Defining the Pedaling

Defining the Pedaling


Paint anything you want on the canvas.

Create your own world.

~ Bob Ross



I like to notate pedaling choices into my score with a certain degree of precision because pedaling affects every aspect of touch and even dictates interpretation.  I became more aware of my pedaling techniques as some of my advanced students would ask me to notate exactly what I did with the pedal to obtain a certain effect.  Traditional notation doesn’t even come near the complexities of subtle pedaling!  It captures it but fleetingly; even words like half-pedaling, quarter-pedaling or flutter-pedaling only begin to hint at the techniques employed by a virtuoso pedaler.  Horowitz went so far as to say that pedaling is a greater challenge than touch itself.

Pedaling is very closely related to the concept of pause and separation in phrasing (the subject of the following post).  Silence is not always necessary, of course.  Cleaning of the pedal anywhere clarity is sought is a powerful architectural tool.  The student separates ideas and breaks them up unaware, unintentionally, but a master breaks things and separates them deliberately for the greater good.  At the end of phrases, I often find myself very slowly lifting the pedal over a couple seconds or more, gradually dampening the overtones and clarifying the end of an idea.  This is often followed by a brief silence, catching a quick breath of air as I move forward.

Breathing between ideas is of course vocally-inspired and is typical of great pedaling.  Horowitz is the master of this.  Whether in the melody or in any of the inner voices, he manages to clarify with a quick catch of air each entrance of a new voice or phrase. This often negates the need for a special touch to grab the listener’s attention.  A simple flick of the foot creates the negative space on which to begin painting again.

Delineating phrasing can be achieved with a break or clearing of the pedal, and/or a rhythmic pause.  It’s important to be aware which of the two you're doing.  In practice, combining these two techniques and exaggerating them helps to solidify the phrase-capsules (ie smaller phrases or gestures within larger phrases/gestures) and tighten the phrase units.  Even as ideas are later re-linked, something of the separation naturally remains, and this is essential.  Don’t connect things that aren’t meant to be connected!  Doing so makes connecting ideas that ARE meant to be connected more difficult and less meaningful.  Constantly strive to clarify and simplify your phrasing.

What’s quarter-pedaling?  What’s a half-pedal?  Do you measure from the top of the pedal or the bottom?  Every piano is different and every space is different.  Just as you are the piano, the piano is the space it occupies.  Yet it’s sometimes surprising how intact a well-conceived pedaling plan travels.  Usually only minor alterations are required to adjust to the piano and the acoustic.  The rule of thumb is to always pedal with your ear, but one of the purposes of these pages is to encourage you to move beyond vague precepts into precise thought, and then forget again.

If you’re like most pianists, you probably haven’t given much thought to the relationship of the pedal to the dampers and the dampers to the strings.  It’s never an all-or-nothing situation, wet or dry.  In resting position the dampers are pressed against the strings with enough pressure that they won’t sound when other notes are depressed.  The piano technician has to be careful to establish enough pressure to achieve this while not creating so much tension that the dampers elicit a sort of plucked sound from the strings when they're lifted.

The pedal is the seashore.  Where does the shore end and the sea begin?  The sand twenty yards from the lapping water is so arid that taken out of context it could pass for the Sahara.  Yet at a certain point not always obvious, it becomes slightly moist.  Dig down even a couple inches and you’ll find mud.  Walk a little closer and the surface sand becomes visibly moist.  Not yet wet, but cool.  Great for making sand castles.  A couple feet closer and the remains of waves past will lick your feet.   Finally, after infinite gradations, you’ll reach water, that is, water that flows above the sand.  Still, it only touches the soles of your feet.  With every step into it, the effect of the water is new.  Can waves brushing against your feet compare to wading in up to your waste or neck?  Can wading compare to the full plunge or underwater explorations?

Discover the pedal again as if for the first time.  As you ever so slowly depress it, the first stop is not a quarter pedal!  By even depressing it 1%, the pressure against the strings decreases and you begin to hear a glimmer of magical overtones that weren’t there before.  The haze of overtones increases dramatically as you approach 5% and an obvious pedaled sound should be evident as you approach 10%.   Through this level and far beyond, depending on pitch and volume, the strings vibrate at various heights and brush against the dampers.  Because of the cleansing and dampening effect of this brushing, it’s possible to change the pedal by bringing it up to the 10% or 5% level, when a subtle punctuation is desired, but not a full comma.  On a more subtle level, the slightest change of pedal, from 54% to 51% say, is enough to change the color and inflection.

So what does change the pedal mean?  Try thinking of it as a simple movement up or down, down-and-up, or up-and-down.  And think of it in terms of decimals – .1 up, .65 down, slowly ascending to .0 and then plunging quickly to the depths of .9, etc.  Beyond all-or-nothing primary piano, pedaling is about precise, fluid movement more than about mere changing


The second aspect to be aware of in pedaling is the speed of the movement of the dampers and the length of the change, be it full or partial.  Moving to shallower water or out of it completely is not always enough to dry you out immediately.  Depending on the texture, volume, range and quantity of sound, a long and complete break of up to a couple seconds might be needed to completely clear the air.  Big bass sounds in particular need more time to dry out.  This can be used to your advantage in certain passages where the bass ought to remain, but the treble harmonies need to clear.  A quick change will leave most of the bass resonance and clear most of the treble resonance.

Another phenomenon of the pedal is that the higher the sound, the less it sustains, hence the lack of dampers in the highest octave-and-a-half of the keyboard.  Higher sounds require less rigorous changing, even between dissonant harmonies.  Experiment with leaving the pedal down or changing it only partially in higher-lying passages. 


Now return to our Prelude excerpt and play it through being keenly aware of the movement of your right foot.  You’ll probably be surprised by the complexity of its movements.  Try notating your pedaling into the score as if onto a scientific graph measuring precise depth in time.  This may take longer than you imagine.  The result will look like the reflection of a sweeping, jagged mountainous landscape etched with the clean simple outline of a Japanese print.

Using this as a point of departure, find points where partial or complete clearing of the pedal could heighten contrast and delineate the punctuation of thought.  Find other places where a full change might be substituted by a partial one or a quick subtle shake of the pedal.  The pedal remains in constant movement; don’t let it become static or neglected.


Another name of the damper pedal is the loud pedal, and indeed a full pedal does increase volume by about 20%.  This in itself could be the subject of a longish dissertation.  An ever-fluctuating pedal therefore requires and ever-fluctuating touch to accommodate.  Otherwise the line will be uneven and lack all subtlety.  Many amateurs use the pedal to increase the volume and create vagueries.  The fingers get lazy and let the pedal work for them.  Such milking pedaling is quickly addictive.  Find out if you’re an addict by playing a passage of Bach, say, with no pedal, and see if your equilibrium collapses, your right foot constantly returning to the pedal.

Instead of always using the pedal to ornament your finger-work, try shaping the pedal first and letting your fingers adapt.  It’s quite an opposite approach and may open your mind to the real, untapped power of the pedal. 

One last word of caution: the best pedalers use deep pedaling rarely and for special, lush effect.  Try not to descend beyond 75% unless the texture really demands it.


You need the dark in order to show the light.

~ Bob Ross