Dynamics (music)

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In music, the dynamics of a piece is the variation in loudness between notes or phrases. Dynamics are indicated by specific musical notation, often in some detail. However, dynamics markings still require interpretation by the performer depending on the musical context: for instance a piano (quiet) marking in one part of a piece might have quite different objective loudness in another piece, or even a different section of the same piece. The execution of dynamics also extends beyond loudness to include changes in timbre and sometimes tempo rubato.

Dynamic markings[edit]

The two basic dynamic indications in music are:

  • p or piano, meaning "soft".[1][2]
  • f or forte, meaning "loud".[1][3]

More subtle degrees of loudness or softness are indicated by:

  • mp, standing for mezzo-piano, meaning "half soft".
  • mf, standing for mezzo-forte, meaning "half loud".[4]
  • più p, standing for più piano and meaning "softer".
  • più f, standing for più forte and meaning "louder".

Use of up to three consecutive fs or ps is also common:

  • pp, standing for pianissimo and meaning "very soft".
  • ff, standing for fortissimo and meaning "very loud".
  • ppp, standing for pianississimo and meaning "very very soft" (or alternatively pianissimo possibile, "as soft as possible").
  • fff, standing for fortississimo and meaning "very very loud".[4]

The overall ranking of these is:

ppp pp più p p mp mf f più f ff fff
softest loudest

A less common dynamic marking used especially by Johannes Brahms is:

  • poco forto (only rarely abbreviated to pf because of possible confusion with pianoforte), literally "a little loud" but (according to Brahms) meaning with the character of forte, but the sound of piano.[5]
Note Velocity is a MIDI measurement of the speed that the key travels from its rest position to completely depressed, with 127, the largest value in a 7-bit number, being instantaneous, and meaning as strong as possible.

Extreme dynamic markings[edit]

While the typical range of dynamic markings is from ppp to fff, some pieces use additional markings of further emphasis. This kind of usage is most common in orchestral works from the late 19th-century onwards. Generally, these markings are supported by the orchestration of the work, with heavy forte markings brought to life by having many loud instruments like brass and percussion playing at once. For instance, in Holst's The Planets, ffff occurs twice in "Mars" and once in "Uranus", often punctuated by organ. It also appears in Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 (Prelude), and in Liszt's Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam". The Norman Dello Joio Suite for Piano ends with a crescendo to a ffff, and Tchaikovsky indicated a bassoon solo pppppp (6 p) 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 (5 fs) in his fourth symphony. Gustav Mahler, in the third movement of his Seventh Symphony, gives the celli and basses a marking of fffff (5 fs), along with a footnote directing 'pluck so hard that the strings hit the wood'. On the other extreme, Carl Nielsen, in the second movement of his Symphony No. 5, marked a passage for woodwinds a diminuendo to ppppp (5 ps).

Another more extreme dynamic is in György Ligeti's Études No. 13 (Devil's Staircase), which has at one point a ffffff (6 fs) and progresses to a ffffffff (8 fs). In Ligeti's Études No. 9, he uses pppppppp (8 ps). In the baritone passage "Era la notte" from his opera Otello, Verdi uses pppp. Steane (1971) and others[citation needed] 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.


Dynamic indications of this kind 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).[6]

Sudden changes and accented notes[edit]

Sudden changes in dynamics may be notated by adding the word subito (meaning "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, sf, or fz) ("forcing" or "forced").

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. A stronger accent is indicated by the marcato sign .

Sforzando (sfz) notation

Sforzando (or sforzato, forzando, 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,[7] 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.

Gradual changes[edit]

Three Italian words are used to show gradual changes in volume:

  • crescendo (abbreviated cresc.) translates as "increasing" (literally "growing").
  • decrescendo (abbreviated to decresc.) translates as "decreasing".
  • diminuendo (abbreviated dim.) translates as "diminishing".

Signs sometimes referred to as "hairpins"[8] are also used to stand for these words (See image). If the angle lines open up (Music-crescendo.svg), then the indication is to get louder; if they close gradually (Music-diminuendo.svg), the indication is to get softer. The following notation indicates music starting moderately strong, then becoming gradually stronger and then gradually quieter:

Music hairpins.svg

Hairpins are usually written below the staff (or between the two staves in a grand 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 (at most a few bars), while cresc., decresc. and dim. are generally used for changes over a longer period. Word directions can be extended with dashes to indicate over what time the event should occur, which may be as long as multiple pages.

For greater changes in dynamics, cresc. molto and dim. molto are often used, where the molto means "much". Similarly, for more gradual changes poco cresc. and poco dim. are used, where "poco" translates as a little, or alternatively with poco a poco meaning "little by little.

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 and phrases indicating changes of dynamics[edit]

(In Italian unless otherwise indicated)

  • al niente: to nothing; fading to silence. Sometimes written as Music-diminuendo.svgn
  • calando: literally "decreasing" or "dropping", means simultaneous reduction of volume and tempo, same as French en diminuant and Italian dim. e rall. (diminuendo and rallentando)
  • calmando: becoming calmer
  • crescendo: becoming louder
  • dal niente: from nothing; fading in from silence. Sometimes written as nMusic-crescendo.svg
  • decrescendo or diminuendo: becoming softer
  • forte piano or fp: loud and then immediately soft
  • fortissimo piano or ffp: 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 "".
  • mezzo-forte piano or mfp: quite loud and then immediately soft
  • morendo: dying away (may also indicate a tempo change)
  • marcato: stressed, pronounced
  • perdendo or perdendosi: losing volume, fading into nothing, dying away
  • piano forte or pf: soft and then immediately loud
  • sforzando piano or sfp: with marked emphasis, then immediately soft
  • sotto voce: in an undertone (whispered or unvoiced)[9]
  • 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.[10] 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.[11] 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, horn and piano (Opus 40), he uses the expressions ppp, molto piano, and quasi niente to express different qualities of quiet. Many Romantic and later composers added più p and più f, making for a total of ten levels between ppp and fff.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Randel, Don Michael (2003). The Harvard Dictionary of Music (4th ed.). Cambridge, MA, US: Harvard University Press Reference Library. 
  2. ^ "Piano". Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-03-19. 
  3. ^ "Forte". Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-03-19. 
  4. ^ a b "Dynamics". Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-03-19. 
  5. ^ An Enigmatic Marking Explained, by Jeffrey Solow, Violoncello Society Newsletter, Spring 2000
  6. ^ "Apple Logic Pro 9 User Manual for MIDI Step Input Recording". Retrieved 2013-07-29. 
  7. ^ Gerou, Tom; Lusk, Linda (1996). Essential Dictionary of Music Notation: The Most Practical and Concise Source for Music Notation. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Music Publishing. pp. 37–38. ISBN 978-0882847306. 
  8. ^ Kennedy, Michael and Bourne, Joyce: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (1996), entry "Hairpins".
  9. ^ "Sotto voce" in Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1946, New York: The MacMillan Company)
  10. ^ Donington, Robert: Baroque Music (1982) WW Norton, 1982. ISBN 0-393-30052-8. Page 32.
  11. ^ Donington, Robert: Baroque Music (1982) WW Norton, 1982. ISBN 0-393-30052-8. Page 33.