Interpreting Articulation, Dynamic & Expression Symbols

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  • 0:02 Expressive Markings in Music
  • 1:12 Dynamics
  • 4:03 Character Markings
  • 5:08 Articulations
  • 6:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the symbols beyond the notes in sheet music: dynamics, articulations, and character markings which help the performers bring life to the music. You'll also take a quiz when you're done.

Expressive Markings in Music

In addition to the notes and rhythms found on just about every piece of music, musicians see a lot of information that tells them how the composer wants the music played. This excerpt currently contains just notes and rhythms. That leaves a lot of important questions unanswered for the performer. Does the composer want this excerpt loud or soft? How should each note be articulated? Markings that provide this information help the musicians understand exactly what sounds the composer wants, and they are an important part of any musical score. Score markings that indicate expressive information are collectively called expressive markings.

These markings fall into several different categories: dynamics, which convey information about how loud or soft the music should be played; character markings, which freely express the music's character using text; and articulations, which tell the musician about the sound of an individual note. In this lesson, we'll look at all these different types of markings.


The first expressive markings that most musicians learn are dynamics. Dynamics are used for conveying how loud or soft the music should be played. Dynamic markings are constructed using three main characters. The first is an italicized f, which stands for forte. Forte is Italian for loud. The second is an italicized p, which stands for piano. No, not the instrument - piano here is Italian for soft.

These two dynamic markings, piano and forte, are the most basic dynamic markings. Affixing a p to a staff indicates the music should be played piano, or soft. Likewise, an f indicates that the music should be forte, or loud.

The third character is an italicized m, which stands for mezzo, or medium in Italian. This symbol is used in conjunction with forte and piano to make two new dynamics: mezzo-forte and mezzo-piano, or medium loud and medium soft.

Composers can also indicate dynamics louder than forte and softer than piano by adding extra f's and p's. For example, a dynamic with two f's will be read not as forte, but as fortissimo, or very loud. Likewise, two p's are read as pianissimo, or very soft.

Adding a third symbol to either of these will create fortississimo and pianississimo, respectively - that's even louder and even softer.

There's no theoretical end to the dynamic spectrum; composers can keep adding p's and f's until they reach the dynamic they want. Most commonly, however, musicians will only see up to three f's or p's.

To change dynamics gradually, composers will use either a crescendo or a decrescendo , also known as a diminuendo. A crescendo will indicate that the music should gradually get louder, while a decrescendo or diminuendo indicates that it should gradually get softer. Composers can indicate these markings with an abbreviated version of the term: cresc., decresc. and dim.

Or, they can use a hairpin. The hairpin graphically indicates how the dynamic of the music should change over time, with the narrow end being softer and the wide end being louder. Some composers have opted to use other systems to notate dynamics, even just the use of plain English.

But the Italian dynamic system works well for several reasons: most notably, Italian dynamics are universally recognized; that is, Italian symbols are used in almost every music education system around the world. So when a musician sees two f's on a score - whether they're an American, French, Japanese, or Brazilian musician - they can immediately translate that symbol into very loud without having to cross a language barrier.

Character Markings

Not all expressive concepts are as easy to indicate as dynamic information, so composers often rely on character markings, or text that informs the musician about the music's character. Character markings usually appear next to dynamics. The text of character markings can be freely written in the composer's native language, so there's a lot of variation. Composers can use just about any expressive language they think will help the performer better understand the piece.

Although there's no limit to what can be written in character markings, just like in dynamics, certain symbols are universally recognized, which means they're useful when working with musicians who speak a different language than the composer. As with dynamics, these markings are written in classical music's universal language: Italian. Common ones include dolce, which means the music should be played sweetly; cantabile, meaning song-like; and leggiero, meaning lightly. Because these are universally recognized, musicians who speak any language will be able to interpret them.

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