The Pedal and its Mysteries

By Edwin H. Pierce

There is no other detail in the art of piano playing, of which there is so little real accurate knowledge, and so many faulty ideas, as in the use of the damper pedal. If proof were needed, even the name by which this pedal is most commonly known – “loud pedal” – is sufficient to show the widespread misapprehension as to its purpose. As a matter of fact, it is somewhat easier to make a horribly loud racket if the pedal is held down, the properly used, the pedal is often quite as necessary in the softest and most delicate effects, while on the other hand, it’s as occur of certain allowed effects in which it cannot well be used at all. In order to appreciate thoroughly the exact operation of the pedal, it is necessary to understand its actual mechanical and acoustic effects. We will consider these under two separate heads.

Mechanical Affects

Open the case of your piano, so that you can watch the action, strike a key in the middle or lower part of the keyboard, and see exactly what happens. At the same time the “hammer” rises to strike the string, a small felt covered object known as the “damper,” (which is been resting tightly on the string), rises from the string and permits it to vibrate. As soon as you let go of the key, the damper falls back on the string, putting it into the tone. Now hold down the pedal, and repeat the operation. You will observe that the pedal causes all the dampers to leave the strings, and that if you keep the pedal down, letting go of the key has no effect whatever on the tone, which will continue to sound until the vibration of the string has exhausted itself. With a high tone, it will create sounding very soon, (and for this reason the very highest tones are not provided with dampers), but with a low tone it may last for several seconds.

The mechanical effect of the pedal, then, is to prolong tones, regardless of the raising of the finger from the key.

In view of this property of the pedal, we make to rules:

  1. The pedal should not be used when a dry, staccato effect is desired.
  2. The pedal must not be used when it would prolong tones which will result in dissonance with those following. Practically applied, this will rule out the use of the pedal in all scale passages, except such as lie very high on the keyboard, but allow its use with broken cord figures, if the pedal can be changes often as a harmony changes.

Acoustic Effect

In a well tuned piano, when the dampers are raised by the pedal, the sounding of any note will not be confined to the string which is actually struck, but will be reinforced by the sympathetic vibration of certain other strings, according to a well-known natural law.

Their sound is somewhat faint, and grows more and more so as we go upwards, yet together they greatly enrich and beautify the ground tone. Is this property of the pedal which gives it the misleading name of “loud” pedal, though the enrichment of tone by these overtones is as pleasing in soft passages as an loud once.

Practical Hints

The conventional sign for the use of the damper pedal is Ped., and the star.

The most valuable uses of the pedal is to prolong and connect into a perfect legato, notes which it is difficult or impossible to connect smoothly by hand.

There was formally a strong tendency, now happily almost obsolete, for piano teachers to slight the proper teaching of the pedal, such councils as they gave were often those of a timidity based on half conscious ignorance. Pupils were often led to think that there was something commendable in refraining altogether from the use of the pedal, and that all really legitimate effects could be produced merely with the 10 fingers. If this is in a measure true, as regard the works of Haydn and Mozart, it is absolutely false as regards Shumann, Chopin, and all modern composers, – indeed in many pieces there is scarcely a single measure in which the pedal is not used.

To give a really complete description of all the uses of the piano pedals, would fill, not a magazine article, but a volume, social we shall only be able to touch briefly upon the other petals of the piano. The one at the left-hand side is a soft metal, and is known as “una corda,” meaning literally “one string.” On the grand piano, this pedal shifts the actions slightly, so that the hammers are supposed to strike only one of the three strings which sounding unison for each note. (Really, however, it does not shift so far, and to string sound, out of three.) On the upright, a different mechanism is used but the effect on the ear is somewhat similar. The use of the soft-pedal does not interfere in any way with the use of the damper pedal (so-called “loud” pedal), and it often happens that this is use more or less often with the soft-pedal is held down. The direction to release the soft-pedal is “Trey Corda,” meaning literally “three strings.”

On some of the best makes of grand (very rarely on uprights), the middle pedal has the effect of sustaining the tone of whatever keys may be down when this pedal is applied, without having the general effect of a damper pedal. This is of occasional value, but so rarely needed that its presence on a piano need not be considered a necessity.

On the general run of pianos, the third or middle pedal is some sort of mute, and is of little or no value, except to impress a prospective purchaser. The damper pedal and the soft-pedal are really all that are needed for piano playing.