Dynamics (music)

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Dynamics (music)
The beginning of the principal theme to the third movement of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique showing examples of pianissimo (pp), hairpins, and sforzando (sf).

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.

Music form of art using sound

Music is an art form and cultural activity whose medium is sound organized in time. General definitions of music include common elements such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture. Different styles or types of music may emphasize, de-emphasize or omit some of these elements. Music is performed with a vast range of instruments and vocal techniques ranging from singing to rapping; there are solely instrumental pieces, solely vocal pieces and pieces that combine singing and instruments. The word derives from Greek μουσική . See glossary of musical terminology.

Loudness physical quantity

In acoustics, loudness is the subjective perception of sound pressure. More formally, it is defined as, "That attribute of auditory sensation in terms of which sounds can be ordered on a scale extending from quiet to loud." The relation of physical attributes of sound to perceived loudness consists of physical, physiological and psychological components. The study of apparent loudness is included in the topic of psychoacoustics and employs methods of psychophysics.

Phrase (music) Musical unit

In music theory, a phrase is a unit of musical meter that has a complete musical sense of its own, built from figures, motifs, and cells, and combining to form melodies, periods and larger sections.

A phrase is a substantial musical thought, which ends with a musical punctuation called a cadence. Phrases are created in music through an interaction of melody, harmony, and rhythm.


Purpose and interpretation

Dynamics are one of the expressive elements of music. Used effectively, dynamics help musicians sustain variety and interest in a musical performance, and communicate a particular emotional state or feeling.

Musical expression is the art of playing or singing with a personal response to the music.

Dynamic markings are always relative. [1] p never indicates a precise level of loudness, it merely indicates that music in a passage so marked should be considerably quieter than f. There are many factors affecting the interpretation of a dynamic marking. For instance, the middle of a musical phrase will normally be played louder than the beginning or ending, to ensure the phrase is properly shaped, even where a passage is marked p throughout. Similarly, in multi-part music, some voices will naturally be played louder than others, for instance to emphasis the melody and the bass line, even if a whole passage is marked at one dynamic level. Some instruments are naturally louder than others - for instance, a tuba playing piano will likely be louder than a guitar playing fortissimo, while a high-pitched instrument like the piccolo playing in its upper register can usually sound loud even when its actual decibel level is lower than that of other instruments.


In music, polyphony is one type of musical texture, where a texture is, generally speaking, the way that melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic aspects of a musical composition are combined to shape the overall sound and quality of the work. In particular, polyphony consists of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, as opposed to a musical texture with just one voice, monophony, or a texture with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords, which is called homophony.

Part (music) section of a musical composition

A part generally refers to a single strand or melody or harmony of music within a larger ensemble or a polyphonic musical composition. There are several senses in which the word is often used:

Tuba type of musical instrument of the brass family

The tuba (bass) is the largest and lowest-pitched musical instrument in the brass family. As with all brass instruments, the sound is produced by lip vibration into a large mouthpiece. It first appeared in the mid-19th century, making it one of the newer instruments in the modern orchestra and concert band. The tuba largely replaced the ophicleide. Tuba is Latin for 'trumpet'.

Further, a dynamic marking does not necessarily only affect loudness of the music. A forte passage is not usually "the same as a piano passage but louder". Rather, a musician will often use a different approach to other aspects of expression like timbre or articulation to further illustrate the differences. Sometimes this might also extend to tempo. It's important for a performer to be able to control dynamics and tempo independently, and thus novice musicians are often instructed "don't speed up just because it's getting louder!". However, in some circumstances, a dynamic marking might also indicate a change of tempo. [lower-alpha 1]

Timbre quality of a musical note or sound or tone

In music, timbre is the perceived sound quality of a musical note, sound or tone. Timbre distinguishes different types of sound production, such as choir voices and musical instruments, such as string instruments, wind instruments, and percussion instruments. It also enables listeners to distinguish different instruments in the same category.

Articulation is a fundamental musical parameter that determines how a single note or other discrete event is sounded. Articulations primarily structure an event's start and end, determining the length of its sound and the shape of its attack and decay. They can also modify an event's timbre, dynamics, and pitch. Musical articulation is analagous to the articulation of speech, and during the Baroque and Classical periods it was taught by comparison to oratory.

In musical terminology, tempo is the speed or pace of a given piece. In classical music, tempo is typically indicated with an instruction at the start of a piece and is usually measured in beats per minute. In modern classical compositions, a "metronome mark" in beats per minute may supplement or replace the normal tempo marking, while in modern genres like electronic dance music, tempo will typically simply be stated in bpm.

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. These defaults are listed in the following table for some applications, including Apple's Logic Pro 9 (2009-2013), Avid's Sibelius 5 (2007-2009), and musescore.org's MuseScore 3.0 (2019). MIDI specifies the range of key velocities as an integer between 0 and 127:

Scorewriter software used for creating sheet music

A scorewriter, or music notation program is software used with a computer for creating, editing and printing sheet music. A scorewriter is to music notation what a word processor is to text, in that they both allow fast corrections (undo), flexible editing, easy sharing of electronic documents, and clean, uniform layout. In addition, most scorewriters, especially those from the 2000s, are able to record notes played on a MIDI keyboard, and play music back via MIDI or virtual instruments. Playback is especially useful for novice composers or music students or when no musicians are readily available or affordable.

Logic Pro digital audio workstation

Logic Pro is a digital audio workstation (DAW) and MIDI sequencer software application for the macOS platform. It was originally created in the early 1990s as Notator Logic, or Logic, by German software developer C-Lab, later Emagic. It became an Apple product, eventually known as Logic Pro, after Apple bought Emagic in 2002. It is the 2nd most popular DAW - after only Ableton Live - according to a survey conducted in 2015.

MuseScore musical notation program

MuseScore is a scorewriter for Windows, macOS, and Linux, comparable to Finale and Sibelius, supporting a wide variety of file formats and input methods. It is released as free and open-source software under the GNU General Public License. MuseScore is accompanied by a freemium smartphone score viewer and playback app, and an online score sharing platform.

Logic Pro 9 dynamics [2] 163248648096112127
Sibelius 5 dynamics [3] 203961718498113127
MuseScore 3.0 dynamics [4] 163349648096112126

Dynamic markings

Scale of dynamic markings [5]
fortississimofffvery very loud
fortissimoffvery loud
pianissimoppvery soft
pianississimopppvery very soft

The two basic dynamic indications in music are:

More subtle degrees of loudness or softness are indicated by:

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


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.
Play a C major chord at each dynamic from fff to ppp (help*info) Dynamic's Note Velocity.svg
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. Loudspeaker.svg Play a C major chord at each dynamic from fff to ppp  

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

Signs sometimes referred to as "hairpins" [10] 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:

Dynamics (music)

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. The word morendo ("dying") is also sometimes used for a gradual reduction in dynamics (and tempo).

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.

Sudden changes in dynamics may be notated by adding the word subito (meaning "suddenly") as a prefix or suffix to the new dynamic notation. Subito piano (abbreviated sub. p) ("suddenly soft") indicates that the dynamics quickly, almost abruptly, lower the volume to approximately the p range. It is often purposefully used to subvert the listeners expectation and will signify an intimacy expression. Although it uses the pianop dynamic symbol, the performer has slight freedom in their interpretation, causing it to vary based on the preceding loudness or character of the piece.

Accented notes can be notated sforzando, sforzato, forzando or forzato (abbreviated sfz, sf, or fz) ("forcing" or "forced"), or using the sign >, placed above or below the head of the note.

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, [11] and the extent of the sforzando is determined purely by the performer.

The fortepiano notation fp indicates a forte followed immediately by piano. By contrast, pf is an abbreviation for poco forte, literally "a little loud" but (according to Brahms) meaning with the character of forte, but the sound of piano, though rarely used because of possible confusion with pianoforte ). [12]

Extreme dynamic markings

Dynamics (music)
Two measures of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C minor showing dynamic markings sffff. The top two staves are both played by the right hand, the bottom two by the left.

While the typical range of dynamic markings is from ppp to fff, some pieces use additional markings of further emphasis. Extreme dynamic markings imply an extreme range of loudness, or, alternatively, imply an extremely subtle distinction between very small differences of loudness within a normal range. 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.

In Holst's The Planets , ffff occurs twice in "Mars" and once in "Uranus", often punctuated by organ. [13] Tchaikovsky marks a bassoon solo pppppp (6 ps) in his Pathétique Symphony [14] and uses ffff in passages of his 1812 Overture [15] and his Fifth Symphony. [16] The baritone passage "Era la notte" from Verdi's opera Otello uses pppp, though the same spot is marked ppp in the full score. [17] Igor Stravinsky used ffff at the end of the finale of the 1919 Firebird Suite. [18] Sergei Rachmaninoff uses sffff in his Prelude in C, Op. 3 No. 2. [19] 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'. [lower-alpha 2] [20] On the other extreme, Carl Nielsen, in the second movement of his Fifth Symphony, marked a passage for woodwinds a diminuendo to ppppp (5 ps), [21] and the original piano version of F. W. Meacham's American Patrol begins at pppp and ends at ppppp. György Ligeti uses extreme dynamics in his music: the Cello Concerto begins with a passage marked pppppppp (8 ps) [22] and in his Piano Études Étude No. 9 (Vertige) ends with a diminuendo to pppppppp (8 ps), [23] while Étude No. 13 (L'Escalier du Diable) contains a passage marked ffffff (6 fs) that progresses to a ffffffff (8 fs). [24]


On Music, one of the Moralia attributed to the philosopher Plutarch in the first century AD, suggests that ancient Greek musical performance included dynamic transitions – though dynamics receive far less attention in the text than does rhythm or harmony.

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. J.S. 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. [25] In fact, baroque musicians constantly varied dynamics: in 1752, Johann Joachim Quantz wrote that "Light and shade must be constantly introduced ... by the incessant interchange of loud and soft." [26] 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 like J.S. 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 Brahms's 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.

Relation to audio dynamics

The introduction of modern recording techniques has provided alternative ways to control the dynamics of music. Dynamic range compression is used to control the dynamic range of a recording, or a single instrument. This can affect loudness variations, both at the micro- [27] and macro scale. [28] In many contexts, the meaning of the term dynamics is therefore not immediately clear. To distinguish between the different aspects of dynamics, the term performed dynamics can be used to refer to the aspects of music dynamics that is controlled exclusively by the performer. [29]

See also


  1. For instance, in Schubert's string quartet Death and the Maiden , the dimenuendo marking is followed by a tempo , indicating that the dimenuendo is a reduction in speed as well as in loudness. In the same work Schubert uses decrescendo to indicate a reduction in loudness with no change in speed.
  2. So stark anreißen, daß die Saiten an das Holz anschlagen.

Related Research Articles

This is a list of musical terms that are likely to be encountered in printed scores, music reviews, and program notes. Most of the terms are Italian, in accordance with the Italian origins of many European musical conventions. Sometimes, the special musical meanings of these phrases differ from the original or current Italian meanings. Most of the other terms are taken from French and German, indicated by "Fr." and "Ger.", respectively.

In music, an accent is an emphasis, stress, or stronger attack placed on a particular note or set of notes, or chord, either as a result of its context or specifically indicated by an accent mark. Accents contribute to the articulation and prosody of a performance of a musical phrase. Accents may be written into a score or part by a composer or added by the performer as part of his or her interpretation of a musical piece. By default, in the music notation program Sibelius, "accents boost the dynamic by 50%."

A Symphony to Dante's Divine Comedy, S.109, or simply the "Dante Symphony", is a program symphony composed by Franz Liszt. Written in the high romantic style, it is based on Dante Alighieri's journey through Hell and Purgatory, as depicted in The Divine Comedy. It was premiered in Dresden in November 1857, with Liszt himself conducting, and was unofficially dedicated to the composer's friend and future son-in-law Richard Wagner. The entire symphony takes approximately 45 minutes to perform.

Cinque variazioni is a composition for solo piano by Luciano Berio, written in 1952/3 and greatly revised in 1966. It was published by Suvini Zerboni and the first performance was given by Berio in Milan in 1953. The variations are based on a three-note melodic cell—"fratello"[014]—from the opera Il prigioniero by Luigi Dallapiccola, to whom the work is dedicated. Major changes between the two versions are indicated below, but many other small changes may be found, mostly additions to render the harmony more complex.

Tenuto is a direction used in musical notation. The precise meaning of tenuto is contextual: it can mean either hold the note in question its full length, or play the note slightly louder. In other words, the tenuto mark may alter either the dynamic or the duration of a note. Either way, the marking indicates that a note should receive emphasis.

Percussion notation is a type of musical notation indicating notes to be played by percussion instruments. As with other forms of musical notation, sounds are represented by symbols which are usually written onto a musical staff.

Edvard Grieg's Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 7 was written in 1865 when he was 22 years old. The sonata was published a year later and revised in 1887. The work was Grieg's only piano sonata and it was dedicated to the Danish composer Niels Gade. The sonata has four movements with the following tempo markings:

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Andante molto
  3. Alla Menuetto, ma poco più lento
  4. Finale: Molto allegro

Voiles is a composition by Claude Debussy for solo piano from 1909. It is the second piece in a set of twelve préludes published in 1910. The title of the piece may be translated to English as either veils or sails; both meanings can be connected to the musical structure. Except for some mild, localized chromaticism and a short pentatonic passage, the entire piece uses the whole tone scale.

Piano Trio No. 1 (Brahms) piano trio by Johannes Brahms

The Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms was completed in January 1854, when the composer was only twenty years old, published in November 1854 and premiered on 13 October 1855 in Danzig. It has often been mistakenly claimed that the first performance had taken place in the United States. Brahms produced a revised version of the work in summer 1889 that shows significant alterations so that it may even be regarded as a distinct (fourth) piano trio. This “New Edition”, as he called it, was premiered on 10 January 1890 in Budapest and published in February 1891.

Le festin d'Ésope, Op. 39 No. 12, is a piano étude by Charles-Valentin Alkan. It is the final étude in the set Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op. 39, published in 1857. It is a work of twenty-five variations based on an original theme and is in E minor. The technical skills required in the variations are a summation of the preceding études.

Études (Ligeti)

The Hungarian composer György Ligeti composed a cycle of 18 études for solo piano between 1985 and 2001. They are considered one of the major creative achievements of his last decades, and one of the most significant sets of piano studies of the 20th century, combining virtuoso technical problems with expressive content, following in the line of the études of Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Claude Debussy, and Alexander Scriabin but addressing new technical ideas as a compendium of the concepts Ligeti had worked out in his other works since the 1950s. Pianist Jeremy Denk wrote that they "are a crowning achievement of his career and of the piano literature; though still new, they are already classics."

Magány, sometimes translated into English as Solitude or Loneliness, is an early vocal composition by Hungarian composer György Ligeti. It was finished in 1946 and, as most of Ligeti's early compositions, has followed the musical style of Béla Bartók.

<i>Chromatische Phantasie</i> song composed by György Ligeti

Chromatische Phantasie is an early piano composition by Hungarian composer György Ligeti. It is one of Ligeti's juvenile compositions withdrawn by the composer.

<i>Three Bagatelles</i> (Ligeti) piano composition

Three Bagatelles, for David Tudor, better known by its original French title Trois bagatelles, is a 1961 solo piano composition by Hungarian composer György Ligeti. The composition is well known for its tacet movements.

Abbreviations in music are of two kinds, namely, abbreviations of terms related to musical expression, and the true musical abbreviations by the help of which certain passages, chords, etc., may be notated in a shortened form, to the greater convenience of both composer and performer. Abbreviations of the first kind are like most abbreviations in language; they consist for the most part of the initial letter or first syllable of the word employed—as for instance, p or f for the dynamic markings piano and forte, cresc. for crescendo, Ob. for oboe, Fag. for bassoon. This article is about abbreviations used in music notation. For abbreviations of terms related to musical expression and music in general, see Glossary of musical terminology.

Viola Sonata (Ligeti) sonata for solo viola composed by György Ligeti between 1991 and 1994

György Ligeti composed his Viola Sonata between 1991 and 1994. It is a sonata for viola solo in six movements, and Ligeti composed it in various phases, parallel with his Violin Concerto, and his piano études. The composer was inspired to write a viola sonata after hearing Tabea Zimmermann playing on the radio, then began writing various movements. The second movement Loop, was premiered by Garth Knox, while Facsar was premiered in 1993 by Jürg Dahler. The two movements were conceived as part of a complete work and that became the second and third movements of Ligeti's Viola Sonata.

String Quartets (Ligeti) string quartets by Ligeti

The Hungarian composer György Ligeti published three string quartets throughout his life: two string quartets proper and a student piece from 1950 published towards the end of Ligeti's life. The first two string quartets proper represent both his early period, inspired by Béla Bartók, and middle period, which was largely micropolyphonic.

Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet is a solo instrumental work by Igor Stravinsky. It was published in 1919, shortly after the completion of his Suite from L'Histoire du Soldat, as a thank-you gift to the philanthropist and arts patron Werner Reinhart, who was also an amateur clarinetist. The Three Pieces is perhaps the most well-known work for unaccompanied clarinet in the repertoire. It is also notable for being one of the few clarinet solo pieces that calls for clarinets in both B and A.


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