The 3 Piano Foot Pedals: An Illustrated Walk-Through

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The Three Piano Foot Pedals

Piano Pedals
penmachine/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

There are two standard foot pedals on the piano: the una corda and the sustain.

The middle pedal is only standard on the American grand piano and is very rarely used. Continue the tour to learn how the three piano pedals work and how they sound.

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Una Corda Pedal

Una corda pedal marks on sheet music.
The una corda pedal is lifted at "tre corde.". Image © Brandy Kraemer

Position of the Una Corda Pedal

Left pedal

The Una Corda is Played With

Left foot

Also Called:

Soft pedal, “piano” pedal

Effects of the Una Corda Pedal

The una corda pedal is used to enhance the timbre of softly played notes, and exaggerate a low volume. The soft pedal should be used with notes that are already played softly, and will not produce the desired effect on louder notes.

History of the Una Corda Pedal

The una corda was the first mechanism to modify the piano’s sound and was originally operated by hand. It was invented in 1722 by Bartolomeo Cristofori and quickly became a standard addition to the piano.

How the Una Corda Pedal Works

Most treble keys are attached to two or three strings. The una corda shifts the strings so that the hammers only strike one or two of them, creating a softened sound.

Some bass keys are only attached to one string. In this case, the pedal creates a shift so that the hammer strikes on a lesser-used portion of the string.

Una Corda Pedal Marks

In piano notation, use of the soft pedal begins with the words una corda (meaning “one string”), and is released by the words tre corde (meaning “three strings”).

Interesting Facts About the Una Corda Pedal

  • Most upright pianos use a “piano” pedal instead of a true una corda pedal. The piano pedal moves the hammers closer to the strings, preventing them from striking with full force. This produces a similar effect on volume as the original una corda.

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Sostenuto Pedal

Sostenuto pedal marks in sheet music.
The rules of sostenuto pedal markings remain vague. Image © Brandy Kraemer

Position of the Sostenuto Pedal

Usually the middle pedal, but it is often omitted.

The Sostenuto is Played With

Right foot

Originally Called

Tone-sustaining pedal

Effects of the Sostenuto Pedal

The sostenuto pedal allows certain notes to be sustained while other notes on the keyboard are unaffected. It is used by hitting the desired notes, then depressing the pedal. The selected notes will resonate until the pedal is released. This way, sustained notes can be heard alongside notes played with a staccato effect.

History of the Sostenuto Pedal

The sostenuto pedal was the last addition to the modern piano. Boisselot & Sons first showcased it in 1844, but the pedal didn’t gain popularity until Steinway patented it in 1874. Today, it’s primarily found on American grand pianos but is not considered a standard addition since it is very rarely used.

How the Sostenuto Pedal Works

When the sostenuto pedal is depressed, it keeps the dampers off the selected strings, allowing them to resonate while the rest of the keys’ dampers remain down.

Sostenuto Pedal Marks

In piano music, use of the sostenuto pedal begins with Sost. Ped., and ends with a large asterisk. Notes meant to be sustained are sometimes marked by hollow, diamond-shaped notes, but there are no strict rules for this pedal since it is hardly ever used.

Interesting Facts About the Sostenuto Pedal

  • Sostenuto is Italian for “sustaining,” although this incorrectly describes the pedal’s function.
  • On some pianos, the sostenuto pedal only affects the bass notes.
  • The middle pedal is sometimes built as a “practice rail” pedal instead of a sostenuto. A practice rail muffles notes with felt dampers, allowing for quiet play.
  • Sostenuto pedal markings are rarely seen in sheet music but can be found in the works of Claude Debussy.

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Sustain Pedal

Sustain pedal marks on piano sheet music.
The damper pedal is lifted at the large asterisk. Image © Brandy Kraemer

Position of the Sustain Pedal

Right pedal

The Sustain Pedal is Played With

Right foot

Also Called

Damper pedal, forte pedal, loud pedal

Effects of the Sustain Pedal

The sustain pedal allows all of the notes on the piano to resonate after the keys have been lifted, for as long as the pedal is depressed. It creates a legato effect, forcing all of the notes to echo and overlap.

History of the Sustain Pedal

The sustain pedal was originally operated by hand, and an assistant was required to operate it until the knee lever was created. The creators of the sustain foot pedal are unknown, but it is believed to have been invented around the mid-1700s.

Use of the sustain was uncommon until the Romantic Period but is now the most commonly used piano pedal.

How the Sustain Pedal Works

The sustain pedal lifts the dampers off of the strings, allowing them to vibrate until the pedal is released.

Sustain Pedal Marks

In piano notation, use of the sustain pedal begins with Ped., and ends with a large asterisk.

Variable pedal marks are placed under notes and define the precise pattern in which the sustain pedal is depressed and released.

  • Horizontal lines show when the sustain pedal is depressed.
  • Diagonal lines indicate a quick, temporary release of the sustain pedal.