Dynamics (music): Wikis


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From left to right, the symbols for piano, mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, and forte.

In music, dynamics normally refers to the volume of a sound or note, but can also refer to every aspect of the execution of a given piece, either stylistic (staccato, legato etc.) or functional (velocity). The term is also applied to the written or printed musical notation used to indicate dynamics. Dynamics do not indicate specific volume levels, but are meant to be played with reference to the ensemble as a whole. Dynamic indications are derived from Italian words.


Relative loudness

Teacher. "And what does ƒƒ mean?"
Pupil (after mature deliberation). "Fump-Fump."
Cartoon from Punch magazine October 6, 1920

The two basic dynamic indications in music are:

  • p or piano, meaning "soft."
  • ƒ or forte, meaning "loud" or "strong".

More subtle degrees of loudness or softness are indicated by:

  • mp, standing for mezzo-piano, meaning "moderately soft" and
  • , standing for mezzo-forte, meaning "moderately loud".

Beyond f and p, there are also

  • ƒƒ, standing for "fortissimo", and meaning "very loud",
  • pp, standing for "pianissimo", and meaning "very soft",

To indicate an even softer dynamic than pianissimo, ppp is marked, with the reading pianississimo ("very, very soft") or pianissimo possibile ("softest possible"). Each additional "p" adds another "iss" to the word. The same is done on the loud side of the scale, with ƒƒƒ being "fortississimo" ("very, very loud").

Note Velocity in terms of Dynamic's relative to Logic Pro 8 and other digital music software.

Few pieces contain dynamic designations with more than three ƒs (sometimes called "fortondoando") or ps. In Holst's The Planets, ƒƒƒƒ occurs twice in Mars and once in Uranus often punctuated by organ and ƒƒƒ occurs several times throughout the work. The Norman Dello Joio Suite for Piano ends with a crescendo to a ƒƒƒƒ, and Tchaikovsky indicated a bassoon solo pppppp in his Pathétique symphony and ƒƒƒƒ in passages of his 1812 Overture and the 2nd movement of his 5th symphony. ƒƒƒƒ is also found in a prelude by Rachmaninoff, op.3-2. Shostakovich even went as loud as ƒƒƒƒƒ in his fourth symphony. Gustav Mahler, in the third movement of his Seventh Symphony, gives the celli and basses a marking of ƒƒƒƒƒ, along with a footnote directing 'pluck so hard that the strings hit the wood.' On another extreme, Carl Nielsen, in the second movement of his Symphony No. 5, marked a passage for woodwinds a diminuendo to ppppp. Another more extreme dynamic is in György Ligeti's Devil's Staircase Etude, which has at one point a ƒƒƒƒƒƒ and progresses to a ƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒ. In the baritone passage Era la notte from his opera Otello Verdi uses pppp Steane (1971) and others suggest that such markings are in reality a strong reminder to less than subtle singers to at least sing softly rather than an instruction to the singer actually to attempt a pppp.

In music for marching band, passages louder than ƒƒƒ are sometimes colloquially referred to by descriptive terms such as "blastissimo".

Dynamic indications are relative, not absolute. mp does not indicate an exact level of volume, it merely indicates that music in a passage so marked should be a little louder than p and a little quieter than mf. Interpretations of dynamic levels are left mostly to the performer; in the Barber Piano Nocturne, a phrase beginning pp is followed by a diminuendo leading to a mp marking. Another instance of performer's discretion in this piece occurs when the left hand is shown to crescendo to a ƒ, and then immediately after marked p while the right hand plays the melody ƒ. It has been speculated that this is used simply to remind the performer to keep the melody louder than the harmonic line in the left hand. In some music notation programs, there are default MIDI key velocity values associated with these indications, but more sophisticated programs allow users to change these as needed.

Sudden changes

Sudden changes in dynamics are notated by a s prefixing the new dynamic notation, and the prefix is called subito. Subito is italian as most other dynamic notations, and translates into "suddenly"[1]. It is usually used along with forzando (italian for "forcing"), to make subito forzando, or what most people refer to as just sforzando. Other common uses of subito are before a regular dynamic notation, like in spp, sf, or sff.

Subito forzando notation

Sforzando (or sforzato), indicates a forcefull, sudden accent and is abbreviated as sƒz. Regular forzando (fz) indicates a forcefull note, but with a sligthly less sudden accent.

The fortepiano notation ƒp (or subito fortepiano; sƒp) indicates a forte followed immediately by piano. This notation is usually used to give an unusual strong (and sudden if subito) accent.

One particularly noteworthy use of forzando is in the second movement of Joseph Haydn's Surprise Symphony. Rinforzando, rƒz (literally "reinforcing") indicates that several notes, or a short phrase, are to be emphasized.

Gradual changes

In addition, there are words used to indicate gradual changes in volume. The two most common are crescendo, sometimes abbreviated to cresc., meaning "get gradually louder"; and decrescendo or diminuendo, sometimes abbreviated to decresc. and dim. respectively, meaning "get gradually softer". Signs sometimes referred to as "hairpins"[2] are also used to stand for these words (See image). If the lines are joined at the left, then the indication is to get louder; if they join at the right, the indication is to get softer. The following notation indicates music starting moderately loud, then becoming gradually louder and then gradually quieter.

Music hairpins.svg

Hairpins are usually written below the staff, but are sometimes found above, especially in music for singers or in music with multiple melody lines being played by a single performer. They tend to be used for dynamic changes over a relatively short space of time, while cresc., decresc. and dim. are generally used for dynamic changes over a longer period. For long stretches, dashes are used to extend the words so that it is clear over what time the event should occur. It is not necessary to draw dynamic marks over more than a few bars, whereas word directions can remain in force for pages if necessary.

For quicker changes in dynamics, molto cresc. and molto dim. are often used, where the molto means a lot. Similarly, for slow changes poco a poco cresc. or cresc. poco a poco and poco a poco dim. or dim. poco a poco are used, where poco a poco translates as bit by bit.

Words/phrases indicating changes of dynamics

(In Italian unless otherwise indicated)

  • al niente: to nothing; fade to silence
  • calando: becoming smaller
  • crescendo: becoming louder
  • dal niente: from nothing; out of silence
  • decrescendo or diminuendo: becoming softer
  • fortepiano: loud and accented and then immediately soft
  • fortissimo piano: very loud and then immediately soft
  • in rilievo: in relief (French en dehors: outwards); indicates that a particular instrument or part is to play louder than the others so as to stand out over the ensemble. In the circle of Arnold Schoenberg, this expression had been replaced by the letter "H" (for German, "Hauptstimme"), with an added horizontal line at the letter's top, pointing to the right, the end of this passage to be marked by the symbol " ".
  • perdendo or perdendosi: losing volume, fading into nothing, dying away
  • mezzoforte piano: moderately loud and them immediately soft
  • morendo: dying away (may also indicate a tempo change)
  • marcato: stressed, pronounced
  • pianoforte: soft and then immediately loud
  • sforzando piano: with marked and sudden emphasis, then immediately soft
  • sotto voce: in an undertone (whispered or unvoiced)[3]
  • smorzando: dying away


The Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli was one of the first to indicate dynamics in music notation, but dynamics were used sparingly by composers until the late 18th century. Bach used the terms piano, più piano, and pianissimo (written out as words), and in some cases it may be that ppp was considered to mean pianissimo in this period.

During the Baroque period, the use of terraced dynamics was common. This meant a sudden change from full to soft, with no crescendo or decrescendo. The terraced dynamic was used for musical effect, to create an echo effect: a passage is played forte, then repeated piano as an echo. However, a major reason for the use of terraced dynamics is that the harpsichord, which was the principal keyboard instrument of the period, was incapable of gradations of volume. The harpsichord can be played either loud or soft, but not in between.

The fact that the harpsichord could play only terraced dynamics, and the fact that composers of the period did not mark gradations of dynamics in their scores, has led to the "somewhat misleading suggestion that baroque dynamics are 'terraced dynamics'," writes Robert Donington.[4] In fact, baroque musicians constantly varied dynamics. "Light and shade must be constantly introduced... by the incessant interchange of loud and soft," wrote Johann Joachim Quantz in 1752.[5]

In the Romantic period, composers greatly expanded the vocabulary for describing dynamic changes in their scores. Where Haydn and Mozart specified six levels (pp to ff), Beethoven used also ppp and fff (the latter less frequently), and Brahms used a range of terms to describe the dynamics he wanted. In the slow movement of the trio for violin, waldhorn and piano (Opus 40), he uses the expressions ppp, molto piano, and quasi niente to express different qualities of quiet.

See also


  1. ^ http://www.8notes.com/glossary/subito.asp
  2. ^ Kennedy, Michael and Bourne, Joyce: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (1996) → Hairpins
  3. ^ "Sotto voce" in Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1946, New York: The MacMillan Company)
  4. ^ Donington, Robert: Baroque Music (1982) WW Norton, 1982. ISBN 0-393-30052-8. Page 32.
  5. ^ Donington, Robert: Baroque Music (1982) WW Norton, 1982. ISBN 0-393-30052-8. Page 33.

Simple English

In music, dynamics means how loud or quiet the music is.

In written music the dynamics are shown by letters which stand for Italian words for the dynamic levels. They are listed in the table below. Notice that “piano” is pronounced the Italian way (“pi-AH-no”).

Abbreviation Italian word English meaning
  • pp
  • p
  • mp
  • mf
  • f
  • ff
  • cresc
  • dim

mezzo piano
mezzo forte

very quiet
medium quiet
medium loud
very loud
getting louder
getting quieter

use more than two ps or fs to show that the music is very, very quiet, or very, very loud. Tchaikovsky sometimes used five ps or fs, though up to three are normally found in sheet music.

Dynamic levels are not something that can be measured Exactly. Exactly how loud mp should be depends on several things: what is happening in the music, the instrument, the size of the room in which the music is being played etc. The important thing is that dynamic levels should be correct in relation to one another.

Some composers are very precise about writing the dynamics they want. Others leave a lot to the performer to decide. Historically, composers several centuries ago, such as Bach, only wrote occasional dynamic marks. Even Mozart only wrote a few, mostly p and f. By the 19th century composers were writing dynamics in much more detail in their music.

[[File:|right|thumb|Sforzando notation]]

Sometimes accents are shown by marks similar to dynamic marks. Sforzando means a strong, sudden accent and is abbreviated as sf, sfz or fz. The notation fp (or sfp) means a sforzando followed immediately by piano.

The terms crescendo, and diminuendo (or sometimes decrescendo), mean a gradual getting louder or softer. They can also be shown by signs known as "hairpins". A hairpin opening out is a crescendo, one which closes is a diminuendo.


For a quick chang in dynamics, molto cresc. and molto dim. are often used (molto means a lot). For slow changes poco a poco cresc. and poco a poco dim. are used (poco a poco means little by little, i.e. very gradually.)

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