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 are relative and do not refer to specific volume levels.
The two basic dynamic indications in music are:
More subtle degrees of loudness or softness are indicated by:
- mp, standing for mezzo-piano, meaning "moderately soft".
- mf, standing for mezzo-forte, meaning "moderately loud".
Beyond f and p, there are also
- pp, standing for "pianissimo" and meaning "very soft".
- ff, standing for "fortissimo" and meaning "very loud".
To indicate an even softer dynamic than pianissimo, ppp is marked, with the reading "piano pianissimo" or pianissimo possibile ("softest possible"). The same is done on the loud side of the scale, with fff being "forte fortissimo" or fortissimo possibile ("loudest possible").
Few pieces contain dynamic designations with more than three f's or p's. In Holst's The Planets, ffff occurs twice in Mars and once in Uranus often punctuated by organ and fff 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 ffff, and Tchaikovsky indicated a bassoon solo pppppp in his Pathétique Symphony and ffff in passages of his 1812 Overture and the 2nd movement of his Fifth Symphony. Igor Stravinsky used ffff at the end of the finale of the Firebird Suite. ffff is also found in a prelude by Rachmaninoff, op.3-2. Shostakovich even went as loud as fffff in his fourth symphony. Gustav Mahler, in the third movement of his Seventh Symphony, gives the celli and basses a marking of fffff, 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 ffffff and progresses to a ffffffff. 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 fff 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 f, and then immediately after marked p while the right hand plays the melody f. 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. Apple's Logic Pro 9 uses the following values: ppp (16), pp (32), p (48), mp (64), mf (80), f (96), ff (112), fff (127).
Sudden changes and accented notes
Sudden changes in dynamics may be notated by adding the word subito (Italian for suddenly) as a prefix or suffix to the new dynamic notation. Accented notes (notes to emphasize or play louder compared to surrounding notes) can be notated sforzando, sforzato, forzando or forzato (abbreviated sfz or fz) ("forcing" or "forced"). One particularly noteworthy use of forzando is in the second movement of Joseph Haydn's Surprise Symphony.
Accents can also be notated using the sign >, placed above or below the head of the note. The > sign indicates an accent only, and is neither related to nor derived from the sign for diminuendo, even though the signs are of a roughly similar shape.
Sforzando (or sforzato or forzando or forzato), indicates a forceful accent and is abbreviated as sf, sfz or fz. There is often confusion surrounding these markings and whether or not there is any difference in the degree of accent. However all of these indicate the same expression, depending on the dynamic level, and the extent of the Sforzando is determined purely by the performer.
The fortepiano notation fp indicates a forte followed immediately by piano. Sforzando piano (sfzp or sfp) indicates a sforzando followed immediately by piano; in general, any two dynamic markings may be treated similarly.
Rinforzando, rfz or rf (literally "reinforcing") indicates that several notes, or a short phrase, are to be emphasized.
In addition, two Italian words are used to show gradual changes in volume. Crescendo, abbreviated cresc., translates as "gradually becoming louder", and diminuendo, abbreviated dim., means "gradually becoming softer". The alternate decrescendo, abbreviated to decresc., also means "gradually becoming softer". Signs sometimes referred to as "hairpins" 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:
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 greater 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 as little by little.
Words/phrases indicating changes of dynamics
(In Italian unless otherwise indicated)
- al niente: to nothing; fade to silence. Sometimes written as "n"
- calando: decreasing; becoming smaller
- calmando: becoming calmer
- crescendo: becoming louder
- dal niente: from nothing; out of silence
- decrescendo or diminuendo: becoming softer
- fortepiano: loud 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 emphasis, then immediately soft
- sotto voce: in an undertone (whispered or unvoiced)
- smorzando: becoming muffled or toned down
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.
The fact that the harpsichord could play only "terraced" dynamics (either loud or soft, but not in between), 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. 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. In addition to this, the harpsichord in fact becomes louder or softer depending on the thickness of the musical texture (four notes are louder than two). This allowed composers such as Bach to build dynamics directly into their compositions, without the need for notation.
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.
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