When to Use the Soft Pedal on the Piano

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The soft pedal is something that every pianist must learn to utilize effectively. While it’s commonly referred to as the “soft pedal” its actual name is the una corda pedal. Today we are going to discuss when and how to use the soft pedal effectively in your music.

Una Corda actually translates to “one string”. On older pianos, there used to be two strings for each of the notes. By pressing the una corda pedal you would move the hammers over so they would only strike one of the strings. New pianos are a bit different as they have three strings for each note for most notes of the piano. So, when you press the soft pedal it will move the hammers over and they won’t strike the strings in the middle of the hammers, so it produces a mellower tone.

True una corda or soft-pedals only exist on grand pianos. An upright – even with a third pedal on the left – does not truly simulate the effect of an una corda pedal. You can see this because when you depress a true una corda pedal, the keys of the piano will shift slightly to the right. On upright pianos, the soft pedal does different things, but typically it brings the hammers closer to the strings changing the touch, not the tone.

In the video above I demonstrate the effect of the una corda pedal by playing the Chopin movement from Schumann’s Carnival. I provide an example with and without the una corda pedal. You will notice that not only is the music softer but the tone is a different color.

When used properly, the soft pedal is an extraordinarily expressive device that can add new color and depth to your music. So when do you use it?

In the example I play from the video, the same theme is played twice in a row. When I repeat the theme and use the soft pedal it creates a new and different sound. It’s a really beautiful way to highlight certain sections of your music.

But using the soft pedal really is not that simple. While the example above is a good spot to utilize the soft pedal, its effect won’t be the same on every piano. This is because not all soft-pedals are the same. Every piano will have a different response when using the soft pedal. Some pianos might not produce much of an effect at all while others will produce a very dramatic change in tone. It’s very important to get to know the effects of your soft pedal whether you are playing your piano at home or performing on another piano. Room acoustics, audience noise, and many other factors can determine whether or not the soft pedal is appropriate. Many times I have performed on pianos that were a bit too bright and border on having a harsh tone. When faced with this problem I might use the soft pedal a great deal to sweeten the tone and produce a better sound out of the instrument. Sometimes you might encounter a piano that is too mellow and you might want to use the soft pedal very sparingly.

It’s important to remember that the soft pedal is not something you can simply write into your music and play at the same point on every piano. This pedal is something you should employ at times when a tonal change is suitable. As you grow and progress as a pianist you will find yourself using the soft pedal when it’s appropriate and being able to make these judgment calls for yourself.

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729