Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Store, with a great question. When do you use the soft pedal on the piano? The una corda pedal is the left pedal on grand and baby grand pianos. It is an amazing device for expressive playing because it changes the tone. Those of you who practice on upright pianos, the left pedal does not do what it is supposed to do.
What does “una corda” mean?
Una corda translates from Italian as “one string”. What does this mean? Originally, pianos had two strings for each key. By depressing the una corda pedal, the hammers would only strike one of the two strings giving a softer, delicate tone. Modern pianos have three strings for each note through most of the piano. So, depressing the una corda pedal makes two of the strings hit directly. Depending on how the piano is voiced, it may even hit all three strings with softer parts of the felt of the hammer.
The fundamental thing about soft pedals is that every piano is different.
Think about this: on one piano the hammers may strike two of the strings. On another piano, the hammers may strike all three strings, but a little off-axis. The grooved part of the hammer with the hardened felt does not hit the strings. So, you get a more delicate tone. I’m telling you all this so that you understand how different the impact is on depressing the soft pedal on different pianos.
The answer to the question is: it depends not just upon the music, the performance you are after, or the acoustics of the room, but on the specific piano and the way its soft pedal affects the tone. Naturally, a great deal has to do with how you approach the piano with your hands. In some pianos I’ve played, every time you put the soft pedal down it creates a drastic tonal change.
On other pianos, you depress the una corda pedal and you don’t even notice any difference at all!
On this type of piano, you might use the pedal very liberally. On such a piano, if you want a little change of color, you might as well push the soft pedal just to make it easier to play softly.
Perhaps you’ve worked out all of the places you want to use the soft pedal. Then, as soon as you start playing with the soft pedal, the tone gets swallowed up completely. You may find that you are not going to use the soft pedal except very sparingly, in the most delicate sections on a piano like this.
That’s the long and short of it:
When playing a performance, it’s so important to have an opportunity to try the piano beforehand. Not just for the soft pedal, but all the pedals. It is remarkable how different the pedals respond on various pianos! I would go so far as to say that in trying out a piano for a recital, an audition, or just to play for someone, checking out the pedals is probably the most important thing because they vary more than any other aspect of each piano.
I hope this has been helpful for you. Again, I’m Robert Estrin at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Store.