Fortissimo: Definition, Music & Instruments

Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

If you are writing a piece of music and want to tell the musicians to play really loudly, how do you do it? Find out why, when, and how composers use the musical dynamic marking 'fortissimo.'


All musical sounds have a dynamic level, which refers to amplitude or volume. In western music, the standard practice is to use Italian words to indicate dynamics. Fortissimo is a dynamic marking that indicates a VERY LOUD volume. It is one step up from forte, which means 'loud.' Since 'fortissimo' is a rather long word that clutters up written music, it is often abbreviated to ff.


During the early Middle Ages in Europe (476 C.E. - 1450 C.E.), people learned to play music through oral transmission, a method of learning by listening to and imitating other musicians. Over time, people started writing music down on paper, which evolved into a standard system of music notation. This early notation indicated rhythm and pitch, but not dynamics.

In the late 16th century, an Italian named Giovanni Gabrieli became one of the first composers to routinely include dynamic directives. However, he didn't use them very often, and when he did he mostly stuck to the basics of 'loud' (forte) and 'soft' (piano).

Giovanni Gabrieli, the composer who helped standardize dynamic markings.
Portrait of Gabrieli with lute

Gabrieli was a popular composer, musician, and teacher. Two of his most successful students, Hans Leo Hassler and Heinrich Schütz, took Gabrieli's dynamic markings to Germany, where they taught them to their students, who taught them to their students, who taught them to their students...until before too long, most composers throughout Europe were using these Italian dynamic markings and they became standard in the industry.

During the Baroque era (1600 - 1750 C.E.), dynamic markings were occasionally indicated by composers, but they generally only wrote dynamics as loud as 'forte,' and rarely made it to fortissimo. One reason for this has to do with the harpsichord, a keyboard instrument that only had two dynamic settings: 'soft' and 'medium-soft.'

With the invention and popularization of the instrument we now know as the piano, dynamic markings started to become a standard feature in musical scores. The piano became popular around the mid-18th century, which marks the start of the Classical era (1750 - 1820 C. E.). The original name of the piano was fortepiano, a name created from dynamic terms that literally mean 'strong-soft' (forte = strong, piano = soft). The piano is touch-sensitive: the greater force you exert on the keys, the louder the sound produced. It was during this timeframe that 'fortissimo' became a standard dynamic marking in music, a trend which has continued to this day.


Like the harpsichord, not all musical instruments are capable of playing very loud dynamics. However, some instruments are built to be loud! In a typical orchestra, the loudest instruments are found in the brass section and include trumpets and trombones. Many percussion instruments, such as the cymbals, can also be ear-splitting.

To protect their ears, some musicians who play very loud instruments wear noise-cancelling headphones.
Drummer wearing headphones

Literally, fortissimo translates to 'very strongly,' which reflects the fact that many instruments get louder when more force is used to play them. For example, the more air that is forced through a trumpet, the bigger the vibrations and the louder the sound. Similarly, the harder a drum head is struck, the more amplified the volume. Amplification is recorded in decibels, which measure the pressure of a sound.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the loudest instrument in the world is the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ located in Atlantic City, NJ. It can produce sounds that reach levels of over 130 decibels up to a meter away. For comparison, a loud rock concert is around 115 decibels, and at 120 decibels, pain starts to replace the sensation of hearing!

The record-holding Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ.
Boardwalk Hall Organ

How Loud is Fortissimo?

Some aspects of music, like pitch or tempo, have specific measurements. Dynamics, on the other hand, are relative. While volume can be precisely measured as sound pressure and recorded in decibels, there are no standards indicating a specific correlation between those decibel levels and dynamic markings.

Fortissimo is only 'very loud' in relation to other dynamic levels, and the audience's perception of how loud or soft a sound is can change based on the instrument or ensemble. What might be perceived as 'fortissimo' on a solo harp might not seem all that loud when compared to a fortissimo played by a full orchestra.

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