If you have every watched a skilled player playing the piano you will have noticed that their foot is constantly going up and down on the sustain pedal.
This has always fascinated me so I wanted to look into what the sustain pedal actually does, and whether you need one for keyboards other than a standard piano.
Do I need a sustain pedal for my keyboard? It’s hard to play piano music without a sustain pedal, since it’s essential for making your playing expressive. Sustain pedals can be used with synthesizers and other types of electronic keyboard, but often the pedals are used for making changes to the sound other than just making it sustain.
What Does a Sustain Pedal Do on a Piano?
If you look at the pedals near your feet when you sit at a traditional piano the sustain pedal is the one on the right. Some pianos have two pedals, while others have three, but the sustain pedal is always the one on the right.
As the name suggests, pressing your foot on the sustain pedal while you are playing a note (or notes) on the piano causes any tones to continue sounding after you take your fingers off the keys.
The sustain pedal is often used when playing chords on the piano. It lets you produce a smoother transition when you change chords. You play the chord, press down on the sustain pedal, and the notes of the chord keep sounding when you move your hand to play the next chord.
Other uses include playing the notes of chords individually, in arpeggios or broken chord patterns. The sustain pedal lets the individual notes of the chords keep ringing so that they all sound together even though you are playing them one at a time.
Other Names for the Sustain Pedal
You may have seen or heard the sustain pedal called by different names. One name that’s frequently used for the sustain pedal is the “damper pedal”.
Hearing it called the damper pedal confused me for quite a long time. The name suggested to me that if you pressed it down it would dampen the sound, and make it duller and the notes not sound for as long.
The name, damper pedal, comes from the way the sustain pedal works. In a traditional acoustic piano when you press a keys it causes a little hammer to hit the strings responsible for playing that particular note or notes.
The keys are also attached to a damper, with a felt surface that dampens the notes. When you press a key, as the hammer comes down on the string to make the sound, the damper for that key lifts off the strings so that the note can sound.
When you release the keys the dampers comes back into contact with the strings and stops them ringing. When you press down on the sustain pedal (or damper pedal) all of the dampers are lifted off all of the strings so that any notes played will continue to sound.
When you lift your foot off the sustain pedal all of the dampers come back into contact with the strings when notes aren’t being played, which prevents the sounds from sustaining.
What Do the Other Piano Pedals Do?
Although we’re mainly looking at the sustain pedal here, you might be wondering what the other one or two pedals on a piano actually do. There are variations in the functions of these pedals on some pianos, so we’ll only look at the most common uses here.
The Soft Pedal
The pedal on the left (regardless of whether there are two or three pedals) is called the soft pedal. As the name suggests, pressing down on this pedal makes the sound softer.
In a piano the sound of each note is produced by three, two (or one for the low notes) strings. The way this pedal makes the sound softer is by causing the hammer for each note to hit fewer strings for each note.
The Sostenuto Pedal (Is Not the Sustain Pedal)
The middle pedal on your piano (if it has a third pedal) is called the sostenuto pedal. This one really confused me for a long time, and it’s not hard to see why.
Sostenuto sounds quite a lot like sustain, and because there are so many Italian words in music I thought sostenuto might be Italian for sustain. Well, it turned out that sostenuto actually _is_ Italian for “sustained”. Confused yet?
So what does the sostenuto pedal do? The sostenuto pedal sustains notes that are already being played when you press the pedal, but notes that you play after the pedal is down are unaffected.
The sostenuto pedal works by lifting the dampers off the strings that are currently being played so that they continue to sound, while the dampers on the other strings continue to work as normal.
Sustain Pedal on a Digital Piano
A modern digital piano plays back recordings of the notes that have been taken from various types of acoustic piano. The digital piano is sensitive to how hard you hit the keys, and the when you hit the keys harder it plays recordings of the keys being hit harder on an acoustic piano.
With a digital piano the sustain pedal sends an on-off signal to the software that plays back the piano sounds. When the sustain pedal is pressed the signal sent tells the playback software to sustain the note for longer.
This relates to the envelopes that control the sounds produced by electronic instruments, which we will look at another time.
Why Would You Need a Sustain Pedal for a Midi Controller Keyboard?
Since you are likely to be using a MIDI controller keyboard to play piano sounds, at least some of the time, it is important that you have a sustain pedal available for your keyboard.
Some of the very small MIDI keyboards don’t have anywhere to plug in a sustain pedal. For this reason some have a sustain button on the keyboard itself, so that you can hold it down to sustain notes. Since these keyboards are very small they are only intended for playing parts with one hand, so the other free hand can be used to provide sustain.
I found that this takes a little bit of practice to get the coordination right. Pressing your foot up and down on a sustain pedal in time with the music seems to come more easily than pressing a sustain button with your finger.
Do Sustain Pedals Work with Synthesizers?
The first synthesizer I ever bought was a Yamaha DX11. This was a less expensive version of the DX7 that was conquering the synth world at the time.
These Yamaha synthesizers used FM synthesis, which could make all sorts of sounds but was very good at producing clangy sounds like bells and pianos. This meant that a sustain pedal worked really well with this type of synthesizer.
The back panel of the DX11 has (I say has, because I still have it) an input labeled “Foot Switch”. This enables you to plug in a sustain pedal, which as outlined above, works to turn on and off the sustaining of notes played.
It’s possible to plug a sustain pedal into many synthesizers, but often the function of the pedal isn’t to make notes sustain, it can also be used to make changes to, or even switch, the sounds being played by the synthesizer.
For this reason the pedals you might use with a synthesizer can go further than the simple “on or off” sustain pedals we have been looking at.
Some of the pedals for synthesizers enable you to rock the pedal up and down (a bit like the wah-wah pedals you may have seen guitar players use) to make your playing more expressive.
Others have two or more pedals arranged on a platform so that you can make different things happen with each.
Types of Sustain Pedal
When I bought a sustain pedal to plug into my Yamaha DX11 synthesizer I decided to get one that looked like the pedals I had seen on pianos.
This was actually the most expensive option, but at the time I was trying to use the synth to learn to play the piano, so I wanted to learn how to pedal properly while playing.
This piano-style pedal worked really well. It is (I still have it) quite heavy and grips the floor quite well, so I’m unlikely to kick it out of position. The movement of the pedal itself is really good, so applying and releasing sustain while playing is quite comfortable.
Nowadays I’m usually playing keyboard one-handed while turning knobs or dragging sliders with the computer mouse, so finessed piano playing is no longer my priority.
I need something now that will fit easily on the floor under my desk, and is small and light enough that it can be pushed around with my foot so that I can move it out of the way when I’m not using it.
The sustain pedals I use now are made of light plastic, and come in at under $10, which is great. The actual pedal in the middle of the unit is bright red, so I can spot it easily in the gloom under my desk if I need to go looking for it.