I have been playing the piano for a while now, but I'm going to ask a question which still bugs me.

When Beethoven composed his piano sonatas, did he imagine that they would sound like they do now in recent recordings? The pianofortes in his day were not as technologically advanced as the pianos in our time.

So, the question is... should his (or rather, any composer of the classical — early romantic period) pedal markings be followed to the letter, or should one exercise some discretion?

I personally use a little discretion, especially when playing the slow tempo part of the pieces. As most pianists know, the resonance of early day pianofortes is nothing compared to the resonance modern pianos are able to produce.

  • Apart from the issue of changes in the instrument, you may also want to keep an eye on whether the markings are Beethoven’s or by a later editor (which need not make them worse).
    – PJTraill
    Jun 20, 2016 at 23:30

4 Answers 4


It depends why are you playing it. If you're playing it for an exam, then you probably need to demonstrate your ability to follow the music 'to the letter'.

If you're playing for your own enjoyment. I would be tempted to encourage you to be yourself and play it however you think sounds best. Not all pianos sound alike anyway, not even modern ones.

If you're playing it for a performance at a concert / theatre etc, then maybe ask the conductor / director / producer what they think.

You could also try making recordings of yourself so you can hear the difference. Sometimes you don't hear certain peculiarities whilst playing, minor bad habits are often subconsciously dismissed. (For example, "well of course I was late playing that note, I had to move my fingers quite some distance to reach it")

As for did Beethoven imagine that his works would sound like they do in the future? The obvious answer is "No, how could he?". However, when a composer (or any artist) translates a concept/idea from the mind into a tangible form, the result is often a compromise. The concept/idea as it was perceived in one's imagination is often a grander, richer, fuller, perfect. So whilst Beethoven may be impressed/pleased with how his compositions have translated to modern instruments, he would probably have imagined the composition sounding even better still.


Yes, Beethoven's piano had less resonance. He sometimes wrote close-position chords in the bass register which, to be blunt, just sound muddy on a modern piano. And he could notate pedaling that, taken literally, sounds blurred now.

I suggest you look at WHY a passage is marked with pedal and do your best to achieve it on the instrument you're playing. Interpret 'ped' as 'con ped' - use the pedal but in a more subtle way than just plonking it down! (Actually, that's a pretty good approach to pedal markings from any period!)

I wouldn't be tempted to cite Beethoven's deafness as a factor here. He was better than that!


To expand on Lee's excellent answer, I imagine Herr v.B. would be delighted to hear any musically sensitive, imaginative, and sympathetic rendition of his music, by whatever means the interpreter deems necessary. It's about the story, not the handwriting. I have heard people play my own compositions beautifully, and it disturbs me not one bit that the version I have in my head during composition is very different to the one I hear during performance. And I know no composers personally who haven't said the same at some time or other.


You are correct-- pianos in Beethoven's time are definitely different than pianos now. Thus, Beethoven's pedaling (and others in the Romantic era) should be treated more like a guide rather than a definitive roadmap. Not sure you have access to a music library, but there are many, many score editions for Beethoven like Schnabel, Schenker, Ward/Cooper that can be illuminating to look at for ideas to do with the pedaling.

I do think actually, for any composer, you are allowed discretion. There are varying degrees-- modern composers who like to micro-manage and composed for the modern piano in mind must be followed more to the letter. However, even these modern composers can't compose for every piano in the world, located in different places with varying weather and acoustics. You'll need to adjust regardless. There can be some stark differences-- some concert halls are so "wet" that sound sticks even if you're not using the sustain pedal, etc.

I also disagree with Mr. Kowalkowski that if you're playing for an exam, you must follow the score to the letter. Bach never wrote any pedaling in his original scores (because they were for harpsichord; this can be seen as a parallel to the early piano), but it's standard practice to use pedal when playing his pieces. If you are playing for an exam, what I would do is learn the standard interpretation in conjunction with studying from the score itself and make your own judgment from there on.

  • :-) I am self-taught, I have never taken a music exam for any instrument (I've played a few instruments in orchestras though). I also don't sight-read (because I'm a lousy page turner ha ha). In my answer I was supposing if you're being observed by an examiner, and your ability to interpret sheet music is an examination criteria (I assumed it must be at some level, but I don't know), then it would not be a good idea to wilfully deviate from the score. I have no idea how harsh/pedantic music examiners are. Of course if there are no pedalling marks on the score then that is a different matter. Jul 25, 2014 at 8:44
  • By the way... welcome to "Musical Practice & Performance"! If any of the sheet music I've ever used contained pedal markings, well I've ignored them completely so far, I personally do whatever I like! :-O Keep up the excellent contributions!! Jul 25, 2014 at 9:01
  • As I understand it from a commentary on the Well-tempered Clavier (Tovey?), Bach did not write specifically for harpsichord so much as often generally for the various keyboard instruments of his time, and sometimes, perhaps, thinking particularly of the clavichord, for which he seems to have had a special affection, with its greater sensitivity to touch – but no pedal either.
    – PJTraill
    Jun 20, 2016 at 23:27

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