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How to use the pedal in Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

Helpful tips on how to approach pedaling in the most known piano sonata

Released on February 22, 2013

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Video Transcription

Hello, and welcome to I'm Robert Estrin, and we have a question from Umberto, who asks, "How do you approach pedaling in the Moonlight Sonata? Do you pedal throughout all of it?"

These are excellent questions. I'm so glad you asked. In fact, yes, you use pedal in some parts rather sparingly, other parts very generously, but yes, you use it throughout the whole piece in different ways. Of course the different movements have different requirements, but we're going to focus today on the first movement, the famous melodic first movement.

So first of all, just a little primer. Whenever you're using the pedals on the piano you want to keep your your heels firmly on the floor. You never want to put your pedal like this because it's noisy. So you keep the heel on the floor, and then the ball of the foot is how you control best. Always keep it in contact, because if you go from above, once again you get noise. All pedals are very different on pianos. You have to experiment to find how you could play it quietly and effectively, because they all release the dampers at different points. One of the first things you want to try out when you're playing over a concert is how the pedal responds on the instrument.

So getting to the Moonlight Sonata. As with any music, the pedal changes wherever the harmonies change. So if you were to play this piece in chords, each time the chord changes . . . and notice the pedal always comes up exactly on the beat but goes down right after the beat. So that's the secret of pedaling. The pedal always comes up exactly on the change of harmony and goes right back down again. So if I play it now not in chords, but as it's written, and with the soft pedal, the una corda pedal, depressed the entire time, you get this.

The reason for changing the pedal, coming up on the pedal exactly on the beat, is otherwise harmonies blur. If you were to play the pedal and put it down on the beat instead of up on the beat, you'd end up with this.

I can't even do it. It's so hard. I'm so trained. I'm gonna try it again. I'm gonna try to play the pedal wrong for you.

Yeah, that's also not connected. I haven't experimented with playing pedal wrong. It's a hard thing to do. Any of you who are a pianist accustomed to using the pedal, try it how hard it is to play it wrong. So get in the habit of always coming up at the change of harmonies and right back down again so you get that smooth transition, and if you're not sure where the harmonies change, break the music down to chords and it becomes very obvious for you.

Thanks for the wonderful question Umberto, and all the questions coming in and the great comments. Thank you everyone at I'm Robert Estrin. Thanks for joining me.
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paul plak * VSM MEMBER * on June 17, 2015 @2:31 pm PST
Hi Robert,
do you use the left pedal all along the piece ? Is it required ? I try to play pianissimo without it.
Robert Estrin on June 17, 2015 @4:41 pm PST
Here is an article and video on how to use the soft pedal:
Pegah on April 28, 2015 @12:20 am PST
Thank u Mr Esterin. The video was very useful for me :)
Lewis on December 3, 2014 @8:18 am PST
Thanks Robert, this really helped me. I discoverd I was always using the pedal wrong.
Hani on April 28, 2013 @8:47 am PST
Hi Robert, I'm practising Rachmaninoff- Prelude C#minor, Op 3 no 2.
It is difficult to play the last part of the score, with double grand staff. I find out that the left hand part is inversion chord of the right hand part.
Still I can't remember the pattern and melody line. Is there a way to learn easily? Thanks so much.
Robert - host, on April 30, 2013 @3:27 pm PST

I would suggest memorizing in 3 stages:
First, memorize the half note and whole note parts of each hand separately. Then, put the hands together and play for memory.
Second, memorize the eighth note parts of each hand separately and then memorize the hands together.
Finally, put both parts together. Check your work with the score and commit to memory.
You should break that last section of the prelude into sections working out each section as described above. You can learn as little as one or two measures at a time. As each section is mastered, continue learning additional sections and connect each section as you memorize them.

Good luck!

Robert Estrin
Grace * VSM MEMBER * on March 12, 2013 @7:52 am PST
What a great pedal lesson! My mom was my first and best teacher and she was a stickler for not blurring, chopping or lingering too long when crisp silence was the moment to share! A pedal can put a terrible damper on your performance. ; ) grace
ivorys101 on March 7, 2013 @11:29 am PST
I totally agree. Once you know how to pedal correctly, it's not easy to do it incorrectly!
Jerrye on March 5, 2013 @2:51 am PST
Neat! Nice to meet up with you. Thanks for the tips thus far. I, too, am interested in chords and their variations.
Robert Estrin - host, on March 5, 2013 @3:00 pm PST
Thanks for contacting me! There will be more technique and music theory videos coming. I mentioned before in this blog how I am working on an online music theory program you will be hearing about.
Joyce on February 25, 2013 @2:46 pm PST
Thankyou so much for inspiring me to practise again. I just love the Moonlight Sonata and appreciate the pedalling. I too am interested in what chords are used. I find chord progessions very fascinating but I cannot always identify them. Are you going to be explaining chords in the future. Thanks so much.
Robert Estrin - host, on February 28, 2013 @10:46 pm PST

I really appreciate your comments - thank you! I will cover aspects of chords in future videos. More than that, I am developing an online theory course that covers the subject in depth with great clarity. I was incredibly fortunate to study piano and music theory with my father Morton Estrin who is the greatest music teacher I have ever encountered. His book is the foundation for my new program you will hear about in the future.
Tim Bryant * VSM MEMBER * on February 25, 2013 @12:52 pm PST
Robert, Thank you for the great help with the sustain pedal in the moonlight Sonata. Works very well.
Humberto Cruz on February 25, 2013 @8:59 am PST
Robert, thank you so much for answering my question about use of the pedal in Moonlight Sonata. Your videos go straight to the point and are extremely useful.
Have another question that may be of interest to members of Virtual Sheet Music. It has to do with how best to play complex polyrhythms, for example,
Measure 24 of Chopin's Nocturne in Eb, Op. 9 No. 2 in which the right hand must perform some serious gymnastics to keep in time with the steady left hand bass rhythm. Measure 29 is also tricky as are the very quick notes on measure 32. Any words of wisdom regarding rhythm and fingering would be appreciated, and thanks again for your videos.
Humberto Cruz, Vero Beach FL
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