In music, the dynamics indicate the variation in loudness between notes or phrases. In other words, the dynamics of a piece indicate how loud or soft we should play.

We arrange the range of loudness from very soft to very loud. Dynamics are one of the expressive elements of music. When we use it effectively, we can create variety and we can arouse interest in a musical performance.

Dynamic Markings

We use dynamic markings to indicate the dynamics of a piece. Dynamic markings are almost always relative. Although we often indicate the dynamics often in detail, it still requires interpretation by the performer. Because the dynamics might vary from section to section, or from piece to piece. The following figure shows the common dynamic markings and their meaning.

Dynamic Markings
Dynamic Markings

We usually place a dynamic marking at the beginning of a piece. But if you can’t see one, it means you should play this in a medium volume.

Changing Dynamics

The dynamics change throughout a piece. If we want an abrupt change in loudness, we can just place another dynamic marking at that point. But if we want a gradual change, we usually use crescendo, decrescendo, and occasionally diminuendo marks.

Changing Dynamics
Changing Dynamics

Crescendo

Crescendo indicates that we gradually increase the volume from the current level to a new level. We further indicate that new level by placing another dynamic mark at the end of the crescendo. Let’s see this in an example.

A crescendo example
A crescendo example

In this example, the first measure starts with piano. Then there is a crescendo on the second eighth note group which increases the volume. Eventually, it reaches to mezzo forte. A crescendo looks like a hairpin whose angle lines open up to the right.  It is the indication of getting louder.

Decrescendo

Crescendo indicates that we gradually decrease the volume from the current level to a new level. We further indicate that new level by placing another dynamic mark at the end of the decrescendo. Let’s have a look at the same example above.

The second measure starts with mezzo forte. Then there is a decrescendo on the second eighth note group which decreases the volume. Eventually, it reaches the piano again. A decrescendo looks like a hairpin whose angle lines close up to the right.  It is the indication of getting softer.

We usually place the crescendo and decrescendo marks below the staff. If the piece is for an instrument that uses a grand staff, we place these markings between the two staves. But if the piece is for singers or there are multiple melody lines being played by a single performer, we place these marks above the staff.

Diminuendo

Diminuendo means diminishing. It is an indication of a gradual decrease in the volume. We usually use diminuendo and decrescendo interchangeably. However, we sometimes use decrescendo to lower the volume gradually and diminuendo to soften the quality or the intensity of the sound gradually.

If the gradual change in loudness occurs over a short period, we use the markings that look like hairpins. If it occurs over a longer period, we use some abbreviations such as ‘cresc’ and ‘decresc’ instead of usual markings. We can also use the words ‘molto’ (much) and ‘poco’ (little) to indicate further changes in dynamics.

Forceful Accents

If we want a specific note to be played louder, we place an accent on it. However, if we want that note to be played very loud, we use a forceful accent on it. We use the abbreviations ‘sf‘, ‘sfz‘ or ‘fz‘ to indicate the forceful accents. Sfz refers to as sforzando. It is a common mistake to confuse these three abbreviations as if they indicate a difference in the degree of accent.  However, all of these indicate the same expression. Only the performer can determine the extent of the forceful accents.

We use the ‘fp’ abbreviation to indicate that forte is to be followed immediately by piano. Poco Forte (pf) means a little loud. It is softer than mezzo forte. According to Johannes Brahms, it indicates a sound with a character of forte, but the sound of the piano.

Forceful Accents
Forceful Accents

There are more markings that we can use to indicate the loudness of a piece of music. In the following table, I’ve listed some of them.

MARKING

MEANING

calando

Decreasing tone and speed

con sordino

With mute (for horns)

dolcissimo

Very gently, sweetly

incalzando

Increasing tone and speed

leggiero

Light, delicate

mancando

Waning, dying away

martellato

Hammered out

mezzo voce, sotto voce

In an undertone

senza sordini

Without mutes

strepitoso

Noisy

tutta forza

As loud as possible

una corda

Use the soft pedal (for piano)

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An Insight Into Music Theory by Gökhan Damgacı

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Gökhan Damgacı

Gökhan Damgacı

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