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If the beginning of a bar starts with the 'P' symbol for sustain pedal, are you suppose to apply the pedal before you play the first note of the bar, after you have struck the note, or at the same time you play the note? Or are all 3 optional?

If at the end of said bar, there is the '*' symbol to unapply the pedal, should you lift the pedal after playing the last note of the bar or should you wait until you play the first note of the 2nd bar?

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    Beware: any answer you get should be tempered by common sense. If taking the music literally yields a weird result, do what sounds good. Commented Jul 1 at 12:48
  • Adding to what Andy wrote above. Remember that written music isn't that different than written language: 1. it's always open to interpretation (and with that I also mean personal rendition); 2. there will always be someone criticizing your interpretation (even if you're strict with the written material); 3. rhythm and tempo relations don't always need to be absolutely perfect; due to the very nature of piano, the sustain pedal and, possibly, the acoustic in which you're playing, you may choose to lift the pedal at different moments: your experience and personal taste will tell you when. Commented Jul 2 at 2:00

4 Answers 4

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TL;DR

The timing of the pedal depends on the musical context.


TOC

1. Pedal on

1.1 First measure (note) of a piece
1.2 Other than first measure (note)

1.2.1 Preceded by sound
1.2.2 Preceded by silence

2. Pedal off

2.1 Mid-phrase
2.2 Phrase end
2.3 End of piece

3. See also

Pedal on

First measure (note) of a piece

Here it's fine, even advisable, to have the pedal down before playing the first note. It's a safe choice, allowing a little extra concentration on limiting pedal noise and ensuring one doesn't somehow accidentally miss catching the first note.

There are exceptions. For example, for the first note of Robert Schumann's "Träumerei" I like to initially play the note with no pedal, then adding the pedal after that initial sound. It gives the effect of "opening up" to that first note.

Schumann, "Träumerei" (op. 15, no. 7), m. 1

The green elements in the illustration below show the note onset (thin vertical line and box), duration (horizontal bar), and release (thin vertical line and disc). The blue elements show the corresponding timing of the pedal onset, duration, and change (i.e., release and reapply in a single motion).

Pickup note plus opening measure

(Image source: IMSLP, Alfred Dörffel edition)

Other than first measure (note)

Preceded by sound

Generally the pedal will go down immediately after the note is played. This helps prevent capturing resonance from the preceding note(s) and creating a muddy or fuzzy sound.

Preceded by silence

This is like the first note of a piece: putting the pedal down before playing is the "safe" choice.

Pedal off

Mid-phrase

The pedal should remain on until immediately after the following note is played. This creates a smooth connection from one note to the next, but without creating muddiness, since the pedal is released so quickly after the "next" note is played.

Using "Träumerei" again as an example, I like to create legato connections between the slurred segments, but I also like to release my hands between each slur as part of the natural phrasing. This means releasing the final chord of a slur, holding the pedal, playing the first chord of the next slur, and then immediately releasing (and reactivating) the pedal.

Schumann, "Träumerei" (op. 15, no. 7), m. 3

m. 3

(Image source: IMSLP, Alfred Dörffel edition)

Phrase end

Of course, the danger of pedal is that, since breathing while playing piano isn't restricted in the way it is for a singer or wind player, one can just pedal through an entire piece, creating one long run-on sentence.

In order to "breathe" between phrases, release the pedal with the final note of the first phrase, then reapply the pedal immediately after the first note of the next phrase (after, to avoid any carryover resonance).

Here an example is Chopin's Prelude in C minor (Op. 28, no. 20). I sometimes (but not always) release the pedal to create a silence — a "breath" — between the A and B sections.1 In the image below, the A section comprises the first line, and the B section the second (i.e., I might release the pedal at the end of the first line, then reapply it with the beginning of the second).

Chopin Prelude in C minor (op. 28, no. 1), mm. 1 – 8

Chopin Op. 28, no. 20, mm. 1 – 8

(Image Source: IMSLP, Mikuli edition)

End of piece

At the end of a piece, release the pedal either before or at the same time as releasing one's hands from the keys. Put another way, keep hands on keys until it's time for the final sound to end.

Do not release hands first, hold with pedal, then release the pedal. This too often creates either a thud (the pedal mechanism) or a distortion of the final sound (the dampers slowly contacting the strings) that ruins the ending of a piece.

See also


1 I don't always do this. Sometimes when playing this piece, or others, I connect the phrases pedal-wise to keep things smooth, but the natural decay of sound at the end of one phrase is enough to create a sense of breathing.

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  • Would you have time to mark somehow the approximate times of pedal use in the score examples? That would complement the text well, and make the examples easier to understand. Commented Jul 1 at 19:10
  • @user1079505 Good suggestion. I'll try to make time.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jul 1 at 19:11
  • The natural reverberation of the room makes a difference too, ranging from the very dead recording studio to a cavernous "very wet" church cathedral. Pianists should always use their ears. Commented Jul 1 at 19:33
  • @user1079505 I've updated the first illustration and would appreciate your feedback before I update the others.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jul 2 at 6:10
  • @Aaron looks great! It's more than I asked for! Commented Jul 3 at 0:47
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The sustain pedal holds down what's sounding at that moment, plus all the harmonics excited by their pitches. So, play the notes, and 'sort of' 'capture' them with the pedal.

They will then continue to sound (they'll still decay, but more slowly) until that pedal is released. So, the end of the note value is the usual place - for example, if there's a semibreve (whole bar note), keep the pedal down until the end of that bar - a fraction of a second before the next bar - or where the 'let go' sign appears.

Keep in mind that the sostenuto pedal does much the same.

Also, bear in mind that every other note played while the pedal's deployed will continue to sound until the pedal's released.

There are also other applications - half-pedal, and what I call 'Tim-pedal' where the notes are played percussively and staccato, and the pedal is pressed just after the notes are played, performing a kind of echo. Sorry, can't find an official name for that!

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  • For a moment I thought "Tim-pedal" is related to playing the Timpani (percussively and staccato with a mallet) :-) Commented Jul 1 at 19:34
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You’ll get a different sort of resonance by playing a note with the pedal down or playing the note and then ‘catching’ it with the pedal. It also depends if you want the pedal to just add resonance to the sound or to connect one note/chord to the next. Or both.
Don’t try to analyse the positioning of pedal markings too meticulously. What the composer often really means is ‘pedal as appropriate’.

Maybe the most usual legato pedalling technique is ‘down with the note, up-down with the next note…’.

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Theoretically it shouldn't matter whether you depress the first note or the pedal first, as long as both are down together at some instant. Different situations might make one or the other more difficult, like if the note is especially short.

A pedal release at the end of the bar means the end of the bar, after its full (exact) duration.

When consecutive measures are pedaled, you should release the old pedal at the same time you strike the new notes. That means you'll have to hold the new notes until your foot comes back down.

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