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My son (7 y/o) is learning piano. Currently, he is using my crappy keyboard I bought over 20 years ago. I am looking at buying him a digital piano with proper key weightings and key velocity (something my keyboard lacks).

My question is: do I need to get a digital piano with all three pedals or is it reasonable to get one with just the sustain pedal? This choice effects the price. I doubt my son will ever be a great musician, but I do not want to have to buy another piano in x years time.

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I would differ from Wheat Williams’ answer.

The sustain pedal is essential. A variable-resistance sustain pedal, often marketed as “half-damper”, will also make a world of difference: non-variable-resistance have an entirely different feel, and your son starts on those, then he will have to largely re-learn his sustain pedal usage when he gets to a real acoustic piano.

The second (“soft”) pedal is fairly helpful, mainly for giving your son the right general foot positions, but is not so essential — while it is fairly commonly used, there is not so much subtlety in its use, at least in early and mid stages of playing, so it should not be hard for your son to pick up later.

The third pedal, I would say, is not so important at all. Its use is typically a fairly advanced technique; it is not required for any of the standard repertoire; and many acoustic pianos don’t have it, so most players have always learned without it. Your son will only need to learn it if he takes to the piano very seriously, in which case he will be needing to take lessons and practice elsewhere anyway (e.g. getting access to a music-school practice room, or similar).

  • 1
    A "graduated" sustain (right) pedal, i.e. not one which is just an on/off switch, is essential, and that is what causes most of the price differential. – user19146 Mar 27 '15 at 23:44
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TL;DR

If I were you, I would care only about the sustain, and made sure the piano and the pedal support more than just on and off states.

Surely, if your son keeps practicing there will be a time when the other pedals will start to make a difference. However, you should think then about getting an acoustic piano.


The three main pedals of the piano are:

  • the first (right) is the sustain pedal,
  • the second (left) is the soft¹ pedal,
  • the third (middle) is the sostenuto² pedal (it might be absent in some old pianos).

The first one is essential, moreover, you want the piano to recognize more than just on/off positions, that is, the so called half-damper or half-pedaling. Even early pieces may use this feature to great effect and you would like your kid to learn that the pedal is also to be played, not just stepped on.

The second pedal changes the timbre and using it is actually an advanced technique. There are several points to make:

  • I don't know the percentage, but many people won't hear the difference (some are unable to hear, some don't pay enough attention, some dismiss it as something else, whatever).
  • Notation for the second pedal is quite rare, most often it is a subject of interpretation. Knowing when and by how much is not easy, but at first that can be supplied by the teacher.
  • When pressed too much, most low- and some medium-quality acoustic instruments sound like a cardboard box. Personally, when unsure, I prefer to avoid it (on such instruments pressing very little doesn't make a difference) rather than ruin the sound. BTW, this is a nice cheat if you would like to assess the piano quality fast.
  • Keeping the pedal at precise position one wants for a longer time when playing can be hard.

Summing that up, the second pedal won't matter until later, and when it does, then a lot of other details will matter too, so it's better to consider an acoustic instrument.

The third pedal is mostly used for more advanced pieces. Please note that although it has a reputation for being an advanced technique, there is nothing complicated with it, really. On the other hand, it actually becomes useful only when two hands is not enough, e.g. with complex chords, too big spread or convoluted poliphony. For example, the first time I've used it was in some Rachmaninoff, while the first time it made a big difference was d-minor fugue from Shostakovich's Op. 87 (that piece is hard to forget). In other words, even if its usage is rather simple, it is not useful to a beginner musician (one case where it is useful: practicing jazz scales or progressions, where your left hand uses voicings that sound terrible without the bass note, but you can use also some play-alongs for a better effect).

I hope this helps ;-)


¹ The soft pedal of a grand piano shifts the hammers, which makes the timbre different. On upright pianos it only brings the hammers closer, so the sound is softer, but the timbre stays the same.

² The upright pianos rarely have the sostenuto pedal, instead it's usually the "practice" pedal which slips a layer of cloth between the hammers and the strings, so the piano is much more quiet.

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This is not absolutely essential but it is helpful.

The three pedals enable the musician to learn the techniques necessary to play with the pedals on a real acoustic piano. If you are going to spend money on a digital piano with all three pedals, make sure that the model you are buying has a feature called half-damper pedaling. Some of the brands of digital pianos with three pedals do not support the half-damper effect, which is an important technique to learn.

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On acoustic pianos, with three pedals, there is always the sustain pedal. It obviously works in a different way from that on a keyboard, but the effect is similar - it allows the notes just played to continue sounding when the keys are not still pressed down. On an acoustic, it allows some sympathetic vibration of any other strings to add to the sound.Some electronics will have a 'half-damper' effect, but that won't really be needed for several years yet.

The 'soft' pedal won't be needed on a keyboard, much, as the volume could be turned down, or he could play softly anyway - again, several years hence.

The third pedal varies on acoustics. The main options are between a practice pedal, which makes the piano sound a LOT quieter, often by putting a piece of felt between hammers and strings. Very useful in a house with neighbours...The dynamics still work well, so it's a good thing to have.

The other third pedal can be a sostenuto pedal, which only holds on to notes that are pressed down when it's operated. Up to maybe Grade V music won't feature its use, so it's not essential. I'd even say that by the time your lad needs that, he'll need a far, far better piano anyway!

On many keyboards, pedals are assignable anyway, so they're future-proof from your point of view.

  • Note that good electronic keyboards reproduce the "sympathetic vibration of any other strings" in addition to the standard sustain effect. Furthermore, most of nowadays digital keyboards (even low-mid-range) support the half-damper effect. – comicurus Sep 7 '16 at 14:30
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You probably don't need three pedals for a keyboard. If he wants to (or you want him to) play softly, there's a volume knob for that. Or a headphone jack. As far as the sustenuto pedal, I've been playing piano for decades, and I've never once used sustenuto even on a real acoustic piano. I can't imagine your seven-year-old son needing a sustenuto pedal unless he's a prodigy playing a very specific type of piece that calls for it.

But make sure the one sustain pedal you get looks and feels like a real piano pedal instead of one of those super-cheap mini pedal units that manufacturers sometimes include with their keyboards. You can find a decent, realistic sustain pedal for under $20 on Amazon.

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