The right pedal on a piano is the sustain pedal, usually referred to as the “damper pedal”, and occasionally by the somewhat antiquated nickname, the “loud pedal.” Its job is to disengage all the dampers of the piano simultaneously. Every piano has a sustain pedal, and it is the only pedal that functions in the same way on every piano. It is also the one pedal most pianists could not live without.
“What are dampers?” you ask.
Let’s clear that up first.
Piano dampers are designed to stop (dampen) the vibration of the piano wires for a given key when that key is depressed. When a key is depressed, the damper for that key moves away from the wires allowing the wires to vibrate until they stop naturally, or until the key is released. In the lowest (bass) registers of the piano, where the wires are longer and thicker, and take longer to stop vibrating than the higher treble notes, the damper heads are bigger, with thick wedges for the bichords (two wires per note), or thick concave blocks to stop the lowest bass monochords (one wire per note).
So, why do we need a damper pedal?
Since a damper will only stay in the “open” position for as long as its corresponding key is depressed, the sound will die as soon as the key is released. But, what if we don’t want the sound to die when we release the key? What if we want to play other notes and have the sound remain smooth and connected (legato), even after we let go of the key? Luckily, all pianos come equipped with a damper pedal, which disengages all the dampers simultaneously, allowing all the notes on the piano to ring as long as naturally possible, or until the pedal is released. This is how pianists can play a legato sequence of individual notes or chords without having to keep their fingers on all the keys at the same time. Without the sustain pedal, the music would sound choppy and disconnected (staccato), and lacking in fullness. While this can be appropriate for some repertoire, such as baroque keyboard music (think Bach or Scarlatti) written for the harpsichord, which has no sustain pedal, most piano repertoire requires the almost continuous use of the sustain pedal to sound the way the composer intended.
Just as pressing down a key on a piano to make a sound is easy to do but hard to master, the skillful use of the pedal can take years to master, but once mastered can greatly enhance the music being played, adding “color” and nuances not possible with the hands alone. The greatest pianists have all been masters of how and when to use the damper pedal.
Bonus question: How many dampers are there?
Perhaps no piano owner has ever consciously thought, “I wonder how many dampers are in my piano?”, but if you’re thinking, “One damper for every note on the piano.”, then you would be wrong. This is relevant because every piano technician, including your present writer, has had to reassure countless panicked piano owners that the ringing notes at the top end of their pianos are normal. This is because the notes in the highest treble register of a piano have no dampers (roughly the top octave-and-a-half, or about 18-22 notes). Which note has the last damper varies from piano to piano, and depends on the piano’s size and the arrangement of wires from thickest and longest, to shortest and thinnest (known as “scaling” in piano technician’s parlance).
So, why are there no dampers at the high end? As you know, the lower the pitch of a note on a piano, the longer and/or thicker the wire must be to make the sound at the right pitch. Hence, bass wires are thicker and longer than the wires of the high treble notes on a piano. Because of their thickness and length, bass wires ring longer than the high treble notes requiring bigger and heavier dampers to stop their vibrations. Conversely, the ring time of the highest treble notes can be as little as a second or two. Not only do the naturally weak high treble notes not need dampers, but they actually sound better without them. This is because the neighboring high treble wires vibrate sympathetically with the note being played, contributing to the fullness of the sound and giving the top notes a nice bell-like ring that they would not have if each note had a damper. Of course, the downside of this arrangement is that the top notes of a piano cannot give the pianist a true staccato (short & detached) sound, like the lower notes that have dampers. However, the way most music is written, the highest treble notes function like a garnish, embellishing the music that is being played in the lower registers of the piano rather than being the center of attention. Also, because the ring time of the highest treble notes is so short, the absence of dampers does not cause them to blur together into a cacophonous mess the way the lower notes would if they had no dampers. If you are a new piano owner or have just bought your first really nice piano, you might be inclined to sit at your piano in a state of justifiable wonder and fascination, randomly pressing keys to hear what each one sounds like. If so, you will eventually notice, possibly for the first time in your life, that the top notes of your piano cannot produce a true staccato. Your consternation will increase when you locate the last note that does have a damper and think that the manufacturer simply forgot to finish installing the dampers in your piano! Relax! Rest assured that every mass-produced, conventional acoustic piano that you’re ever likely to play in your life is built without dampers in the high treble, even if you have lived with pianos your whole life and never noticed this before.
If you own a vertical piano, you may be wondering if all of the above applies to your piano. Yes, it does, but because the wires in a vertical piano are laid out vertically, the entire action design, including the dampers, must be designed to fit the vertical configuration of the wires. While this design may look very different from that of a grand piano, the basic functionality is the same. Below are some photos of vertical dampers, which are usually hidden from view inside the cabinet of the piano.
(Note that vertical pianos have shorter wires and different scaling from most grand piano models, therefore, the last damper in the high treble is usually a few notes lower than on a grand piano, in this case, note #66 rather than note #69 on the grand piano example above.)
And finally, if you have ever looked inside of a grand piano and noticed that some of the dampers look as if they have been knocked out of alignment, this odd-looking sight is also part of normal piano design. This is done out of necessity to fit the dampers into the awkward space where the bass wires cross diagonally over the treble wires, known as the “tenor break”.
And while we are on the subject of the tenor break, yes, vertical pianos have them too.
Now that you have a reasonably good understanding of the damper pedal, the dampers, and some of the odd but necessary quirks of piano damper design, check back for future essays on the remaining pedals found on most pianos of the modern era, namely the left pedal, called the una corda pedal, or “soft pedal”, and the mysterious and often misunderstood middle pedal, which can have three different names (and three different functions) depending on which piano you happen to be discussing.
Until next time, thanks for reading.
Paul Yarish, RPT
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