strings. On upright pianos the soft pedal is implemented as a half-blow, where the action is moved closer to the strings so that the hammer travels about half the usual distance.

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