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Dynamics (music)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

It has been suggested that Forte (dynamic) be merged into this article or section. (Discuss)

In music, dynamics refers to the softness or loudness of the sound or note. The term is also applied to the written or printed musical notation used to indicate dynamics.

Relative loudness

Teacher. "And what does ff mean?"Pupil (after mature deliberation). "Fump-Fump." Cartoon from Punch magazine October 6, 1920
Teacher. "And what does ff mean?"
Pupil (after mature deliberation). "Fump-Fump."
Cartoon from Punch magazine October 6, 1920

The two basic dynamic indications in music are:

  • p or piano, meaning "softly" or "quietly" and
  • f or forte, meaning "loudly" or "strong".

More subtle degrees of loudness or softness are indicated by:

  • mp, standing for mezzo-piano, and meaning "medium-quiet" or "moderately-quiet" and
  • mf, standing for mezzo-forte, and meaning "medium-loud" or "moderately-loud".

Beyond f and p, there is also

  • ff, standing for "fortissimo", and meaning "very loudly" and
  • pp, standing for "pianissimo", and meaning "very quietly".

To indicate even more extreme degrees of intensity, more ps or fs are added as required. fff and ppp are found in sheet music quite frequently. No standard names for fff and ppp exist, but musicians have invented a variety of neologisms for these designations, including fortississimo/pianississimo, fortissimento/pianissimento, forte fortissimo/piano pianissimo, and simply triple forte/triple piano.

A few pieces contain dynamic designations with more than three fs or ps. The Norman Dello Joio Suite for Piano ends with a crescendo to a ffff, and Tchaikovsky indicated a bassoon solo pppppp and ffff in passages of his Pathétique symphony and in the 1812 Overture, respectively. He certainly ensured that the player would not miss the fact the passage was to be played very softly/loudly, but it is difficult to see what precise difference one p/f more or less would have made. Shostakovich even went as far as to use fffff in his fourth symphony.

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. For some music notation programs, there might be default MIDI key velocity values associated with these indications, but the better programs allow users to change these as needed.

Sudden changes

Sforzando notation
Sforzando notation

Sforzando (or forzando), indicates a strong, sudden accent and is abbreviated as sf, sfz or fz. The notation fp (or sfp) indicates a sforzando followed immediately by piano. One particularly noteworthy use of this dynamic is in the second movement of Joseph Haydn's Surprise Symphony. Rinforzando (literally "reinforcing") indicates that several notes, or a short phrase, are to be emphasized.

Gradual changes

In addition, there are words used to indicate gradual changes in volume. The two most common are crescendo, sometimes abbreviated to cresc, meaning "get gradually louder"; and decrescendo or diminuendo, sometimes abbreviated to decresc and dim respectively, meaning "get gradually softer". Signs called "hairpins" are also used to stand for these words. These are made up of two lines which connect at one end and get gradually further apart. 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. They tend to be used for dynamic changes over a relatively short period of time, while cresc and dim are generally used for dynamic changes over a longer range. For long stretches, dashes are used in some scores instead of repeating cresc. or dim. 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.

Words indicating changes of dynamics

  • al niente: to nothing
  • calando: becoming softer
  • crescendo: becoming louder
  • decrescendo or diminuendo: becoming softer
  • perdendo or perdendosi: losing volume, fading into nothing, dying away
  • morendo: dying away
  • marcato: stressed, pronounced
  • sotto voce: opposite of marcato, in an undertone
  • in rilievo: indicates that a particular instrument is to play slightly louder than the others so as to stand out (be "in relief") over the ensemble


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 the terms piano, più piano, and pianissimo (written out as words), and in some cases it may be that ppp was considered to mean pianissimo in this period.

See also

  • Musical terminology
  • Accent (music)
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