Dynamics (music)

Dynamics (music)

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,


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 "strong".

More subtle degrees of loudness or softness are indicated by:

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

Beyond f and p, there are also

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

To indicate an even softer dynamic than pianissimo, ppp is marked, with the reading pianissimo possibile ("softest possible"). The same is done on the loud side of the scale, with ƒƒƒ being fortissimo possibile ("loudest possible").[1][2]

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 ƒ's (sometimes called "fortondoando") or p's. 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. It also appears in Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 (Prelude). 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 Fifth Symphony. Igor Stravinsky used ƒƒƒƒ at the end of the finale of the Firebird Suite. 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 Études No. 13 (Devil's Staircase), which has at one point a ƒƒƒƒƒƒ and progresses to a ƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒ. In Ligeti's Études No. 9, he uses pppppppp. 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. Usually, the extra f's or 'ps written reinforce either ff or pp, and are usually only for dramatic effect.

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 an s prefixing the new dynamic notation, and the prefix is called subito. Subito is Italian as are most other dynamic notations, and translates into "suddenly".[3] 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 forceful, sudden accent and is abbreviated as sƒz. Regular forzando (fz) indicates a forceful note, but with a slightly 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. Rinforte () is also available.

Gradual changes

In addition, two words are used to indicate gradual changes in volume. These words are crescendo and diminuendo. Crescendo, sometimes abbreviated to cresc., literally translates "to become gradually stronger", but is interpreted as louder gradually, and the correct Italian diminuendo -- abbreviated as dim., means "to become gradually softer". The alternate and made-up English word decrescendo, abbreviated to decresc., also means "to get gradually softer". Signs sometimes referred to as "hairpins"[4] 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, cresc. molto and dim. molto are often used, where the molto means much. Similarly, for slow changes cresc. poco a poco and dim. poco a poco are used, where poco a poco translates to little by little.[5]

A good example of a piece that uses both gradual changes and quick changes in dynamics is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's fantasy overture, Romeo and Juliet.

Words/phrases indicating changes of dynamics

(In Italian unless otherwise indicated)

  • al niente: to nothing; fade to silence. Sometimes written as "Music-diminuendo.svgn"
  • calando: becoming smaller
  • calmando: become calm
  • crescendo: becoming stronger
  • 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 strong and then immediately soft
  • morendo: dying away (may also indicate a tempo change)
  • marcato: stressed, pronounced
  • pianoforte: soft and then immediately strong
  • sforzando piano: with marked and sudden emphasis, then immediately soft
  • sotto voce: in an undertone (whispered or unvoiced)[6]
  • 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 some dynamic terms, including forte, piano, più piano, and pianissimo (although written out as full 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.[7] 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.[8]

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. ^ Treblis Software, "Dynamics"
  2. ^ The musical cyclopedia: or, The principles of music considered as a science by William Smith Porterand Lowell Mason (p. 132 "Fortissimo or ƒƒ very strong and ƒƒƒ as strong as possible ...")
  3. ^ http://www.8notes.com/glossary/subito.asp
  4. ^ Kennedy, Michael and Bourne, Joyce: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (1996) → Hairpins
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ "Sotto voce" in Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1946, New York: The MacMillan Company)
  7. ^ Donington, Robert: Baroque Music (1982) WW Norton, 1982. ISBN 0-393-30052-8. Page 32.
  8. ^ Donington, Robert: Baroque Music (1982) WW Norton, 1982. ISBN 0-393-30052-8. Page 33.

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