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Pedal power: the soul of the piano

6 years ago

Nigel Scaife, ABRSM’s Syllabus Director, looks at use of the sustaining pedal, especially relating to the early Piano grades.

The soul of the piano

Anton Rubinstein described the sustaining (or right) pedal as ‘the soul of the piano’ – a wonderfully poetic phrase which captures the importance of its role. The success of a performance may depend on the pedal’s effective use, and its misuse can undermine any amount of good finger-work! Pedalling – particularly the use of the sustaining pedal – is a fascinating aspect of technique because it usually involves a degree of subjectivity and individual interpretation. This is partly because piano construction has changed over time, so we have to consider how a composer’s intentions can be realised on a modern instrument. Also, we often have to interpret vague and imprecise pedalling notation.

Style, texture and harmony

A great deal of piano music does not include any pedal markings – from composer or editor. This should never be interpreted as an indication that the pedal is not to be used. Even in pieces written before the invention of the piano, judicious use of the pedal can sometimes add to the performance, as long as there is no blurring of the texture. However, pedalling in Baroque music is a subtle skill which is generally best avoided in the early grades. The focus should always be on clear articulation, good finger-work and well-balanced part playing. In music from the Classical period the pedal can be used unobtrusively to help phrasing and to emphasise rhythmic aspects, such as accents or an isolated chord. Short direct pedals do not compromise the clarity of the texture and can help punctuate the music. The pedal can also colour the tone so that the piano ‘sings’. In Romantic music the pedal is usually an essential means to achieve the composer’s intentions, whether marked or not. In all cases, pedalling should relate to style, texture and harmony.

Pedal markings

Today it is standard practice for publishers to use the__/\_/\__ marking, rather than Ped……. because it’s clearer in showing precisely where the pedal should be put down and lifted up. Sometimes it can be unclear whether the markings are those of the editor or the composer. Even when they are the composer’s own markings, the extent to which the performer should take them literally depends on the type of piano and acoustic the composer had in mind.

A brief history

The sustaining pedal was developed in the late 18th century and by the 1790s leading pianist-composers of the day started notating its use in their scores. At first, it was mainly used to create special effects. Nothing else was possible on many early pianos which had handstops rather than foot pedals to take off dampers. Beethoven’s marking at the start of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata is the most famous example of a special effect which worked well on 18th-century pianos, with their limited resonance and sustaining power. During the early 19th century, pedalling mechanisms and techniques were developed further, but it wasn’t until the middle of the century that it became fashionable to employ almost constant pedalling which could be indicated on the score simply with ‘con ped.’ at the start. The Romantic pianist-composers often felt that pedalling could be left to the discretion of the performer and so they didn’t notate it with any precision. Liszt, for example, did not include any pedal markings in his B minor Sonata. Even Debussy, who was incredibly precise in many aspects of his scores, rarely indicated the pedal.

Introducing the pedal to students

Some teachers avoid introducing the pedal at the early stages of learning. They may fear that their student’s finger-work will be compromised by over-enthusiastic pedalling. Perhaps musical awareness and listening skills need more development, or students struggle to reach the pedal without their posture being affected. While this approach may be appropriate for some students, there will be others who can begin to use the pedal at a much earlier stage. Students certainly need some keyboard skill before pedalling is introduced, as otherwise it can have a negative affect on fluency. But, with carefully chosen exercises to establish good habits and intense listening – perhaps with eyes shut – pedalling can be securely established.

Starting out

Children love to see inside the piano! Understanding how a damper stops the sound, and how the sound is sustained without it, is important. There are also other concepts to cover, such as the fact that it takes longer to dampen the sound of low notes than high ones. Piano Before looking at legato pedalling, it can be helpful to introduce the pedal in music where you don’t need to change the pedal. In El cant dels ocells (The Song of the Birds) – Grade 1, Piano Syllabus 2015 & 2016 – the pedal goes down and comes up in specific and separate places. There are no pedal changes. With its unhurried tempo this piece makes an ideal starting point.

Finger pedalling

This technique involves a slight overlapping of the fingers to sustain the harmonies. It is particularly useful when playing pieces from the Classical era – giving a warm sound while keeping the texture clear. You can use it with dabs of pedal as well, depending on the context. Vitalij Neugasimov’s Lullaby (in the new Grade 2) offers an opportunity for the left-hand notes to be held beyond their note values to create a richer sonority as a base for the gentle melody. While this isn’t necessary for a successful performance, it does help to sustain the harmonies while showing the chromatic descent clearly. The final three chords of this piece, however, provide a perfect opportunity to introduce legato pedalling as there is so much time to prepare.

Moving up the grades

Over the last few Piano syllabuses there have been a number of pieces in the lower grades in which candidates definitely need to use the pedal. At Grade 3, for example, there was Martin Butler’s Evening Bells (2007 & 2008), Karen Tanaka’s Northern Lights (2011 & 2012) and Manfred Schmitz’s At Sunset (2013 & 2014). Looking at the new syllabus (2015 & 2016), in Bertold Hummel’s Prelude (Grade 2) pedalling is essential, so unless students can manage the pedalling shown, they should avoid this piece. Similarly, the drama of the opening of Walter Carroll’s A Stormy Coast (Grade 3, 2015 & 2016) cannot be fully achieved without following the pedal markings. As the grades progress there are more opportunities to use the pedal and it also becomes difficult to avoid pieces which ask for at least some pedalling.


Good pedalling relies more on the ear than the foot – ‘pedal with your ears’ being a piano teacher’s mantra! Pedalling should always be taught with reference to harmony and sonority. Nevertheless, there are some physical essentials. Manipulation of the pedal should never be noisy. Students can achieve this by keeping the heel in contact with the ground and the ball of the foot in constant contact with the pedal, and by taking care not to release the pedal abruptly. It is also helpful to wear shoes with soles that allow you to feel the pedal. In pieces where pedalling isn’t used throughout, it’s a good idea for students to put their foot in the right place at the beginning of the piece, to avoid searching for the pedal and possibly interrupting the flow of the music later on.

Before a performance

Every piano is different. In particular, the depth of travel in the pedal needed before the dampers start to lift off the strings – its ‘sweet spot’ – can vary. So when playing an unfamiliar instrument it is helpful to experiment with the response of the pedal, always listening carefully and gauging its height and depth to avoid any inadvertent blurring of harmonies. In an exam, this may mean using some of the ‘try-out time’ before the exam starts to explore a particular texture or sonority that requires pedal. Adaptability is part of being a pianist!

Pedalling in the exam

Teachers who have read the 2015 and 2016 Piano syllabus may have noticed that we have updated our statement about pedalling. This brings our guidance on pedalling in line with our marking criteria. The statement now reads: ‘The use and control of pedalling, and its effect on tone and shape, will be taken into account by examiners, who will be assessing the overall musical outcome rather than the strict observance of any printed pedal instructions (which may therefore be adapted or omitted, as appropriate). Pieces whose full musical effect is heavily reliant on pedalling (whether marked in the music or not) should be avoided if appropriate pedalling cannot be managed.’

Towards a natural habit

Good pedalling is one of the most important elements of stylistic interpretation and depends on musical experience and judgement based on intense listening. At all times, pedalling should be carried out thoughtfully so that it never obscures the intentions of the composer. Its importance was summed up by Liszt when he said ‘Without the pedal the piano is nothing but a dulcimer’!

This article was originally featured in the October 2014 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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