Pedal keyboard

Pedal keyboard

A pedalboard (also called a pedal keyboard, pedal clavier, or, with electronic instruments, a bass pedalboard) is a keyboard played with the feet that is usually used to produce the low-pitched bass line of a piece of music. A pedalboard has long, narrow lever-style keys laid out in the same semitone scalar pattern as a manual keyboard, with longer keys for C, D, E, F, G, A and B, and shorter, higher keys for C#, D#, F#, G# and A#. Training in pedal technique is part of standard organ pedagogy in church music and art music.

Pedalboards are found at the base of the console of most pipe organs, theatre organs, and electronic organs. Standalone pedalboards such as the 1970s-era Moog Taurus bass pedals are occasionally used in progressive rock and fusion music. In the 2000s, MIDI pedalboard controllers are used with synthesizers, electronic Hammond-style organs, and with digital pipe organs. Pedalboards are also used with pedal pianos and with some harpsichords, clavichords, and carillons (church bells).


1200s to 1500s

The first use of pedals on a pipe organ grew out of the need to hold bass drone notes, to support the polyphonic musical styles that predominated in the Renaissance. Indeed, the term pedal point, which refers to a prolonged bass tone under changing upper harmonies, derives from the use of the organ pedalboard to hold sustained bass notes. These earliest pedals were wooden stubs nicknamed "mushrooms" which were placed at height of the feet. These pedals, which used simple pulldowns connected directly to the manual keys, are found in organs dating to the thirteenth century. The pedals on French organs were composed of short stubs of wood projecting out of the floor which were mounted in pedalboards that could be either flat or tilted. Organists were unable to play anything but simple bass lines or slow-moving chorale melodies on these short stub-type pedals.

There were two approaches used for the accidental notes (colloquially referred to as the "black" notes). The first approach can be seen in the 1361 Halberstadt organ, which uses shorter black keys which are placed above the white keys. Other organs positioned the black keys on the same level and depth as the white keys. The first pedal keyboards only had three or four notes. Eventually, organ designers augmented this range by using eight notes, an approach now called a "short octave" keyboard, because it does not include accidental notes such as C#, D#, F#, G#, and A#. The 17th-century north German organ builder Arp Schnitger used an F# and G# in the lowest octave of the manuals and pedal keyboards, but not a C# and D# .From the 16th to 18th centuries, short octave keyboards were also used in the lowest octave of upper manual keyboards.

By the fourteenth century, organ designers were building separate windchests for the pedal division, to supply the pipes with the large amount of wind that bass notes need to speak. These windchests were often built into tall structures called "organ towers." Until the fifteenth century, most pedal keyboards only triggered the existing Hauptwerk pipes already used by the upper manual keyboards. Beginning in the fifteenth century, some organ designers began giving pedal keyboards their own set of pipes and stops. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the pedal division usually consisted of a few 8' pipes and a single 16' or 32' pipe. By the early seventeenth century, pedal divisions became more complex, with a richer variety of pipes and tones. Nevertheless, the pedal division was usually inconsistent from one country to another.

1600s to 1700s

By the beginning of seventeenth century, organ designers began to give pedalboards on large organs a larger range, encompassing twenty-eight to thirty notes. As well, German organ designers began to use longer, narrower pedals, with a wider space between the pedals. As well, by this point, most pedals were given a smoother lever-action by including a fulcrum at the back of each pedal. These design changes allowed performers to play more complex, fast-moving pedal lines. This gave rise to the dramatic pedal solos found in German organ works from composers from the Lutheran Organ School, such as J.S. Bach. In Bach's organ music the cantus firmus melody, which is usually a hymn tune, is often performed in the pedal, using a reed stop to make it stand out.

Several sources, including an encyclopedia on the organ, claim that the pedalboard design improvements of the 1600s allowed the organist to actuate the pedals either with the toe of the foot or with the heel. However, organist Ton Koopman argues that "Bach's complete oeuvre [can be played] with the pedal technique of his time, in other words without the use of the heel." Koopman claims that in "Bach's day toe and heel pedalling was not yet known, as is evident from his organ works, in which all the pedal parts can be played with the toe.

In the 1600s and 1700s, pedalboards were rare in England. A critic for the New York Times in 1895 argued that this may explain why Handel's published organ works are generally lighter-sounding than those of J.S. Bach. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the pedal part of organ music was rarely given its own staff. Instead, the organ part would be put into two staves, which were mostly used for the upper and lower manual parts. When the composer wanted a part to be played with the pedal keyboard, they marked "Pedal", "Ped.", or simply "P". Often these signs were omitted entirely, and the the player would have to decide if the range of all the parts or the lowest part was appropriate for the pedal keyboard. This lack of specification is in keeping with many other aspects of Baroque musical performance practice, such as the use of improvised chords by organists and harpsichord players in the figured bass tradition and the use of improvised ornaments by solo singers and instrumentalists.

1800s to 1900s

In the late 1820s, the pedalboard was still fairly unfamiliar in the UK. In the organ at the Church of St James at Bermondsey in 1829, "a finger [manual] keyboard was added for those unable to play with their feet." If an organist was performing a piece with a pedal part, "an assistant was needed to play the bottom line of the finger keyboard, offset on the bass side of the console." In 1855 in England, Henry Willis patented a concave design for the pedalboard which also radiated the ends keyboard outward and used longer keys, bringing the end keys closer to the performer. This design became widely used in the UK and in the US in the late 1800s, and by 1903, the American Guild of Organists (AGO) adopted it as their standard.

In the 19th century and early 20th century, the pedal division also underwent changes. The pedal divisions from the Baroque era had tended to include a small number of upper pedal stops, which allowed performers to perform higher-range melodies with the pedalboard. In the 19th century and early 20th century, organ designers removed most of the upper pedal stops, and used pedal divisions which were dominated by 8' and 16' stops. This design change, which coincided with the musical trend for music with a deep, rich bass part, meant that pedalboard was used mainly for the performance of bass parts. By the mid-19th century, the pedal part of organ music was increasingly given its own staff, which meant that organ music began being printed in three-stave systems (upper manual, lower manual, and pedal keyboard). Whereas early organ composers left the way that pedal keyboard lines were played to the discretion of the player, in the later 19th century, composers began indicating suggested foot usage. In addition to indicating whether the left or right foot should be used, symbols would indicate whether the toe or heel of the foot should be used. The left toe was often indicated with a "^" symbol, and the right toe with a "v" symbol. The left heel was indicated with a "u" or "o" symbol below the stave, and the right heel was marked with a "u" or "o" symbol above the stave.


In the 1990s, standalone electronic MIDI controller pedalboards became widely available on the market. MIDI pedalboards do not produce any tones by themselves, and so they must be connected to a MIDI-compatible electronic keyboard or MIDI sequencer and an amplified loudspeaker to produce musical tones. In the 1990s and 2000s, some churches began using electronic-trigger equipped pedalboards for the 16' and 32' stops. The MIDI information from the electronic pedalboard sensors triggers pipe organ sounds from digital sound modules (e.g., Wicks CM-100, Ahlborn Archive Modules, or Walker Technical sound generation), which are then amplified and fed through loudspeakers.

These MIDI systems can be much less expensive than metal or wooden bass pipes, which are very costly to purchase and install, due to their heavy weight (up to one ton per pipe), large size, and need for large amounts of wind. Another rationale for using MIDI systems is that it may be easier to get a focused sound with a MIDI system, because all of the bass tone emanates from a single speaker or set of speakers. With traditional pipes, it can be difficult to give the pedal division a focused sound, because the large pipes tend to be spread out over the entire organ pipe chest.

This cost-saving measure has been the subject of controversy in the organ scene. Advocates of the use of MIDI pedal divisions argue that a good quality MIDI system will produce a better tone than an inexpensive set of bass pipes with money-saving "shortcuts" such as using stopped pipes and resultant tones to reduce the number of pipes that are needed. However, critics dislike the way that the use of MIDI pedal divisions blends electronically-amplified lower voices with the natural, wind-driven upper ranks. Willi Apel and Peter Williams argue that by definition, an organ must make its sound by air flowing through pipes. Some critics argue that the bass tone from a MIDI pedal division, which comes from an amplified 12" subwoofer, is not as "natural" and "open-sounding" as the vibrations from a massive, wind-driven 32-foot pipe.



Pedalboards range in size from 13 notes on small spinet organs designed for in-home use (an octave, conventionally C2-C3) to 32 notes (two and a half octaves, C2-G4) on church organs. Modern pipe organs typically have 30- or 32-note pedalboards, while some electronic organs and many older pipe organs have 25-note pedalboards.

Besides the number of pedals, the two main identifying aspects of a pedalboard are: (1) whether all the pedals are at the same height relative to the floor ["flat"], or whether the pedals in the middle are lower than those on out outer edges, forming a curved-in shape ["concave"], and (2) whether all the pedals are completely parallel to each other ["parallel"], or whether the pedals are closer together at the far end than at the end closest to the organ console ["radiating"]. Specifications vary by country, organbuilder, era, and individual tastes.

Exact design specifications for pedalboards are published in the United States by the AGO (which requires a 32-note concave/radiating board), in Great Britain by the RCO (which requires a design similar to the AGO's), and in Germany by the BDO (which allows both 30- and 32-note pedalboards, of both concave/radiating and concave/parallel varieties).

Pedal division

In an organ with more than one keyboard, the stops and the ranks that the stops control are separated into different divisions, in which the ranks of pipes are grouped together so that they will make a "focused" or coherent sound. The pedal division, which is played from the pedal keyboard, usually has stops of 16' pitch. The sound of the pedal division is generally voiced so that the pedal division will complement the sound of the Great division. Common 16' stops found in the pedal division include the 16' Bourdon and the 16' Trombone. Eight foot stops include the 8' Open Diapason. More rarely, pedal divisions may include higher-register stops, such as the 4' Choral Bass. When pedal parts are performed, a 16' stop is usually paired with an 8' one to provide more definition. For pedal parts that need accentuation, such as the Cantus Firmus melody in a 1600s organ piece, many organs have a nasal-sounding reed stop in the pedal division.

A small number of pedalboards have a pedal divide system which enables the organist to split the pedal board at its mid-point. With this system, an organist can play a melody with the right foot and a bass part with the left foot.


In some organs, a wooden panel called a "kickboard" or "kneeboard" is installed above the pedalboard, between the pedals and the lowest manual keyboard. Expression pedals, coupler controls and toe studs (to activate stops or stop combinations) may be located on or set into the kickboard. Expression pedals are used to open and close shades or shutters that enclose the pipes of a given division. Combination pistons are used to make rapid stop changes from the console on organs with electric stop action. Toe studs are pistons that can be operated by the feet which change either the pedal stops or the entire organ.

In some organs, a "pedalboard check" mechanism is used as a safety catch, to shut off the pedalboard keys when it is engaged. The mechanism prevents the pedalboard notes from being accidentally sounded during a part of a performance which is only written for the upper manuals.


The works of Dutch composer, organist, and pedagogue Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) contain the earliest example of an independent part for the pedal, rather than a sustained bass drone. His work straddled the end of the Renaissance and beginning of the Baroque eras, and he helped establish the north German organ tradition.

Dietrich Buxtehude (1637 – 1707), who was the most renowned composer of his time, was famous for his "virtuosity and innovation at the pedal board." The young Johann Sebastian Bach was influenced by Buxtehude, who used the pedal board "as a full-fledged keyboard and devot[ed] virtuoso passages to it. J.S. Bach used the pedal to perform the melody in works such as his setting of the Christmas hymn, “Good Christian Friends Rejoice", in which the main theme is in the pedal. Bach also wrote compositions that use the pedal for dramatic virtuoso displays of scales and figurated passage-work in preludes, toccatas, fantasias and fugues.

There are a small number of organ compositions that are written solely for the pedal keyboard. English organist and composer George Thalben-Ball (1896–1987) wrote a piece entitled “Variations on a Theme by Paganini” for pedal keyboard. Based on Paganini's “Caprices”, a virtuoso work for solo violin, it includes pedal glissandi, leaps from one end of the pedalboard to the other, and four-note chords.

Firmin Swinnen (1885-1972) was a Belgian organist who became famous in the US in the 1920s for his theater organ improvisations during silent films. Swinnen wrote a pedal cadenza for an arrangement of Widor's Fifth Symphony. The cadenza was published separately by The American Organist. The publisher promoted the cadenza it as the "most daring, the most musical Pedal Cadenza obtainable"; this praise is corroborated by reviewers who were at the performance, who remarked at the complex footwork required by the work. The symphony was performed 29 times during the week of its premiere, to "...literally screaming audiences...who had never seen such a sight as an organist up on a lift [platform] in the spotlight playing with his feet alone".

Although the pedalboard is generally used for the bass part, some composers of the twentieth century have used it for higher parts. In his serene Le Banquet Céleste Olivier Messiaen places the tune, registered for 4' flute (and higher ranks), in the pedals.

In non-Classical music

Jazz organ

After jazz organist Jimmy Smith popularized the Hammond organ in jazz in the 1950s, many jazz pianists "... who thought that getting organ-ized would be a snap ..." realized that the Hammond "... B-3 required not only a strong left hand, but killer coordination on those foot pedals to really get the bass groove percolating. Many jazz organists from more recent decades perform the bass line with their left hand on one of the keyboards. Organists who play the bassline on the lower manual may do short taps on the bass pedals – often on the tonic of a tune's key and in the lowest register of the pedalboard – to simulate the low, resonant sound of a plucked upright bass string.

In popular music, the pedaling style may be more varied and idiosyncratic, in part because jazz or pop organists may be self-taught. As well, the pedaling styles may differ due to the design of electromechanical organs and spinet organs, many of which have shorter pedalboards that are designed to be played primarily with the left foot, so that the right foot can control a volume (swell) pedal.

Rock and Fusion

In the 1970s, some progressive rock groups such as Yes, Genesis and Rush used standalone Moog Taurus bass pedalboards. As well, some pop groups (e.g., The Police) and fusion bands have used bass pedalboards to produce sounds in the bass range. They are most commonly used by keyboard players as an adjunct to keyboards, but can be played in combination with other instruments (e.g., by the bass guitar or electric guitar player), or by themselves.

Standalone pedalboards usually have a 13-note range and short pedals, which limits the types of basslines which can be performed to fairly simple passages. If the group's bass guitarist or electric guitarist is playing the pedalboard from a standing position, they could only use one foot at a time to play, which would further limit the types of passages which could be performed.

The BASYN analog bass synthesizer is a 2 VCO analog synthesizer which uses a 13-note "button board". Instead of using organ pedalboard-style pedals, the player depresses momentary pushbutton switches.

MIDI and synthesizer pedalboards

In the 1990s, standalone electronic MIDI controller pedalboards became widely available. Unlike the Moog Taurus pedalboards, MIDI pedalboards do not produce any tones by themselves; they must be connected to a MIDI-compatible electronic keyboard or MIDI sequencer to produce musical tones. In jazz organ trios, a keyboardist using this type of pedalboard will usually connect it to a MIDI-compatible electronic Hammond organ-style keyboard. On modern electronic synthesizers such as the Yamaha Electone, the pedals are not limited to traditional bass notes but may instead produce many different types of sounds, including high-register tones. MIDI pedalboards offer a range of features, depending on the price. Some MIDI pedalboards contain velocity-sensitive triggers, which allows a performer to use dynamics in their performance. MIDI pedalboards such as the 13-note Roland PK-5 include a row of MIDI toe switches above the pedal keyboard, to allow the performer to select preset tones or channels. Larger 25-note Roland pedalboards also include an expression pedal for controlling the volume or other parameters.

Some MIDI pedalboards are designed for the church pipe organ market, which means that they use AGO specifications such as a 32-note range. Most pipe organ-style MIDI pedalboards are too unwieldy for transportation, so they are typically installed under the upper manuals. However, a German company makes a MIDI pedalboard which has a hinge in the middle and wheels on the underside, which allows it to be moved more easily. Since AGO-specification MIDI pedalboards are often priced in between $1000 and $3000 USD, some amateur home organists make DIY MIDI pedalboards by retrofitting an old pedalboard with MIDI. Due to the popularity of theater organs and Hammond organs during the 1960s, there are many organ parts on the market, including 25-note pedalboards. After the pedalboard is cleaned up and the glass reed switches are repaired or replaced, the pedal contacts are soldered into a keyboard matrix circuit-equipped MIDI encoder, which can then be connected to the MIDI input of a digital sound module to create a bass organ tone .

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