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Gourmet care and feeding of the pedals: Pedal uses and their regulation


In my thirty-five years of touring, my relationship with piano technicians has always been a focal point. They are my partners in creating a memorable musical experience. In looking together at the hundreds of pianos that I've encountered, in large and small venues, from super high-quality brand concert grands to older, smaller baby grands, one area of regulation that consistently requires the most attention is the pedals. 

Some problems were overlooked by the piano technicians because no other pianist had raised any issues. However, these could often be corrected and maintained on a long-term basis. Let me say right away that these issues are not the fault of the technicians! While there are industry standards (some of which I would like to change, described below), there needs to be greater demand on the part of pianists for the pedals to be well-regulated.

And so a vicious cycle occurs, where pianists do not use the pedals to their full and true extent, so they don't notice regulation errors. They don't ask the technicians for any adjustments, and the pedals function more and more poorly, thereby discouraging pianists from exploring the fuller use of the pedals.

In order for technicians to know what to adjust, pianists need first to use the pedals correctly and fully in order to perceive problems in regulation. Confusion about how the pedals actually function to change the sound of the piano is based on misconceptions and entrenched traditions. These need to be changed in order to exploit the pedals to their full potential, both through playing and regulating.

When used in an ON or OFF fashion, which I describe as "digital" usage, each pedal doubles the capacity of the piano. You can choose the clean sound of no damper pedal, or you can choose the rich, washy sound of all colors intermingling. You can create a bright, clean tone with the shift pedal off, and a muffled, rounded sound with the shift pedal engaged. Without the sostenuto, you are working in one plane of activity; with the sostenuto, you create a second plane of activity by being able to hold notes independently.

In fact, each pedal is more than an ON/OFF switch, but rather a full spectrum between OFF and ON. Some of the spectrums are smoothly graded; others are more steplike. Used in gradation, the two outer pedals provide a range of sounds that, when used effectively, grow the piano's palette infinitely. Even the sostenuto pedal can be used in a more refined, precise way, which also expands its powers. Since many pianists limit their potential power because of misunderstandings about the use or even the existence of these gradations, I would like to explore this first. 

Current common practices with the three pedals

Damper pedal

  • Common approach: Digital
  • Common placement: Note-by-note

This pedal is the most used, and the most obvious in its effect. The generally accepted approach to this pedal is ON/OFF. ("Flutter pedaling" is a rapid alternation between on and off, creating an effect of slight blurring. The flutter pedal is also recommended to mimic the pedal of the earlier fortepianos, with their shorter durations and generally less powerful harmonic resonance.) Take the opening of the Chopin Polonaise-fantaisie: 

Excerpt 1: Chopin, Polonaise-fantaisie, Op. 61, mm. 5-7.

 Shift pedal

  • Common approach: Analog
  • Common placement: Used in sectional blocks

The shift pedal shifts the keyboard to the right, theoretically enough so that the hammers hit only two of the three strings, thereby creating a less powerful sound. It is widely accepted to use the shift pedal in gradation, assuming a smooth, direct transition between ON and OFF, which I describe as "analog" usage. In these examples from Beethoven's Sonata, Op. 101, gradually lifting the pedal accompanies a crescendo:

Excerpts 2a and 2b: Beethoven, Sonata, Op. 101, mm. 1-2; m. 19.

In some pieces, the composer specifically demands that a passage is to be played with the shift pedal engaged. In "Le Gibet" from Gaspard de la Nuit, Ravel asks for the shift pedal to be engaged for the entire piece—Sourdine durant toute la pièce.

The change of sound creates an unfocused, otherworldly effect that creates a certain atmosphere that the composer is looking for. 

Excerpt 3: Ravel, “Le Gibet” from Gaspard de la Nuit, opening.

Sostenuto pedal

  • Common use: Vertical (harmonic vs. melodic)
  • Common placement: Holding long bass notes

The middle pedal, invented in the mid-1800s by Boisselot, has seen a slow acceptance because of its conceptual nature. Even composers aware of the pedal rarely demand its specific use. A rare composer who did was Busoni, who used all three of the piano's pedals freely, especially in his transcriptions of Bach. He said that real organ effects "can be obtained only by the combined action of the three pedals."1

The most common use of the sostenuto pedal is to hold singly played bass notes so that the damper pedal can be used selectively to "clear the air" without losing the tonal foundation. The opening of Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2 is an unstated but obvious example. 

Excerpt 4: Saint-Saëns, Piano Concerto No. 2, opening.

Potential uses of the three pedals

Now I would like to present what I feel is the true potential of each of the pedals, based on the physical functions of the pedal and how that can be used to enhance the natural qualities of the piano. 

Damper pedal

Ideal use: Analog rather than digital

The right pedal lifts the entire row of dampers off the strings, allowing them to vibrate freely. The effect of the damper pedal is more analog than digital. The changes in sonority evolve smoothly from dry to resonant as the pedal is depressed through the sensitive range where the dampers disengage, and an equally smooth evolution from resonant to dry occurs when the pedal is released and the dampers recontact the strings.

The lack of synchronization across all the dampers is the most prevalent issue I come across concerning this particular pedal. The imprecision is most obvious in the releases, as the pedal is often used as a conductor coordinating the cutoff of an orchestra. The slow release of the pedal will reveal that certain dampers are descending later than the majority. By testing with clusters, one can quickly locate the lagging dampers.

Just as prevalent, but more difficult to perceive, are the notes that dampen before the majority. By limiting the number of notes played in your cluster (I use three notes at a time), it becomes easier to hear which note dampens first.

Earlier pianos had split damper controls for different sections of the keyboard. This gave the pianist the ability to hold bass notes by lifting the lower dampers without needing to also blur the treble, or to let the weaker strings vibrate by lifting the treble dampers without creating a murky sound in the bass. On the modern instrument, this selective control can be partially recreated by permanently regulating the height of a section of the dampers. Given the increased strength of the upper register of the modern piano, it becomes more generally useful to be able to dampen the treble without clearing out the bass. This would suggest a regulation of the bass dampers to lift slightly sooner than the rest of the damper row.

The Schubert/Liszt Ständchen is a good example for this kind of usage. The elevated bass dampers would allow the bass note to ring without affecting the staccato of the middle register accompaniment. This pedal regulation and usage have the added advantage of avoiding the use of the sostenuto pedal to catch the bass, which would also catch the first melodic note of each measure. All of this, controlled by the right foot, allows the left foot to control the shift pedal if needed. 

Excerpt 5: Schubert/Liszt, Ständchen, mm. 5-9.

A simple regulation technique to raise the lower dampers is illustrated in Example 6. Notice the thin wooden slat inserted under the damper bar, which raises the entire section temporarily. (Thanks to Robert Bussell for this idea.) 

Example 6: Temporary raising of the bass dampers using a wooden slat.

Shift pedal

  • Ideal use: Digital (steplike gradations) rather than analog
  • Ideal placement: Note-by-note

By Beethoven's time, the standard shift pedal on the grand piano was established, shifting the keyboard to the right so that the hammers hit only two of the three strings, creating a softer sound. In the lower third, where there are only one or two strings per note, the effect comes through hitting the hammer in different areas of the head.

Busoni wrote about the use of the shift pedal: "It may be used not only for the last gradations of pianissimo, but also in mezzo forte and all the intermediate dynamic shadings. The case may even occur, that some passages are played more softly without the soft pedal than others with it. The effect intended here is not softness of tone, but the peculiar quality of tone obtained."2

Busoni should have said "tones" in the plural. In the small span of the hammer head, there are many different surfaces, producing different sounds that do not evolve directly from hard to soft.

Here is an example of an instrument that presents seven distinct tone colors as the shift pedal progresses from OFF to ON:

1. Defined (three strings hitting the grooves, the most compact part of the hammer)

2. Zing (three strings hitting the sides of the grooves, the most vertical part of the hammer, creating a soft brushing effect)

3. Rounded (three strings hitting a soft part of the hammer)

4. Tubby (three strings hitting exactly between the grooves, the softest part of the hammer)

5. Rounded, less volume (two strings only, hitting a soft part of the hammer)

6. Zing, less volume (two strings only, brushing the sides of the grooves)

7. Quieter defined (two strings only, hitting the most compact part of the hammer)

One sees that the shift pedal functions much more in a digital manner. The transition from level one to level seven passes through seven different phases of color, with some transitions (level one to level two) quite jarring. The pedal needs to be depressed to specific levels and kept there.

Think of the different kinds of sounds as resulting from using a different "mallet" to hit the strings: a wooden stick, a felted stick, a leather-bound stick, even a brush. By combining this with different dynamic levels, one multiplies the variety even more. Sometimes one needs to play loudly with the roundest sound, and softly with the sharpest, most defined sound, as in Ravel's "Alborada del gracioso." (Here, instead of the "sourdine" on or off, which Ravel suggests, I would choose two different "mallets," i.e., playing the mezzo forte with the shift pedal engaged to level four, and the pianissimo with the shift pedal at level one or two.) 

Excerpt 7: Ravel, "Alborada del gracioso" from Miroirs, mm. 79-84.

The most important variable is the condition of the hammers. A freshly filed or conditioned hammer presents hardly any differentiation between the grooves and the hills, and the change of colors is very limited. A piano that has very deep grooves offers the most widely ranging palette of colors. A "terrible" piano, one that has never been voiced, and which has been pounded to the point of being almost unbearably metallic in sound with the shift pedal disengaged, often produces the most exhilarating and unworldly sounds with the shift pedal barely depressed. On the other hand, "practice pianos" that have been played consistently with the shift pedal depressed (by students afraid of making too much noise in small spaces) will often develop a second set of grooves, thus making the same kind of harshly defined sound produced by not using the shift pedal at all!

Each piano is different, and each piano over time—even within a single concert—will see its shift pedal palette evolve. The ear must be conscious of how each note sounds at each pedal level, and it must be the final judge of when to use certain sounds.

Because this voicing is so difficult to keep consistent, some may think it a waste of time to voice for the shift pedal. However, there are certain regulation guidelines that can only enhance the function of this pedal, regardless of the condition of the hammers.

In order to present the most variety of colors on the hammer surface, it is important that the maximum shift of the keyboard brings the strings in line with the existing grooves. Ideally, the hammer should hit two of the three strings in exactly the same groove of the hammer. If the shift brings the strings to any other location, the hammer face begins to develop two sets of grooves, thereby minimizing the surface available for the softer hills.

It is important to remember that voicing for maximum effect of the shift pedal means keeping as much as possible the contrast between the grooves and hills of the hammer profile. When needling the hammer for voicing, the grooves may need to be aerated, but even more so the hills, to keep their contrasting relationship the same if possible. By needling just the grooves, their surface begins to resemble more the hills, thus reducing the difference of their colors. Equally, any attempt to harden the face, through hammering or lacquering, must treat the grooves and hills differently. 

Besides the voicing, the shift pedal itself needs to be regulated carefully for a quick, easy, and quiet shift. The squeaking pedal is the most notable culprit here. The quick and quiet action allows one to make the most use of the differentiating colors of the pedal, using it selectively from note to note. By giving individual notes different colors, one can distinguish layers of activity through color rather than only through touch and dynamics. I call this kind of shift pedal technique surgical pedaling.

Here is an example of using the shift pedal to bring out the top line of a series of chords without any use of dynamic changes or touch changes. 

Excerpt 8: Chopin, Étude, Op. 10, No. 11, opening.

Sostenuto pedal

  • Ideal use: Horizontal (melodic), rather than vertical (harmonic)
  • Ideal placement: Used where one would like to hold with an extra hand, in any register

The sostenuto pedal is the one least attended to, by players and by piano technicians. This is unfortunate, because it allows the pianist to create the magical effect of playing as if with three hands; having a malfunctioning sostenuto is like playing with one of those three hands tied behind your back. The sostenuto pedal should also be used in place of the damper pedal in passages where a legato connection is necessary without the added sonority or diffusion of sound that the damper pedal creates.

A finely regulated sostenuto pedal allows the pianist to selectively extract notes from a web of sound, creating an extra layer of activity for the ear to follow. This pedal has the fewest gradations, but it is still more complex than a simple on-off switch. 

Example 9: Different stages of the sostenuto pedal.

The sostenuto pedal is most often used for holding singly played bass notes. However, one can also use it to sustain a melody line or a secondary melody line.

By developing a precise timing, it is possible to sustain single notes played together with other notes. Here is an example of the degree to which activity can be filtered with the sostenuto.

In order for this pedal to function correctly, it is imperative that the tabs be regulated as evenly as possible. It is not enough that the individual dampers sustain when the keys are completely depressed and the pedal is depressed to the lowest level. It should also pick up the dampers with the notes engaged only to the escape level. Also, the pedal should be able to be released slightly without dropping notes that are being held. The blockage of the pedal at the bottom of the trajectory is only for the convenience of the pianist, to remove the need to aim for a particular level of depression. A quicker foot action that does not descend to the bottom with full force should still activate the function.

It is important that notes whose dampers are not sustained with the sostenuto do not become engaged when played subsequently if the pedal is completely depressed. However, one should be able to catch extra notes when the pedal is slightly raised, to add to the notes that are already sustained without having to release them.

Excerpt 10: Bach/Busoni, Nun Freut Euch, Lieben Christen, mm. 19-20.

In the example below, the sostenuto pedal first catches the low E octave, and then later the C major chord is added to it by a slight lift then depression of the sostenuto pedal. The C-major chord is played loudly enough for it to be caught in the existing sostenuto pedal. 

Excerpt 11: Debussy, “Mouvement” from Images, Book 1, mm. 45-47.

To test the correct functioning of this pedal, notes should be played loudly at various pedal levels, and they should become caught at the same pedal level, about one-eighth of the way from the bottom.

The piano should be checked for noise when the sostenuto is depressed, then the damper pedal depressed, then the sostenuto released. The bar should not scrape the tabs of the non-sustained notes. This creates not only noise, but also a jarring percussive effect that can be disturbing during more concentrated, softer music.

To piano technicians, let me say that I hope to encourage my fellow pianists to explore the use of the pedals, and to have more of us ask you for these finer pedal regulations. When I began to understand their true nature and potential, used separately and in coordination, I began asking my piano technicians to regulate accordingly. And I have since had numerous happy moments coming back to a piano to find it in much better pedal shape than during my previous visit. The vicious cycle turned virtuous! 

1Qtd. in K. Hamilton (2008), After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance, Oxford University Press, 176.

2F. Busoni (1957), The Essence of Music: And Other Papers, trans. R. Ley, Rockliff Publishing Corp., 177. 

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