Dynamics

Dynamics in Music

In music, dynamics are defined as the different volume levels of a piece of music at any given moment. Dynamics markings and symbols are written to show a performer how loud to play and when to change volume.

Dynamics Markings

In sheet music, dynamics markings are letters or words (usually Italian) written underneath the stave by the composer to tell the performers how loud to play a section of music.

Let’s have a look at an example of some dynamics markings.
Here is a short of a well known piece “English Country Garden”:

Dynamics forte example

You can see that the letter f has been written at the start of the music.
This is an abbreviation of the word forté (Italian word pronounced for-tay) which means loud.
So, this piece should be played loudly.

      Dynamics forte example

On the other hand, in the following extract, the letter at the start has been changed to a p – this is an abbreviation of piano (Italian word pronounced pee-ar-no).
Piano is the opposite of forte and means quiet.
So, this time it should be played quietly.

Dynamics in music piano example

      Dynamics piano example

List of Music Dynamics Terms

Thankfully, there are not that many words you need to learn to be able to read the dynamics markings in most pieces.
You already know two of them – forte and piano – the remaining ones are all variations of them:

  • pianissimo (pp) – very quiet
  • piano (p) – quiet
  • mezzo piano (mp) – quite quiet
  • mezzo forte (mf) – quite loud
  • forte (f) – loud
  • fortissimo (ff) – very loud

Changes in The Dynamics

Dynamic changes are a crucial part of a lot of musical pieces.
As a result, a composer may want to change the dynamic of a piece of music at some point.
The simplest way to do this is to write a new dynamic marking at the point where the volume should change.

In this example, the first phrase has f for forte underneath the 1st bar and then p for piano has been written at the start of the second phrase.
So, the first phrase should be played loudly whilst the second phrase should be played quietly – there is an abrupt change in the dynamic (volume).

Dynamics forte then piano example image

      Dynamics forte then piano example

However, composers often want to gradually increase or decrease the dynamic (volume) of the music to add more subtlety to the music.
If this is the case, they will often use a crescendo or diminuendo marking.

Crescendo

A crescendo is a gradual increase in the volume of the music.
This can be shown through a hairpin line, the word crescendo or the abbreviation cresc. written underneath the stave.
So, the following example should be played getting gradually louder in the second phrase as it has a hairpin symbol:

Crescendo example

      Dynamics crescendo example

Diminuendo

A diminuendo is a gradual decrease in the volume of the music.
This can shown through a reversed hairpin line, the word diminuendo or the abbreviation dim.
So, in the following example the piece should be played getting gradually quieter in the second phrase:
Diminuendo example

      Dynamics diminuendo example

(Remember: A composer could use words or abbreviations instead of the hairpin lines to signal a crescendo or a diminuendo should they want to.)

Individual Note Dynamics

Putting emphasis on different individual notes can change the nature of a piece of music.
Any note can be given emphasis through changing its volume.
In sheet music, there are 3 main instructions for how give such dynamic emphasis to an individual note:

  • Accent = sudden emphasis on a note
  • Tenuto = leaning on a note
  • sforzando = play a note suddenly with force

accent markings 

Have a listen to how the addition of accents in this example has changed the “feel” of the performance:

Dynamics in music accents example

      Dynamics accents example

Summary Wall Chart of Musical Dynamics

I have put together a wall chart summarising the most common dynamics markings and words that you will come across – I hope you find it helpful.
Click on the image to download a free PDF of the wall chart.

Dynamic markings Summary Wall Chart image

Interpreting Dynamics in Music

I have often been asked by students to give the decibel level for piano or forte.
However, I am always reluctant to do so because the exact meaning of different dynamics markings in music is open to interpretation depending on context, tradition and individual performer choice.

This is one of the great things about performance – each individual brings their own unique approach.
For example, the word forte means loud – this is a fact.
However, the word “loud” may mean a very different volume to a heavy metal drummer than a Baroque flute player!!
The dynamics marking needs to be understood within the context of the genre.
“Loud” in heavy metal music means a much greater volume than “loud” in Baroque music!!

This is obviously an extreme example, but 2 piano players may have very different views on how loud forte should be played.
Also, a piece played quietly by an orchestra may well be louder in terms of decibels than a piece played quietly by a solo piano player because there a simply more instruments being played.

Examples of Dynamics in Music

There are numerous examples of the use of dynamic contrast in music that we could study.
However, I have chosen to focus on one example that uses dynamic contrast and accents to create an extreme effect.
Have a listen to this theme tune to the movie Jaws by John Williams.
Listen to the incredible tension he creates through the use of crescendos and accented stabs:


This theme shows just how effective dynamics can be in music when used by a master composer.