How to use the pedal in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata

Piano Lessons / how to play piano / How to use the pedal in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata

Today we have a question from Umberto, who asks, “How do you approach pedaling in the Moonlight Sonata? Do you pedal throughout all of it?”

These are excellent questions. In fact, yes, you use pedal in some parts rather sparingly, other parts very generously, but you use it throughout the whole piece in different ways. Of course the different movements have different requirements, but we’re going to focus today on the first movement, the famous melodic first movement.

So first of all, just a little primer. Whenever you’re using the pedals on the piano you want to keep your your heels firmly on the floor. You never want to put your pedal like this because it’s noisy. So you keep the heel on the floor, and then the ball of the foot is how you control best. Always keep it in contact, because if you go from above, once again you get noise. All pedals are very different on pianos. You have to experiment to find how you could play it quietly and effectively, because they all release the dampers at different points. One of the first things you want to try out when you’re playing over a concert is how the pedal responds on the instrument.

So getting to the Moonlight Sonata. As with any music, the pedal changes wherever the harmonies change. So if you were to play this piece in chords, each time the chord changes . . . and notice the pedal always comes up exactly on the beat but goes down right after the beat. So that’s the secret of pedaling. The pedal always comes up exactly on the change of harmony and goes right back down again. So if I play it now not in chords, but as it’s written, and with the soft pedal, the una corda pedal, depressed the entire time, you get this.

The reason for changing the pedal, coming up on the pedal exactly on the beat, is otherwise harmonies blur. If you were to play the pedal and put it down on the beat instead of up on the beat, you’d end up with this.

I can’t even do it. It’s so hard. I’m so trained. I’m gonna try it again. I’m gonna try to play the pedal wrong for you.

Yeah, that’s also not connected. I haven’t experimented with playing pedal wrong. It’s a hard thing to do. Any of you who are a pianist accustomed to using the pedal, try it how hard it is to play it wrong. So get in the habit of always coming up at the change of harmonies and right back down again so you get that smooth transition, and if you’re not sure where the harmonies change, break the music down to chords and it becomes very obvious for you.

Thanks for the wonderful question Umberto, and all the questions coming in and the great comments. Thank you everyone at I’m Robert Estrin Thanks for joining me.