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I've been playing piano for about 8 months. I have a digital weighted 88-key piano with only one pedal.

My friend, who used to play piano, taught me to hold the pedal down when there is an arc in either the treble or bass. So basically I'm holding the pedal down whenever there's an arc anywhere, and my foot is off the pedal when there is no arc.

However, after reading this question:

What does an arc mean above the notes in a piano sheet music? How do I play it?

I feel like I am doing the pedal wrong. In the above link it says that the arc only indicates legato and doesn't have anything to do with the pedal. But isn't legato implied everywhere since staccato is indicated by notes with a dot?

Also, I think the Ped. and * symbols on the piano sheet music have something to do with the pedals. What do they mean?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Your digital piano is equipped with a damper, or "sustain" pedal. When depressed, notes will continue to ring until the pedal is released or they fade away on their own. Without the pedal, notes will only ring as long as you hold down the key.

If we had 88 fingers, we wouldn't need the sustain pedal because we could control each note's sustain individually with the key. [Yes, I know this is an oversimplification.] However, music is often written such that certain notes or passages (more than we have fingers for at one time) should ring out until we reach a point; usually a chord change.

The short answer is you should hold down the pedal whenever you want your notes to sustain, and release it whenever you want them to stop.

To learn when the notes SHOULD sustain, your suspicion about the Ped. and * symbols are correct: 'Ped.' signifies you should press and hold the pedal, and '*' signifies it should be released. You may also see an upwards-facing bracket underneath the bottom staff with upside-down 'V's along it, signifying that the pedal should be quickly released and repedaled at those points.

You will eventually use your musical intuition in addition to notation to figure this out. Take Debussy's Arabesque No. 1, for example. This piece is typically bathed in pedal, but the edition will generally not explicitly define it.

Here's a common usage:

Say you had some [bigchord]s, one after another, all different. You need to lift your hands from the keys of the first [bigchord] to set up for the next [bigchord], but doing so would cause the sound to stop while your hands are off the keys, and you want these [bigchord]s to connect (perhaps they are under a slur or legato 'arc'). You would depress the pedal in time to hit the first [bigchord], lift your hands to set up for the next [bigchord] (while the first is still ringing under the pedal), then release the pedal right as you play the next [bigchord], with your hands; repedaling before you release the hands from the keyboard to play the next [bigchord]. This sequence of resetting the pedal at the press of each chord is quite common.

On a real piano, each repetition of this would be lowering the dampers to the strings briefly, in effect "canceling" the set of harmonies that was ringing from the previous chord in time to play the next chord. If you had just held down the pedal through the entire sequence, each subsequent chord would add dissonance to the notes of the first chord that are still sustaining. Notes of different chords typically clash with one another in a typical tonal context.

Not playing staccato does not imply legato. Staccato simply asks for space by shortening the note in question. A note with neither an arc or dot is just a note of its full rhythmic value. Notes under an arc, legato, are specifically meant to be connected. In a single line, this may mean each note blends into the last one before it is released. With chords, this typically requires use of a pedal to sustain the sound before each articulation.

At the end of the day, listen to lots of classical piano recordings, experiment with your instrument until you have an understanding of how it works, and then do what sounds right.

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I see. So I should be using the pedal to sustain all the notes between the ped. and the *. And then also I should momentarily be using the pedal to connect notes. –  Ryan Dec 6 '11 at 6:27
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+1 for the good answer! I just want to add some info. It's important to add that the pedal will add some power to a chord. For instance, take Beethoven's opus 49-2, the first G chord, when played with pedal is much more powerful! But it's important not to overuse the pedal. For example, whenever I'm playing a piece with big "legato-like" jumps (For instance, some Bartoks or Prokofievs) sometimes I use the middle pedal, this way I won't create a resonance and add more sound where it's not needed. –  Victor Dec 6 '11 at 9:36
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Yup! Playing with the pedal depressed allows all of the strings in the note's harmonic series to resonate in sympathy, offering a much fuller sound. –  NReilingh Dec 7 '11 at 3:40
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Great answer! As @NReilingh says, the pedal adds power because it allows all of the other strings to resonate sympathetically with the notes that have actually been struck. Some of the better digital pianos may support this (perhaps the Roland V-Piano, or Pianoteq. Most inexpensive digital pianos won't have this level of fidelity. –  ObscureRobot Dec 13 '11 at 18:36
    
+1 ObscureRobot, had never thought of the sympathetic resonation and how it would need to be simulated by an electric piano. –  Jeffrey Kemp Dec 19 '11 at 9:51

I am in general agreement with the other answers. The principal purpose of the pedal is to not mute notes, so they can be connected more easily. This should be done as directed by the music (either through notation, or the implied structure). Slurs between two notes should generally be played legato with the hands, but can be helped by the pedal. Phrasing slurs (i.e., slurs encompassing many notes, beats, or measures) should almost never be played "pedal down the whole time". They are instead meant to imply melodic structure to the performer, who interprets the music and uses the pedal as needed.

However, there are numerous other uses of the pedal. These are definitely more advanced uses that you will probably not use until around the college level.

  1. It is not the same thing to play just a single note with and without the pedal. With the pedal depressed, the mutes are off all strings. When a note is struck, sympathetic vibrations occur in the other strings, especially in strings within the harmonic series of the note played. Hence, the sound produced is different: it is fuller, warmer. Thus, the pedal can be used to change the mood or sound of the piece, without altering the legato or connected qualities of the notes.
  2. Expanding on the above answer, the pedal can be used as an accent. The pedal is depressed and released exactly at the same time as one note (more typically a chord). Usually this will be used in a sequence of chords. The pedal is not used at all to connect the chords, but instead to accent them. With the pedal going down and up at the exact same time as the keys, there is no extra sound during the brief pause in between chords, but the chords sound louder and with a different quality than normal playing.
  3. The pedal can be used to merge two dissonant chords. The most basic theory of pedal use is that you can keep it down so long as the underlying chord stays the same. Sometimes, however, when you play a new chord, you will delay the release and reattack of the pedal in order to have the old and new chords sounding at the same time. This technique is not appropriate for all music or composers. It functions well (provides an interesting sound and transition for the listener), for example, on some more modern composers (Prokofiev, for example). The style of his pieces makes it acceptable for this sort of dissonance. You would never use this technique for earlier composers like Mozart or Beethoven. Use with much caution.
  4. The pedal can be used to reduce volume of a sustained chord. This is a very difficult technique. Consider: play a chord, with pedal. Remove your fingers from the keys. The volume will diminish over time at some rate. If you want to increase the rate (i.e., get quieter faster), you can use the pedal. If you release the pedal, the mutes will begin to rest on the strings again, muting them. But, you can release the pedal only partially, so that the mutes just barely touch the strings. This will stop some, but not all, of the string vibrations. Thus, the volume decreases, but the chord is still sounding. (This technique is used by Andras Schiff here.) This is so difficult because usually you will release the pedal to such a degree that it completely mutes the strings. It requires much practice to master.
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+1 4. is like palm-muting a piano! –  luser droog Dec 7 '11 at 19:05
    
I use #4 quite a lot - especially at the end of a piece, if I want it to fade away gradually, or if my final chord was played a bit too loud for my liking. I find it easy to do if I jiggle my foot up and down very quickly and lightly; this allows me to control the rate of fading. Even works on the electric piano. –  Jeffrey Kemp Dec 19 '11 at 9:59

First, let's look at what the pedal does.

On a real piano, every string has a damper resting on it, muting it until it is played. When you strike a key, the damper lifts from the string before the hammer strikes the string. Then the damper remains lifted until you release the key, so the note continues to sound. When you release the key, the damper returns to its resting position, normally ending the note.

When you hold down the sustain pedal all the dampers are lifted away from the strings. Now when you play a note, it sustains for as long as the string has energy. When you release the pedal, any notes that you're not still holding on the keyboard, end.

Holding down the sustain pedal also has the effect that every string on the piano will resonate with other sounds in the room, or notes played on the piano itself. This is why a pedal "adds power to a chord". Play a middle C with the sustain pedal held down, and every other C, or harmonic thereof, on the piano will resonate.

I don't know to what extent that effect is simulated on electric pianos, however.

Now, the meaning of a slur.

A slur (the arc you refer to) says that the notes should run into each other. Not overlap, but continue smoothly from one to the other, as if they are one note making sudden changes in pitch.

A brass/woodwind player would achieve a slur by changing their fingering, but sounding the note with the same breath, without tonguing another note.

A violinist would achieve a slur by changing their finger position, while continuing the movement of the bow.

A pianist doesn't have these options. He must strive to create the same sense of continuity between notes while actually playing separate notes. It's subtle, involving precise timing and control of dynamics. However it doesn't normally involve the sustain pedal.

It's important to note that in the absence of a slur, it's not always necessary to sound a note for its full length. A composer will often write a crotchet rather than clutter the score with a dotted quaver followed by a semiquaver rest. Musical scoring is not precise, and you have the creative freedom to release a note whenever you like. The slur mark is a hint that you should run it into the next note.

To sum this all up:

  • You should use the pedal when the score says so; the ped. and * marks
  • You should not normally use the pedal to achieve a slur. Do it with your fingers.
  • You may choose use the pedal to bring out resonance
  • You may use the pedal to sustain a note when your finger needs to be elsewhere
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Literally every pianist I've ever known has gotten to the point where he feels like he's unable to make anything sound good without the pedal, and ends up over-using it. Overuse of the pedal makes music muddy and unclear; think the piano equivalent of radio static. The pedal is great for helping you connect notes, but your sound will be much clearer if you only use the pedal for those instances where it is physically impossible for you to play legato or hold down notes. –  Babu Dec 6 '11 at 17:03
    
@slim - check the top octave or so of your piano There possibly are no dampers ? –  Tim Jul 3 at 9:13

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