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What Does the Middle Pedal on a Piano Do – Do You Need Them?

What Does the Middle Pedal on a Piano Do – Do You Need Them?
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Have you observed the pedals on the piano? What are they meant for?

Photo Credits: Kim Crist, flickr.com

Many intending pianists are thrilled by the piano. They fantasize about that moment when they will lay hands graciously on this instrument. Ironically, the hands are not the only required body part for playing the piano. The legs via the use of pedals are as well important. 

In clear terms, many of these people are caught up making the most of the piano keys. Ironically, they leave out the pedals which are equally very important.

The keys are not all there is to playing the piano. The regular piano also consists of pedals. These pedals are designed to influence dynamics while playing the piano. This implies that you can play soft or loud, play staccato, selects keys or notes to be sustained, among others.

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These features have also changed over time, as will explain subsequently in the course of this writeup.

These tendencies are carried out via the use of pedals. In this piece, we will stress answers to the question of what does the middle pedal on a piano do?

If you prefer a visual explanation of this article, below is a detailed and helpful video.

Video: What Does the Middle Pedal on a Piano Do (Do You Need Them)

What is the Middle Pedal

As the name suggests, this pedal is in the middle. It is also called the sostenuto pedal. The word sostenuto is an Italian word meaning “to sustain”.

Photo Credits: erocsid, flickr.com

Ironically, the name sostenuto means the same as a sustain pedal. This is because they both mean “to sustain”, except that it is stated in different languages. Considering that these two pedals share the same name, what is the difference between sostenuto and sustain pedal?

The Two Sustaining Pedals

Of a truth, sustain pedals and sostenuto pedal share similarities. They sustain notes on the piano as their names suggest. However, the difference lays in how this is done.

Sustain pedals employ a more general approach while sustaining the keys. On the other hand, the sostenuto pedal is selective of the keys it sustains. Let’s be more pragmatic as we explain how to use these pedals.

For sustain pedal, you press the pedal and it influences every key or note played after it is applied. So, as long as your legs are applying pressure to the pedal, the sounds of the keys played while this is done will be sustained. 

Rather than the staccato effect, you will have tones overlapping into each other. This is as opposed to the brief sound of the keys without the effect of the sustain pedal.

On the other hand, the sostenuto will not influence every key on the piano. It can only affect a few as against the others. This means that while a few keys will be sustained, the others will have the usual staccato effect. Let’s go over how this happens.

The keys intended to be sustained are first played. Not long after, the sostenuto pedal or middle pedal should be engaged. This pedal will enable the keys played shortly before it is used to be sustained. Anytime these notes are used, the sound will be sustained.

On the contrary, every other key will have its usual feel except for the keys played before the sostenuto pedal was used. 

Clear Differences Between the Sostenuto and Sustain Pedals

Considering the core functions of sustaining sounds, let’s identify the major differences between these pedals.

Firstly, the pedal location sells them out. The sostenuto pedal which is also known as the middle pedal can be found in between the other two pedals. On the contrary, sustain pedals can be found on the extreme right of the three pedals.

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Secondly, the timely usage of these pedals is different. The sostenuto pedal is used after the keys or notes are played. Any key played after the sostenuto pedal is used will not be influenced by this pedal.

On the other hand, sustain pedals are used before the keys are played. As long as this pedal is applied, every key used will be sustained.

Thirdly, sustain pedals are more general in approach. It extends the sound span of any key played while it is applied. As against this technique, the sostenuto does something entirely different. Unlike sustain pedals, the middle pedal does not have a general effect.

It can only sustain a few keys. These keys are the ones played shorted before it is used. Considering that the human fingers can only play no more than 10 keys, no more than 10 keys can be sustained using the sostenuto pedal.

How Is Piano Sound Produced

Asides from the white and black keys you see, the piano consists of strings and hammer-like elements. These two elements are very crucial to their operation.

The sound is produced when there is contact between the piano strings and the hammers. On the conventional piano, every of the 88 piano keys has 3 strings each. This means there are 88 keys multiplied by 3 strings on the average size piano. In total, there are 264 strings on every piano.

Why does A Major on the first octave not sound like A Major on the second octave?

The varying sounds of the keys are as a result of two major things. The peculiarity of the string, as well as its elasticity, informs the sound produced. The lower keys on the left are thicker but less stretched. This gives them a deep but dense sound. On the contrary, the upper keys on the right have a variance with their strings.

As you move towards the right on the piano, the strings become thin but tighter. This gives the pertinent keys a sharper but high-pitched sound. Guitar players are accustomed to this system and will understand better.

As with the guitar, some strings are thick but dense, while others are thin, tight, and susceptible to cutting off. This informs why the tight and thin strings have a shorter span. In that manner, piano tuners and repairers are most particular about the tight and thin strings while dealing with this instrument. 

Furthermore, there is a provision for something called a damper. This item is used to restrict the tension of the hammer on the strings. Whenever a piano key is played, some activities will go on within the instrument.

First, after a key is struck, the hammer makes contact with all three strings of that key. The tension as a result of the contact produces the sounds we hear.

Secondly, the moment your hands are off the key(s), the dampers take their course. They hold down the strings, restricting the tensive effect of the hammer. In good time, this will make sure the sound of the string is halted.

The sostenuto and sustain pedal override this effect. After your hands are lifted from the keys, it disrupts the damper from holding down the strings. These pedals render the damper idle until they are disengaged.

How Does the Middle Pedal Work

We have established that the sostenuto pedal disengages the piano damper. However, how specifically does it do this? Also, how different does it do this as against sustain pedals?

To use them effectively, it should be used promptly. This implies that if it is not engaged at the right time, the effect will be void. So how do you use this pedal?

You are to initially strike the keys, notes, or chords you intend to sustain. You should understand that these keys will have a resonating sound even while the others are influenced by the damper.

After striking the intended keys, engage the middle pedal with your leg. This action will obstruct the damper from holding down the keys played before the middle pedal was used.

Video: What Does the Middle Pedal Do?

Below is a visual explanation of what the middle pedal of the piano does

Advantage of the Sostenuto Pedal

This pedal is one of the most intriguing additions to the piano. It allows pianists to play with a variance of the highest order.

The sostenuto pedal is the most recently invented of the three pedals. However, it was inspired by the subconscious demands of ancient pieces.

As far back as the classical period, some piano sheet music required a resonating bassline. The deep sounding melodic line intermittently provided harmonic backup for the main melody. With the invention of the middle pedal, the effect is more profound.

For instance, if a chord is central to the entire piece, it could be sustained using the sostenuto pedal. This will reinforce the major motif of the piece whenever the sustained notes are struck.

Are All Middle Pedals Sostenuto Pedals

Considering the earliest invention, the middle pedals were designed to sustain selective keys. As explained earlier, they sustained keys played shortly before they were applied.

While this function still applies to pianos today, some pianos are exempted. Rather than sustaining selective keys, this pedal used as a practice pedal in some modern pianos. This is in cognizance of piano learners, amateurs, and inexperienced hands.

The conventional acoustic piano is a loud instrument without provision for adjustment in volume. Considering this, the practice pedal is instilled to reduce the volume of the piano. With this provision, the volume of the piano is reduced, allowing players to practice and perform without disturbing others.

How Does the Practice Pedal Work

The practice pedal does not operate like the sostenuto pedal. While the sostenuto pedal is aimed at resonating some keys, the practice pedal is designed to reduce the volume.

The practice pedal achieves this by creating the right amount of barrier between the strings and the hammer. With this pedal, the strings still have contact with the hammer, however, the intensity is mild. The drastically reduced (string and hammer) contact translates to a very reduced volume. 

Although the soft pedal carries out the same function, it is not as effective as the practice pedal. The soft pedal is mainly about variance in dynamics, and not majorly about drastic sound reduction.

Does Every Piano have the Middle Pedal

What Does the Middle Pedal on a Piano Do
Photo Credits: panxinyao, flickr.com

You may have come across modern acoustic pianos with 1 or 2 pedals. This is becoming more of the trend, especially with the invention of digital pianos. In plain terms, not all acoustic pianos have middle pedals.

For the records, let’s go over the pedals in order of relative importance. Sustain pedals are regarded as the most important pedal on the piano. Its inclusion in many classical piano sheet notations validates this fact.

Many piano pieces and performance demand the frequent use of this pedal. Considering this, if you encounter a piano with one pedal, it will likely be a sustain pedal.

Arguably, the second on the list is the soft pedal. This pedal is also known as the Una Corda. It does a similar job to the practice pedal, but only with much lesser intensity. It is popularly regarded as the second most important pedal.

And that leaves us at the bottom of the chart. The middle pedal, especially as the sostenuto, is seen as the least important. Many piano players are in the dark as to its purpose. If you see a piano with two pedals, it is likely to be the pedal that is left out.

What About the Digital Piano

The digital piano does not engage the use of dampers, hammers, and strings. Although they sound and feel alike, they are entirely different as regards sound production.

How does the digital piano produce sound?

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As with the keyboard, the digital produce makes use of synthesized sounds. These sounds are samples of recorded notes from the acoustic piano. Furthermore, as against the light-weighted feel of the keyboard‘s keys, the digital piano is weighty as with the acoustic piano.

So how does the digital piano engage the middle pedal?

Some digital pianos in a bid to relive the traditional acoustic piano, install 3 pedals. However, some only use one pedal which happens to be a sustain pedal. How then does this piano carry out the middle pedal’s effects?

As touching the sostenuto effect, this quality is digitalized in many digital pianos. At the click of a button, you can have this effect play out while performing. This saves the stress of timely coordinating your legs to align with hand performance on the keys.

However, for conservatives or acoustic inclined pianist, there are lots of digital pianos that retain this function the age-long way. These products have three pedals as against one or two.

What About the Practice Pedal

This is not a cause for concern with the digital piano. Considering that the digital piano allows for volume reduction, there is no need for the practice pedal. Furthermore, with the option of headphones, this function is properly addressed.

This is because, with headphones, every person aside the player is shutout from hearing the performance on the piano.

How is the Sostenuto Pedal Notated on Sheet Music

There are a couple of ways this pedal is inscribed on the staff. It could be written down in any of these ways: S.P., ThP, and Sost. Ped.

In this clime, the notation S.P. is mostly used in piano sheet music. However, it is not the only abbreviation for sostenuto pedal on sheet music.

Final Notes

Knowledge of this pedal is very important for top-notch pianists. This is a result of how many players are unaware of its main objective.

In this article, we have extensively addressed the purpose of this pedal. Furthermore, we carried out a comparative analysis of this pedal with other pedals, stating their differences, as well as the various functions on modern pianos.

The various way this pedal can be used was also listed. We hope that you now have adequate knowledge on this pedal. Start making great use of it.

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