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Lesson 8: Dynamics

Lesson 8: Dynamics

In my last blog post, I discussed rests, which are beats of silence in music, and how rests are notated. For this lesson, we’ll be looking at dynamics, which are some of the various expressive markings in music.
Dynamics are markings that describe how quietly or loudly music should be played. Most dynamics are italicised letters that are abbreviations for Italian words, as Italian is the language for many words in musical vocabulary. Dynamic markings are typically placed in the space between the treble and bass staves on the grand staff.
Let’s have a look at the four primary dynamics, in order from softest to loudest, and how they are notated in musical scores:
Piano: “Soft” or “quiet.” Shown with an italicised lowercase letter P:
Mezzo Piano: “Moderately soft” or “moderately quiet.” So, mezzo piano is quiet, but not as quiet as piano. Shown with italicised lowercase letters M and P:
Mezzo Forte: “Moderately loud.” Mezzo forte is the second of the two dynamics in the “mezzo” range, and is a bit louder than mezzo piano but not the loudest possible dynamic level. Shown with italicised lowercase letters M and F.
Forte: “Loud.” Forte is the loudest of the four main dynamics. Shown with an italicised lowercase letter F.
In some pieces of music, you may see sections the composer wants to be especially quiet or especially loud
marked with additional P’s or F’s. Extra P’s in a dynamic marking direct you to play even quieter than piano, and extra F’s direct you to play even louder than forte. The Italian word for such dynamic markings gets longer as well. For example, two letter P’s means “pianissimo” and two letter F’s means “fortissimo.” Below are the pianissimo and fortissimo markings:
Here also is one other lettered dynamic marking you may occasionally see in musical scores:
Sforzando: “A strong, sudden accent.” Sforzando markings are usually meant to indicate musical “surprises” within an otherwise quiet piece. Shown with italicised lowercase letters S, F and Z.
Sometimes composers want a dynamic change to be gradual instead of abruptly switching from one state to another. To indicate a subtler shift from one dynamic to another, composers use pairs of lines that either diverge or converge. The length of the lines determines how long the performer should take to make the change. Have a look at these markings below:
Two lines that start at one point and diverge outward make a “crescendo” marking, which means “get gradually louder.” So, you may see a crescendo between a section of music marked with “piano” and a later section marked with “forte.” Crescendo can also be written in abbreviation as “cresc.” in music.
The opposite of crescendo is “decrescendo” or “diminuendo,” which means “get gradually softer” or “get gradually smaller.” These two words are used interchangeably in music for this particular effect. A decrescendo marking consists of two lines that start at two wider points and ultimately converge at the same point. So, you may see a decrescendo between a section of music marked with “forte” and a later section marked with “piano.” Decrescendo/diminuendo can also be written in abbreviation as “decresc.” or “dim.” in music.
Have a look at a musical score of your choice (let me know what you end up picking!) and see if you can find dynamic markings in it. Circle the ones you find and see if you can remember what each marking means. If you see any crescendo or decrescendo markings, try to identify what the starting and ending dynamics are meant to be on either side of the two lines.
The next lesson will explain some of the primary articulation markings, which indicate a variety of textures in music. Make sure to subscribe to my mailing list for musical updates!