A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Pedals

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PEDALS (from pes, pedis, a foot). Certain appliances in the Organ, Pianoforte, and Harp, worked by the feet.

I. In the Organ they are keys, sounding notes, and played by the feet instead of the hands; and the Pedal-board is the whole breadth or range of such keys. When pedals were first applied to English organs—towards the end of the last century—they were made (in the words of an old treatise) to 'drag down' the manual keys; and the lowest pedal was always placed exactly below the lowest manual key. And as, in the organs of the time, the manuals of one would descend to GG with short octaves, of a second to the same note with long octaves, of a third to FFF, of a fourth to CCC, while those of a fifth would stop at the orthodox CC key; and as one organ would have an octave of pedals, a second an octave and a half, and a third two, it was quite possible to go to half a dozen organs in succession without finding any two with the pedals alike, either in position or approach towards efficiency. The earliest specimens, too, were toe-pedals, like those at Halberstadt [ page 582, fig. 12 ]; but after a time long pedals, fitted in a frame, were introduced, and called 'German pedals.' Modifications in the form and plan of the pedal-board soon began to be made. Radiating pedals, struck from a centre some distance to the rear of the organ stool, were made by Elliott & Hill, and attached to the York Minster organ in 1834. Concave pedals, slightly rising at the extreme right and left to meet the shortened reach of the feet, precisely as the plane of the bob of a pendulum rises as it swings to and fro, were introduced into England by Schulze in 1851. Mr. Henry Willis combined the two in his ' concave and radiating pedal-board.' A fifth kind of pedal-board consists of parallel pedals, like those first described, but with the fronts of the short keys slightly radiating.

The compass almost universally adopted in England for the pedal-board, extends from CCC up to tenor F, 30 notes—2½ octaves. Occasionally they are carried up even to G. Bach wrote once only up to F—in his Toccata in that key—and two or three times to E [App. p.745 "for wrote once only up to F read wrote twice up to F and once up to F♯"]. Once he wrote down to BB, for the sake of preserving a certain figure unaltered. His usual upward compass was to tenor D; and Mendelssohn never wrote higher than that note for the Pedals.

The right position for the pedal-board is with the centre one of the three C pedals under the 'middle C' key of the manuals. With this as a starting-point, and the long pedals measuring about 2½ inches from centre to centre, the distance of the several intervals can be soon ascertained. The two breaks in each octave where there are no short keys—between B and C, and between E and F—are also excellent guides which are readily available to a practised touch. The position for the front of the short keys of the straight pedals, is in a line with the fronts of the short keys of the Great Manual. With radiating pedals this arrangement is necessarily modified. Occasionally some other pedal than C is placed under the C of the manuals, to bring the extreme upper pedals within more easy reach. This disturbs the position of the whole pedal range that is in constant requisition, for the accommodation of a few notes that are rarely used.

Composition Pedals. Pedals placed above the pedal-board throw out or draw in the stops in groups. When they act upon the wind and not upon the stops, they are sometimes called Combination pedals, and are practically the same as the 'Ventils' of the old German organs, and the 'Pedales des Combinaisons' of the modern French builders.

Swell Pedal. The treadle, usually placed to the extreme right, by which the swell shutters are opened or closed. The pedal is lowered by the pressure of the foot, and raised again by the weight of the shutters. In the Town Hall organ at Boston, U.S.A., built by Walcker, the swell is opened by the pressure of the toe and closed by the pressure of the heel; and, what is most useful, remains in any intermediate position in which the foot leaves it. This good arrangement has been adopted by Messrs. Lewis & Co. in their fine organ in Glasgow Hall.

Other pedals, horseshoe-shaped as well as of other forms, are sometimes introduced to act upon the manual and pedal couplers.

[ E. J. H. ]

II. In the Pianoforte, the pedals are levers, usually two,[1] which are pressed either to diminish or to increase and prolong the tone of a pianoforte. That for the left foot, the piano pedal, acts by reducing the number of strings struck by the hammers, or softens their impact either by interposing a strip of felt, or by diminishing their length of blow. That for the right foot, the forte pedal, takes the dampers out of use altogether, or allows the player, by judicious management with the foot, so as to avoid confusing the sound, to augment and prolong it by increasing what are called sympathetic vibrations, an invaluable help to the beauty of tone of the instrument. Pedals were first adapted to the harpsichord to relieve the hands from the interruption of moving stops. This 'beautiful invention,' as C. P. E. Bach calls it (Versuch etc. 1762, 2ter Theil, p. 245), was attributed by him to 'our celebrated Herr Holefeld,' but Mace, in 'Musick's Monument,' enables us to claim the invention for the English harpsichord-maker, John Hayward, about 1670. The pedals were attached on either side of the stand upon which the harpsichord rested, as they did in the grand pianoforte until 1806, or even later. The name of the inventor of the lyre-shaped frame for the pedals is not forthcoming. Zumpe's square piano (1766 and later) had stops next to the left hand of the player, to raise the dampers in two divisions.[2] Stein's and other German pianos had a lever to be pressed by the knee. Real Piano and Forte pedals first occur in John Broadwood's patent of November 1783. The piano he effected by damping the strings near the belly-bridge with a strip of soft material which he called a 'sordin' or mute; the second by taking away the dampers from the strings. Sebastian Erard placed the strip of cloth between the hammers and the strings, an invention which Adolphe Adam, in his Tutor for the Paris Conservatoire, baptized as celeste. The Germans call it flauto pedal, and Herr Bösendorffer, of Vienna, has lately reintroduced it in grand pianofortes as a third pedal, which may be fixed by a notch when an almost dumb instrument is required for practising. The 'celeste pedal' cannot however rival the Æolian charm of the shifting pedal, first introduced by Stein in his Saitenharmonica, the beauty of which arises from the vibrations of the unused strings which are excited from the soundboard; and as they have not been jerked by a hammer-blow, they sound with another and more ethereal timbre than those which have been struck. What a hold this took on the imagination of Beethoven may be seen from the slow movement to his 4th PF. Concerto (1807) and the Solo Sonatas, op. 101, 106, 109, 110, 111, in all of which the shifting pedal plays a great part. It is this quality of which Chopin, the great master of the refined use of both pedals, made so much in his compositions and his performance. The piano pedal used to be controlled in its shifting by a small stop or wedge in the righthand key-block, so that the shift could be made to either two strings or one at the discretion of the player. The latter was Stein's 'spinetchen,' the una corda or eine Saite of Beethoven, who expressed the return to the three strings by Nach und nach mehrere Saiten, Tutte le corde, or Tutto il cembalo (op. 101). The one-string shift in grand pianofortes has been for many years discarded, sharing the fate of the extra pedals that produced an imitation of a bassoon, or added a drum, a bell, etc. The use of the celeste pedal was indicated by Hummel with a special sign, thus ◬.[3]

Turning to the Forte pedal, Pollini invented, and Thalberg, Henselt, and Liszt carried to the farthest limits, the relief of the hands by the use of it. Indeed it gave the pianist the equivalent to a third hand; since it was no longer necessary to bind the fingers to the keys during the measured values of the notes; but by combining stronger expressed tone with the use of the pedal a melody could be made prominent, while the fingers were immediately free to take a share in the accompaniment or what not, in any part of the keyboard. By this expedient all harmonious extensions become possible. The effect of the forte or damper pedal is to increase the tone of the note struck by calling out the partial tones of lower notes which are equivalent to its full vibrating length or prime; the strings of higher registers becoming primes to the partials composing the note struck; in both cases by relation of measurement and by excitement from the soundboard.[4] The pedal thus adds a wonderful enrichment to the tone. The modern signs for its use and disuse are respectively 'Ped.' and ⊕, or a star. Herr Hans Schmitt, in his admirable lectures on the pedals (Das Pedal des Clavieres, Vienna 1875), proposes for the finer use of this pedal a notation beneath the usual staves
{ \new Staff \with { \override StaffSymbol #'line-count = #1 } \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 6/4 \override Score.Clef #'stencil = ##f { b'2 r } }
, thus by note and rest marking the action of the foot with the greatest nicety.

An important pedal (Pédale de prolongement ou tonale; Germ. Kunstpedal) was introduced by Montal of Paris, a blind man, and exhibited by him in 1862 in London. [See Pianoforte.] The object of it is to allow selected notes to vibrate while the rest are immediately damped. It has been again brought forward by Steinway and others, and its value much insisted upon. We cannot however believe that it will be of use in a concert room. The Kunst-pedal of Herr Zachariae of Stuttgart divides the row of dampers by four cleft pedal feet into eight sections, and thus facilitates the use of the staccato. [See Sordini.]

III. In the Harp the pedals are not keys, as in the Organ, nor do they modify the colour and amount of the tone, as in the Piano; but it is their province to alter the pitch in two gradations of a semitone each. The mechanical contrivance for this is described in the article Harp. [See vol. i. p. 687.] The invention of these chromatic pedals is attributed to a Bavarian, named Hochbrucker, about 1720. The gradual improvement and extended use of them culminated in 1810, in the Double Action harp at that date perfected by Sebastian Erard.

[ A. J. H. ]


  1. Piano or Soft Pedal (Fr. Petite pedale, Germ. Verschiebung, Pianozug); Forte or Loud Damper Pedal (Fr. Grande pedale, Germ. Grosses Pedal, Fortezug).
  2. The division of the dampers in grand pianos was retained until at late as 1830, by division of the right pedal-foot.
  3. This arrangement of the shifting soft pedal exists in an unaltered grand piano of John Broadwood's dated 1793. It is thus possible that in this form it may have been an invention of that maker, or, if not his, an English invention simultaneously with Stein's.
  4. The partials above the prime also excite their equivalents in vibrating length, but will probably not be audible above the third or fourth. Owing to equal temperament-tuning the fifth partial could only be very feebly excited. At the seventh and eighth we arrive about the striking place of the hammer by which those partials are obliterated.