Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Newfound Music Festival: 8 PM Concert Programmes (Thur/Fri/Sat)

Newfound Music Festival VII

Crossing Boundaries

Thursday, 28 January, 8PM.  Petro-Canada Hall

Maureen Volk:                                              Toccatas, by Clifford Crawley                                             
Michelle Cheramy:                                       Gustnadoes, by Derek Charke
Jay Sorce (guitar):                                       Another’s Fandango, by John Anthony Lennon
Jay Sorce:                                                      Shard, by Elliott Carter
Steve Cowan, Andrew Wicks:                   Gwan, by Scott Godin
Gina Ryan:                                                      Diastemas, by Alcides Lanza                                    
Derek Charke:                                               Lumière Immobile, by Derek Charke                                    
Leibel, Bendzsa, Regehr, Volk:                   Palm Court Songs of the Buble Ring, by John Greer

Friday, 29 January, 8PM.  Petro-Canada Hall
Paul Bendzsa, Andrea Lodge                      Shooting the Moon, by Clark Ross
Calvin Powell, Krista Vincent                     Peter Quince and the Clavier, by Andrew Staniland 
Derek Charke:                                                Disturbances of Circadian Rhythm, by Derek Charke
Hodgson, Cheramy, Cook                           Tu n’y trouveras que du vent, by Yoshiaki Onishi
Andrea Lodge, Jay Sorce                            Sonata for Guitar and Piano (1995) by Charles Wuorinen

Saturday, 30 January, 8PM.  Petro-Canada Hall
Music of the Americas
Dawn Avery, cello
Adam Batstone, Tim O’Brien, Slvie Proulx, guitars
Andrew McCarthy, Alex Peppard, Rob Power, Andrew Rideout, Whitney Rowe, percussion                                          
Jeff Dyer, vocalist
Bill Brennan, piano and percussion
Chris Davis, bass
Aaron Hodgson, trumpet
Paul Bendzsa, woodwinds

Ritmo Jondo (Flamenco), by Carlos Surinach
El Quitapesarus, Comfort, & Pajarillo (Venezuelan traditional)
Carousel, by Andy Narrell
Selections from North American Indian Cello Project, by Dawn Avery

¡El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido! by Sergio Ortega (arr.)

Kalimba, by Inti-illimani

Brazilian set: (Balanga Beico, Capivara, and Quando Amanhece (by Celso Machado); O cantador, by DCaymi / N. Motta


(January 28, 2010)

Choral Room
PC Hall
DF Cook Recital Hall
Large Classroom
Martin Lussier: Montreal Buzz;
Celebrating "musiques émergentes"

Andrew Staniland/Paul Bendzsa:
Looping Outside the Box; custom looping routines using max msp

Education Round Table Discussion: Is Creativity Killed in the Classroom? (10:30 – 11:45)

Derek Charke:
Presentation on his Music

Education Round Table on Creativity,

Student Recital 1
Maureen Volk: Help! I Need a Canadian Piece: Playable (and Appealing) Works for Piano
Sebastien Despres (12:30):
Faith in the Power of Music

Melanie Redmond:
Pedagogical Piano Works of
 Anne Crasby

Student Recital 2
Alison Corbet:
Inner Space/Outer Space

Dawn Avery:
North American Indian Cello Project
Derek Charke:
Flute Masterclass


Carla Safrany:
Propaganda Music in Zimbabwe

Derek Charke:
Sound Ecology


Stacie Dunlop:
Schoenberg's Vocal Style

NB: Video-Conferencing Room
Rebecca Draisey-Collishaw:
Fusions and Confusions

Saturday Composition Recital: 6:45 PM

Hi all,  please provide programme information in the comments area below (titles, performer's name, your name).

Programme Order

Mary Beth Waldram: In A Dream
1. Rushing Colors
2. A Dance with You
Justin Guzzwell, piano

Kate Bevan-Baker : Three Pieces for Solo Piano
1. Twinkle
3. Ragged
Justin Guzzwell, piano

Megan Barnes: The Big Blue World
1. The Drop Off
2. Gravity
Megan Barnes, piano

Steve Cowan: Three Pieces for Solo Piano
pianist TBA?

Jessica Blenis : "Epiphany"
II. Elision
III. Efflorescence
Kim Codner, piano

Adam Batstone:
I. The Funeral
II. Recolletion
Tim Purdy, piano

Kim Codner: "Music Therapy"
Kim Codner, piano

Robbie Brett: TBA
Performer: TBA

Andrew Rideout: Three Pieces for Piano
Dylan Varner-Hartley, piano

Joshua White:
I: 2 vs. 3
II: 3 vs. 4
Robbie Brett, piano

Aiden Hartery: Suggestions for Piano
I - Breeze
II - Cascade
Andrew Coffin, piano

Justin Guzzwell: Three Pieces for solo piano
Justin Guzwell, piano

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lessons with Dr. Derek Charke?

As discussed in class today, the visiting composer for the Newfound Music Festival, Dr. Derek Charke, is prepared to offer short lessons to Mu4100 composition students during his residency here.  The only days we can do this are Wednesday and Friday, both of which I know are already pretty busy days for a lot of you.  But let's try this anyway; please indicate a time in the "Comments" section below that you could meet with Dr. Charke on Wednesday or Friday afternoons between 2 and 4PM.

I will suggest a lesson time of 20 minutes; it is not very long, but it is a longer feedback period than we usually have time for in class, and I'm a concerned about not overloading Dr. Charke's schedule if possible.

I will let find out what room we can use and post that info asap.  I can also put a notice about the room on my office door.

Available times:

2:00  Joshua White

2:00  Kim Codner
2:20  THIS SLOT IS FREE!!! (Adam cancelled)
2:40  Robbie Brett, esq.
3:00  Aiden Hartery
3:20  Andrew Rideout
3:40  Mary Beth Waldram

(If you need more times, let me know asap!)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Sampling of Ideas and Techniques for Composing


  1. Modes of limited transposition (Messiaen’s term), 
  2. Non-Messiaenic modes of limited transposition (e.g., modes that repeat every 2 or 3 8ves)
  3. Non-Western scales (e.g., pelog, slendra (Indonesia),  Hejaz scale (middle east, and flamenco; AKA Phrygian dominant scale, Jewish scale), Indian scales, etc.)
  4. Octatonic scale (A.K.A. “diminished scale”)
  5. Pentatonic scales (i.e., anhemitonic (e.g., CDEGA), hemitonic (e.g., EFGBC), hirajoshi (e.g., ABCEF), etc.
  6. Whole-Tone scale
  7. Any other made-up, or synthetic, scale


  1. Added-Value Rhythms
  2. Additive Rhythms
  3. Cross Rhythm
  4. Eastern European (asymmetrical; 2+2+3, 2+2+2+3, 3+2+2+3, etc.), West African, and other world rhythms
  5. Free (“timeless”, no sense of pulse)
  6. Isorhythms
  7. Jazz (?)
  8. Mixed meters ( 3/4 | 5/8 | 2/4 | 7/16 |, etc.)
  9. Motor rhythms (continuous motion)
  10. Non-retrogradable
  11. Nonretrogradable Rhythm
  12. Polymeters
  13. Polyrhythms
  14. Polytempo
  15. Rhythms or phrase lengths based on Fibonacci (or other) Numerical Series.
  16. Tempo fluctuations (i.e., sudden/gradual tempo changes, metric modulation)


  1. Various programmatic moods, such as aggressive, pretty, wistful, playful, demented, nervous, sad (various kinds), numb (catatonic), angry, fearful, etc.
  2. New jazz, third stream
  3. Fusions; combining popular music genres (rock/electropop/trance/hippety-hop, etc.) with various post-tonal art-music devices
  4. Minimalism (repetitive (trance-inducing); sparse and static (trance-inducing))
  5. New simplicity
  6. Borrowing/adopting elements of music from other cultures: Japan, Eastern Europe, India, etc.
  7. Expressive (romantic) versus Non-expressive (mechanistic)


  1. Any systematic (or non-systematic) approach to harmony not rooted in tonality
  2. Clusters
  3. Extended and non-tonal tertian harmony (e.g., Scriabin’s “mystic” chord)
  4. Extended instrumental and vocal techniques (multiphonics, prepared piano, etc.)
  5. Graphic notation
  6. Hindemith’s approach to harmony (from The Craft of Musical Composition)
  7. Indeterminacy, aleatorism, controlled aleatorism
  8. Klangfarbenmelodie, texture-based organization
  9. Microtones
  10. Mixed media
  11. Modulation
  12. Motivic unity; set theory (post-tonal); using a limited number of specific intervals
  13. Music without melody
  14. Nihilism, Antimusic, Decategorization, Biomusic, (what the heck do these terms mean?)
  15. Non-Tertian harmony (secundal, quartal, quintal)
  16. Planing
  17. Pointillism
  18. Polyrhythms
  19. Polystylism
  20. Polytonality, polymodality
  21. Quotation
  22. Saturation (Ligeti, industrial music)
  23. Serialism (“total;” creating series of dynamics, articulations, registers, timbres)
  24. Serialism (pitch)
  25. Spectral music
  26. Any combination of the above

Writing for Piano

  How do you write idiomatically for piano? Non-pianists often find it a challenge to write well for the piano, and even experienced pianists can struggle with this. Here are some considerations that may help:

You don't need to be a Good Pianist in order to write Good Piano Music

    Virtually all the "great" (and even "pretty great") composers from Bach forward were also known as excellent keyboard performers; when they wrote for keyboard instruments, they really knew what they were doing!  

   However, it is not necessary to be able to perform well on an instrument in order to write well for it.  While most of the great composers were excellent keyboardists, they also wrote well for all the instruments in an orchestra, many of which they likely could not play well (or even at all).  The ability to play an instrument can be a great asset in learning to write idiomatically for that instrument, but it is not essential. Ravel and Ligetti are cited below as composers who were not virtuoso pianists, but who wrote extremely well for piano.

   That said, I recommend that anyone wishing to become a better composer develop at least some piano proficiency. It can give you a better intuitive understanding of how to write idiomatic piano music, and it is one of the two most useful instruments on which to compose any type of music, including orchestral; the other is the computer, but computer notation programmes do not, by themselves, give you a sense of how to write idiomatically for instruments, ensembles, and voices.

Mind the Gap!

   When writing chords (solid or broken), take into account that (i) the gap between thumb and index finger on each hand is wider than the gap between the remaining fingers, and (ii) the left and right hands mirror each other (so the gap in the LH is on the right, and vice-versa in the RH).

Aerial view of typical piano right-hand position: Note the gap between thumb and index finger.
 Note also the Day-Glo red fingernails, facilitating the location of wayward fingers under poor lighting conditions:

Shrewd readers will have noticed this thumb-to-index-finger gap already, perhaps at a very early stage of development (!), and may be asking, "So what?"

Well, okay then! Here you go:

→ A chord with adjacent notes to be played by thumb and index fingers (such as the first chord below) is difficult to play if there is also a wide gap between the index and little fingers.  Not necessarily impossible, just more difficult.  It may be that the sonority you want can only be achieved by writing an awkwardly-spaced chord like this; that may be fine, but be aware that writing lots of awkwardly-spaced chords is likely to be seen by pianists to be unidiomatic, and may cause them to be less inclined to perform it.

The first chord in the examples below is awkward, or even impossible for some pianists; try playing it (but don't try too hard, lest you hurt yourself!) to see why it is problematic.

In the second example, the gap between the thumb (1) and index (2) fingers makes playing this chord relatively easy if the performer's hand can span a 9th, but performers with smaller hands would find the stretch difficult.

The third example below demonstrates a trick that can sometimes be used to circumvent this challenge: The pianist can play two adjacent notes with the thumb, as long as they are both white notes, or both black notes. This works for solid chords, but not for arpeggiations, and can be indicated by a vertical square bracket adjacent to the notes to be played by the thumb, along with the fingering.

Try playing these yourself at a piano — they are all for the right hand — to get a feel for the relative ease or difficulty of each hand position. Also, remember that while these examples are all solid (i.e., non-broken) chords, the same principle applies to arpeggiated chords as well:

Full Spectrum Available! (except where prohibited by law)

   There are 88 keys on the piano, but only 39 of them are between the F at the bottom of the bass clef and the G at the top of the treble clef; if you limit yourself to the notes found on the treble and bass clefs, you use only 44% of the available notes on the piano.

   Try playing sonorities (chords, melodies, arpeggios, etc.) you write in all registers (on an acoustic piano, if possible) before deciding on the register that works best. Use 8va and 15ma indications above or below the grand staff as needed. [8va above a staff = 8ve higher; 8va below a staff = 8ve lower.] Do not automatically default to using only those notes that can be notated in the treble and bass clefs.
   Besides the standard, "LH in bass clef and RH in treble clef," consider each of these options:
  1. Both hands in the treble clef, possibly using 8va and 15ma indications for the right hand (RH; see first example below), or, if you are going to be staying in an extremely high register for more than a few bars, using an "ottava" treble clef (treble clef with an "8" above it, which indicates that pitches should be played an octave higher), or even a "quintima" treble clef (15 above the treble clef, which sounds two octaves higher);
  2. Both hands in the bass clef, possibly with similar 8va/15ma indications/clef adjustments below the left hand (LH) to sound an octave or even fifteenth lower;
  3. Hands spaced very widely apart, at the extremes of the keyboard;
  4. Hands very close together, perhaps one physically on top of one the other;
  5. Crossed hands; LH playing higher notes, RH playing lower notes.
  6. Hand-over-hand; long arpeggio or scalar pattern starting at one end of the keyboard and continuing to the other end, with each hand taking turns playing the notes.
   Here are examples of the above that I made up; play them, and see if they give you any ideas for your own compositions:

   All six examples are in the audio clip below, separated by a second or two of silence; the first has an extra bar not visible above:

Texture and Patterns

   Decide on a music texture, and try to keep it consistent for the duration of a section or even an entire piece if writing a short composition (e.g., 1-2 pages). Longer compositions are likely to have multiple texture changes, but shorter pieces tend to be relatively consistent in terms of texture (e.g., Bartok: Mikrokosmos).

   The choice of texture is of course up to you (every choice you make in composition is up to you!) but one way to make an informed choice would be to look at textures in a variety of piano scores, and borrow/commandeer ones you like.

   Try to avoid getting so caught up in studying scores that you get overwhelmed, however; if you want to buy a pen, and go into a store with a thousand to choose from, your decision would be considerably more difficult than if you went into a store with only three pens. Confucius probably said something like this.  If not him, then perhaps another wise person, such as Yogi Berra, or Groucho Marx.

     Patterns are commonly found in much piano music, particularly in the left hand. Examples include various forms of the Alberti bass (repetitive-pattern broken chord figures), left hand chordal patterns in waltzes (boom - chuck - chuck ...), various arpeggio figures such as the ones used in the C-major or C-minor preludes in book 1 of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, or the considerably more demanding arpeggiation figures in the C major Etude from Chopin's collection (here's a link to a performance on YouTube).  See these patterns and others in the music examples below.

This is not to suggest that patterns must be used in your music, but be aware that idiomatic patterns are easy for muscle memory to retain, grasp, and execute. This is true for any instrument, and for the voice as well.

   Frequent pattern changes can be more challenging to perform than occasional ones, simply because there is more for the brain to process in a given time period. However, music in which a given pattern continues for too long can sound predictable and monotonous. It is presumably for this reason that the left hand, Alberti bass pattern in Mozart's famous Sonata "facile" in C major, K. 545 (see opening bars below), is used in the four bars and then it breaks off, not used for another twenty bars, at which point it returns only briefly.

   On the other hand, several of the preludes from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier continue repeating a single pattern of the opening bar for almost the entire piece (e.g., C major, C minor, D Major from book 1), and then there's pattern-based minimalism, in which repetitive patterns are at the core, although subtle shifts tend to occur that can sustain interest. Clearly, a listener's sense as to how long is too long for pattern repetition depends on context, and what is going on musically.  In the case of the cited Bach preludes, the harmonic progressions sustain our interest throughout the course of these works.

   In my experience, early-stage student composers can struggle with this issue, either changing patterns too frequently and for reasons that seem inconsistent with musical logic (such as changing an accompaniment pattern twice in a relatively short phrase), or repeating the pattern for too long, and then changing it unexpectedly and illogically. 

   To summarize, patterns are used frequently in piano music, especially as accompaniments, and it is useful for composers to be aware of this. We also need to be aware of inherent challenges in performing the music we write; frequent pattern changes, or awkward, unidiomatic patterns can make music difficult to play, and can convey less musical logic to listeners. Depending on the challenge, and whether the performer understands the logic behind it or not, writing challenging music can sometimes have negative consequences, such as flawed performances, a performer's loss of confidence in the competency of a composer, a reluctance to perform the work at all, and outright hostility. And yes, I speak from experience…

   On the other hand, most performers I have known have had no objection to performing challenging music if they understood the musical logic behind the challenges, and the writing was idiomatic. 

Various Patterns and Textures in Bach, Mozart, and Chopin

Bach: WTC I, Prelude 1                                   Bach: WTC I, Prelude 2

Mozart: K. 545, I                             Mozart: K. 310, III

Mozart: K. 570, II

Mozart, K. 332, I

Mozart, K. 467, II

Chopin: Etude, op. 10, no. 1

Chopin: Nocturne, op. 9, no. 2

Establishing a Kinesthetic Connection. With the Universe Piano.

   Although you do not have to play piano well in order to write well for it, establishing a kinesthetic (i.e., tactile) connection with the piano can help you to develop a better feel for writing idiomatic piano music.

   Write a few bars of piano music, then go to the piano and see how it feels to play it. This is a kinesthetic exercise, the point of which is to develop some tactile connection between the music you write and the way it feels to play it on the piano.  If you are a non-pianist and are perhaps reacting to this suggestion with sudden-onset apoplexy, don't concern yourself too much if/when you play wrong notes (unless they are off by an octave or more... then you may wish to worry); the goal is to find out how it feels to perform your music, not to find out how your music sounds.  A good pianist is likely to play the right notes.  Think of yourself as an actor in a movie playing the part of a pianist; the actor just has to pretend to play the piano and move his/her hands accordingly, while the actual sound would be overdubbed later, performed by a competent professional.  Hopefully.

   Or, do the opposite: Compose a few bars at the piano, then enter the music on your computer or write it down, evaluating your musical fragment as you do.  How many motives are there? Are they related?  How can this idea be expanded? Work on these things for a while away from the piano, and then return to the piano to hear how your added bits sound/feel.

   Either way, the point is to try out your music at the piano.  Don't rely solely on your notation programme's playback function as you compose, because it won't give you a feel for the music; it can play passages without hesitation that sound great to your ears, but which are extremely impractical or even impossible for a performer.

   I also recommend doing this kinesthetic exercise with very challenging music by the great composers (e.g., Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Bartok, etc.); simply attempting to perform a bar here, a bar there, will give you a sense of what is possible in terms of idiomatic writing for piano.

On Attempting to "Out-Shred" Liszt and Rachmaninoff

   "Shredding" refers to impressively fast, loud, and flashy playing of an instrument, usually guitar. But you can apply the concept to piano as well; Liszt did!

   Attempting to outdo or emulate the great romantic composers in writing works of spectacular, showy virtuosity may not be wise in the early stages of compositional training. There is much to be said for simplicity: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler" (attributed to Einstein, but many people have articulated a similar sentiment, notably the 14th-century philosopher and theologian, Ockham, and possibly Yogi Berra as well).

   I do not mean to suggest that one should never write showy, flashy compositions — highly-skilled performers like to show off (there's a sweeping statement!), and showy, flashy compositions allow them to do this. 

   However, most composers associated with this type of music (e.g., Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Albéniz, Brahms, Prokofiev, etc.) were themselves spectacularly-accomplished piano virtuosi, and as such, they understood the capabilities of the instrument better than most non-pianists and pianists alike. If you are reading this blog post because you wish to improve your ability to write idiomatically for the piano, then perhaps trying to beat Liszt and Rachmaninoff at their own game (i.e. write showier, flashier music than they did) may not be a very practical way to do this.

   There are, as every composer knows (and embraces!), exceptions to every rule or sweeping statement, of course. Maurice Ravel was one of the greatest composers of piano music that ever lived, but he evidently did not consider himself sufficiently skilled to perform his more challenging compositions, and he is described as merely a "competent pianist" in Wikipedia (Wikipedia: Maurice Ravel, retrieved 18 Jan. 2014). György Ligeti (28 May 1923–12 June 2006) has said he never became a "good pianist" because he did not begin piano lessons until he was 14, and yet he has written some impressively-virtuosic piano music, such as his three volumes of Etudes, and his Piano Concerto. Here's an example:

L.H. and/or R.H. Octaves; For what purpose?

   Although it is possible to play many bass lines in octaves if the notes don't move too fast, don't make that your default approach to writing for the left hand (or the right hand, for that matter); the ear can tire of constant octaves pretty quickly. One or both hands playing in octaves can be an effective way to bring out a melodic line, and/or create more sound volume than would otherwise be the case, but octaves are likely to be more effective if used sparingly, perhaps saved for a particularly dramatic section, as in the two examples above in which left-hand octaves are used (Mozart, K. 332, bar 157, and Chopin, Etude, op. 10, no. 1).
   If you wish to double a melodic line in octaves, consider having each hand play the melody two (or more) octaves apart (as in #5 below); the effect is quite different than a line doubled one octave higher or lower, and it (i.e., #5) is also easier to play than having all the octaves in one hand.

   Below is a one-bar passage, mostly in 16th-notes, played at a relatively quick tempo, in eight different versions (discussion to follow):

Recordings of the above examples:

   The initial passage in the left hand is, by itself, fairly challenging, because it moves quickly (8 notes per second) and doesn't follow a pattern. If it were a rapid chord arpeggiation, pianists would find it less challenging because they typically practice arpeggiation patterns that span multiple octaves; you see this sort of thing in piano concertos frequently. Check out the start of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto to see what I mean.

   Although #1 is not an easy passage, a good pianist should be able to play it cleanly in each hand with a little practice.

   If you ask the pianist to play the left hand in octaves (as in #3 above), the difficulty level increases significantly. There are undoubtedly pianists who could play #3 cleanly in one hand at this speed, but (a) it would likely require a tremendous amount of practice, (b) it possibly would not be played cleanly every time, (c) the pianist would probably play it with staccato articulations on many 16th-note in order to get through it in tempo, and (d) it seems likely to be intimidating and discouraging to many pianists.

   If you give octaves to each hand (#8), you have just upped the difficulty level another few notches, which is bordering on insanity!

   Regarding examples 3 and 8 above, students have occasionally told me that a particularly challenging or awkward passage they have written is playable by someone they know, so there is no need to change it. This may be true, but if a passage seems likely to be extraordinarily difficult for most pianists, the question becomes, is it worth it? Examples 5, 6, and 7 sound quite similar to example 8, but they are less challenging for the performer (although they too are not easy); is the relatively small difference in sound worth asking the pianist to put so much work into it, and the risk that it will not be performed cleanly?

   I would not write anything like #8, UNLESS the pianist had expressed a desire for an extraordinarily challenging score, AND I showed them the passage was told they could play it, AND I listened to them playing it and liked it.

   There are other options: You could add selective octave doubling within each hand if it does not add significantly to the difficulty level, like this:

  #9 might be pushing the limits of what is reasonable to ask of a pianist, but it's worth trying if you want a somewhat-bigger sound than #7, and if you show it to a pianist to get their take on it.

   Another option involves octave displacements between LH and RH; this works well, but bear in mind that, at least in this example, the pitch changes are twice as slow as in previous examples, although the surface-level 16th-note activity remains the same:

    Always have a good reason for writing a passage in octaves. The main justifications for such a passage are (a) you want the big sound that octaves can give you, or (b) you like the colour (including the colour of octaves played quietly). If you want octaves for their colour, also consider both hands playing the passage one, two, three (or more if feasible) octaves apart; each of these options produces a slightly-different colour.

Having each hand play octaves simultaneously, as in #8, is entirely feasible if the notes are moving less quickly, or if the notes are following a familiar pattern for the pianist, like an ascending chromatic scale, for example. 

Pedal Power

   Consider the pedals. Or, more precisely, consider what they do, and how they differ. Once you are done considering them, consider writing piano pieces that use the two pedals that hardly ever get used: Una corda, and Sostenuto.

   There are three pedals on most grand pianos and many uprights, yet most composers only ever require (or at least politely ask) the pianist to use one. This need not be the case, although it is of course fine if you only use the sustain (also called "damper," which seems counter-intuitive since it lifts the dampers from the strings, as opposed to dampening them) pedal, or no pedal at all.  But no matter what pedals you use, make sure you indicate your intentions in the score.

   Here are the three pedals, and what they do on a grand piano:

  1.    Una corda, or "soft" pedal (on the far left).  Its function is, as you might guess, to soften the sound, but bear in mind that it also changes the tone colour slightly.  A chord played using the soft pedal can sound just as loud as a chord played without it (if you play the una corda chord more forcefully to compensate for the effect of the soft pedal), but the timbre will be slightly different. 

       Una corda, by the way, means "one string" in Italian; on a grand piano, depressing this pedal will shift all hammers slightly so that only one string is struck, producing less sound than when all strings (two or three, depending on the register) are struck, which is what normally occurs when you play a note on piano. 

       If you have not spent much time looking inside a piano to see what happens when a note is played, or when the una corda pedal is depressed, give it a try next time you have the opportunity! It's very interesting. The score indication for this pedal is: una corda, or U.C., followed by tutti le corde, or tre corde, or even * to release the pedal.

  2.    Sostenuto pedal (the middle pedal on most grands), described in Wikipedia as "the least used pedal of the three on the piano." This makes it sound a bit like the poor cousin of the pedal family, but it can produce very attractive resonance effects, and can be a useful device for contemporary composers. 

    What it does, and how it works:  It causes the piano to sustain only selected notes, while continuing to dampen others. If you (a) depress any number of piano notes, (b) depress the sostenuto pedal, then (c) release those notes but keep the sostenuto pedal down, those notes will continue to ring, although other notes will not.  The sostenuto pedal sustains only the notes that are sounding at the point the pedal is depressed, as well as the overtones of those notes.

       Its ability to produce selective resonances can create interesting sound effects.  If you silently depress several notes that are in the harmonic series of another pitch and then depress the sostenuto pedal, when you play the fundamental staccato, and fairly loud, to be effective, we hear the attacked staccato fundamental, which is dampened immediately, followed by ringing harmonics of that note. Or, you could do the opposite, as in the example below in which fundamentals are depressed silently in a low register, while overtones are articulated forcefully in a higher register. 

       As with any sound effect, overuse may reduce its impact, but, if you like this idea, consider finding interesting ways to use it as the basis a piece, perhaps a study.  If you want piano notes to be depressed silently, make sure you give the pianist sufficient time to to this; try this yourself at a piano to get a feel for the time required.

       Most uprights do not have this feature.  Instead, many have a middle pedal that dampens the sound in a much more pronounced way than the regular una corda pedal (which itself can produce an interesting effect).  To create a sostenuto pedal effect on an upright, you can silently depress notes in one hand and keep them depressed while you play other notes in the other hand; the example below can be played this way.

       The score indication for the sostenuto pedal is: "Sost. Ped." followed by * to release it, and composers usually indicate the notes to be sustained with nonstandard note-heads, such as diamond shapes: 

  3.    Damper, or "sustain" pedal.  This is the default/standard pedal; it lifts all dampers from the piano strings, causing them to continue sounding while hands are removed from the keys (which would otherwise result in dampers being lowered onto the strings, killing the sound). This is the pedal to which "ped." indications refer, followed by * to release it. You can also use line/bracket indicators for this pedal:  _______^________^_______|

  4.    Even if you use only the damper pedal in your compositions, I recommend indicating in your scores as clearly as possible where you want it used, and where it is to be lifted.  I used to do this inconsistently, thinking that pianists would probably prefer to make their own judgements as to when to use the pedal. While this may be true of many pianists, it resulted in lots of questions from performers about my intentions regarding pedal use, and writing scores that cause performers to request clarity on what we want is an inadvisable practice for composers. I therefore try to be as specific as possible now, but I also usually let pianists know that they are free to use their own judgement regarding modifying my pedal indications.
    Another use of the damper pedal is to provide sympathetic resonance to notes played on other instruments, somewhat similar to the sostenuto pedal. If the damper pedal is depressed and loud notes are played by other instruments or sung, you should be able to hear the resonance of these notes in the piano.  The instruction, "play into piano" is sometimes used to achieve this effect.

  The texture discussion above on the challenge of finding a balance between too much repetition with too little, which is something that I have written about in other posts, if you still have a pulse and wish to check them out: