Dynamics are a way of communicating volume and intensity in music. Piano, forte and other markings help musicians interpret the expressive quality of the music. What do these markings look like? What types of markings exist, and what do they mean? Learn more about dynamics in this lesson!
Dynamics Overview and Definition
Damsel: Oh, no! My music is flat and lifeless; the notes have little direction, and I'm growing ever so bored. What can I do?
Dynamics Man: Never fear, Dynamics Man is here! I'll add dramatic change in volume and intensity to liven up your playing.
Narrator: Dynamics refer to the loudness or softness of music. Dynamics offer a way to show expression in sheet music. They help to drive the emotional content of music through volume and intensity. It's as if you could adjust both the volume and the color depth on your screen simultaneously. We can also think of the intensity side of dynamics as the strength of a note. Some notes are meant to be played gently and lightly, while others are meant to be played more strongly.
Dynamics are used in everything from symphonies to popular music to movie soundtracks. Think of how the music in a movie enhances the feeling of a scene. For example, you probably would not use a quiet dynamic for a battle scene. It would be much more fitting to use a quiet dynamic for a character that is sneaking out or even an intimate moment between characters. Louder dynamics might be used for scenes involving bravery or freedom.
Piano and Forte
Damsel: Oh, well, I guess you're right. I have been ignoring the written dynamics. They just look like italicized letters, right?
Dynamics Man: Yes, each is an abbreviation for the Italian word that describes the dynamic's volume. We can start by defining two dynamics: piano and forte. The piano marking looks like a lowercase letter 'p' and means to play quietly and softly or lightly. The forte marking, on the other hand, is a lowercase letter 'f', like this, and represents loud and strong playing. These symbols go below written music to tell the musician how to play and stay in effect until another marking is shown.
Mezzo Piano and Mezzo Forte
Damsel: Okay, that makes sense. But aren't there dynamics between piano and forte?
Dynamics Man: Of course. Some dynamic markings have a letter 'm,' which stands for mezzo, meaning 'medium.' So a mezzo piano dynamic marking looks like this (mp) and means to play medium quiet, while a mezzo forte dynamic looks like this (mf) and means to play medium loud.
Pianissimo and Fortissimo
Damsel: I'm starting to understand now. But what if a composer wants to use more than just these four basic dynamics?
Dynamics Man: Well, dynamics can range from infinitely quiet to infinitely loud. The most common way to indicate dynamics that are very quiet or very loud is with repetition of the letter. So, if the composer wants the musician to play very quietly, he or she will mark two 'p's. This is called pianissimo. If the composer wants the musician to play very loudly, they will mark two 'f's. The more of a letter there is, the more extreme the dynamic - like in Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony.
Sforzando and Fortepiano
Damsel: Got it, but what about when the composer wants a sudden change in emotion?
Dynamics Man: Well, composers can combine two dynamics like fortepiano and pianoforte. In each case, the first dynamic is played, then the second dynamic is played immediately afterward. So, for the fortepiano, we would have loud, then immediately quiet. If you had pianoforte, it would be the opposite with first quiet, then immediately loud.
There's one more dynamic that requires sudden change called the sforzando. Sforzando means to play the note or notes with sudden strong force or emphasis, like this (a piece of music is played).
Damsel: Oh, that is surprising!
Crescendo and Diminuendo
Damsel: Wow, these dynamics can be pretty intense. Isn't there a way to gradually increase or decrease volume? I don't want my listeners to feel like they're listening to an emotional wreck.
Dynamics Man: Yes, and that brings us to two very important dynamic symbols: the crescendo and the diminuendo. These two symbols draw out emotion by making a gradual change in volume. The crescendo looks like this (<) and means to get gradually louder. The diminuendo symbol looks like this (>) and means to get gradually quieter.
Damsel: Oh, like diminish.
Dynamics Man: That's right; diminuendo is sometimes called decrescendo, but diminuendo is the more proper term.
Damsel: Well, these are easy to understand because they look like greater than and less than symbols in math! So, on the crescendo, notes on the smaller side are quieter and gradually become louder as they reach the larger side. And, of course, it would be the opposite for the diminuendo symbol. So if Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star had a crescendo, then a diminuendo, it would sound like this (a piece of music is played).
Dynamics Man: Now you're getting the hang of it!
Damsel: Whoa, dynamics are pretty important. Can you tell me when they started being used?
History of Dynamic Markings
Dynamics Man: Dynamics started being marked in music as early as the Renaissance period, but were not commonly used until the Classical period. I can see that you are playing a piece by Chopin, who was a Romantic period composer. The Romantic period is known for its expressive music, especially the importance given to dynamics. By not observing the dynamics, you are not truly reflecting what the composer intended.
Damsel: Okay then, let me try this again. I start with a sforzando, which means to play suddenly loud, then there's a piano marking, which tells me to play quietly and lightly. This is followed by a crescendo, which means to gradually increase volume. So, would it sound more like this? (a piece of music is played)
Dynamics Man: That's remarkable! I think my work here is almost done. Let's just review a couple of things here.
Damsel: There are four main dynamics: piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte and forte. Any extremely quiet or extremely loud dynamics are shown by repeating the letter, like pianissimo and fortissimo. Markings like sforzando tell the player to suddenly play loud, while crescendo and diminuendo markings mean to increase volume and decrease volume.
Dynamics Man: You've got it. It's important to note that each dynamic has a range of volume, and using this range gives the player the opportunity for ultimate expression of music. A true musician uses these subtleties to enhance the music, including that which is in between markings. Although present in popular music, dynamics are generally used in much greater depth in classical music. Well, I must be going now.
Damsel: Thanks, Dynamics Man. I won't forget you!
When you complete this music lesson, you should be able to:
- Explain how dynamics can be used in music
- Recognize how to read piano and forte
- Recognize how to read mezzo piano and mezzo forte
- Discuss how a composer might want to indicate a variation of the four basic dynamics
- Recognize sforzando and fortepiano and what they mean
- Explain crescendo and diminuendo
- Understand the history of marking the dynamics