Crescendo in Music: Definition & Notation

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  • 0:02 Definition of a Crescendo
  • 0:39 Origins of Crescendo
  • 1:11 Notation of Crescendo
  • 1:53 Duration of Crescendo
  • 2:36 Variations & Performance
  • 3:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Logan Wright

Logan is an active Jazz Guitarist, and classically trained composer with an affinity for contemporary musical styles.

In this lesson, we learn about the musical term, crescendo. We're going to cover how it's used, how it's written, how it's performed, and where it came from.

Definition of a Crescendo

A crescendo is a way for composers to indicate that a passage of music should gradually increase in loudness over time (opposite of a decrease in volume, which is described as a decrescendo). It is also used in non-musical contexts to describe any situation in which volume is increasing. For example, if you are attending an event and as more people enter, the volume of conversation gradually gets louder, that could be described as a crescendo as well. Occasionally, a crescendo is so prominent in a passage of music that the passage will be referred to as simply, 'the crescendo.'

Origins of Crescendo

The word comes from the Italian word for becoming louder, or growing, which is, you guessed it, crescendo. Although the effect is quite common in musical performance, the specific indication wasn't often utilized in notation until around the 17th century. This was part of a broader trend in musical composition at the time, where composers began taking more control over the performance of their music through dynamic markings, and other more specific performance instructions. The use of a hairpin symbol to indicate a crescendo started to become standardized in the 18th century.

Notation of Crescendo

The crescendo is indicated in musical notation in the same space as the other dynamic markings of the score. It can be utilized by writing out the word 'crescendo,' its abbreviation, 'cresc.,' or the use of a hairpin. On screen, you're looking at an example of a crescendo using the abbreviation 'cresc.' The crescendo will continue until the forte at the end of the 4th measure.

Written Crescendo Example

The hairpin is an alternative to writing the word crescendo directly in the score, and it is generally used to identify a volume increase of a shorter duration. However, occasionally hairpins can extend over several measures. As you can see in the example on screen, this hairpin lasts a little over one measure.

Hairpin Crescendo Example
Hairpin Crescendo Example

Duration of Crescendo

The duration of a crescendo is dependent on the distance between the initial indication marking and the establishment of a new volume level via a dynamic mark that is louder than the crescendo's starting dynamic, as we saw a moment ago. This is usually understood by performers. However, for longer passages, a dashed line extending from the word may be used to remind the performer to continue increasing in volume until the end of the line.

Alternately, if a hairpin is being used to indicate the crescendo, then the duration of the crescendo usually lasts until the end of the hairpin, regardless of whether or not a new dynamic marking exists. If a new dynamic marking is not specified, then the intensity of the volume increase is dependent on general performance practice.

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