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Perhaps the simplest form of musical expression, after the notes of course, is to play louder and quieter: a topic we'll discuss in this study guide.
Instructing a player how loud to perform some notes is a simple matter of adding dynamics to the music.
There are various words and symbols used to convey dynamics, and the most basic of these are the symbol p (short for the Italian word piano), meaning "soft" (i.e. quiet) and the symbol f (short for the Italian word forte), meaning "loud".
The word "piano" as used in dynamics is pronounced differently from the name of the instrument, but the word comes from the same origin.
The piano (i.e. the instrument) was originally called a "pianoforte" for the simple reason that the piano was the first keyboard instrument capable of playing softly (piano) and loudly (forte).
Here is a short piece of music that uses these two symbols. It begins softly and ends loudly.
Note that, today, we always put a dynamic at the start of a piece of music. The player always needs to know whether to play softly or loudly!
There are some historical exceptions to this. You will often see early keyboard music, from before the time of the modern piano, without any dynamics. For example, J.S. Bach does not use any dynamics in his famous The Well-Tempered Clavier, and it is therefore up to the performer to decide how to interpret the music.
Soft or quiet?
For practical purposes, you will often hear the words "soft" and "quiet" used interchangeably, but beware: in an exam, if asked to give the meaning of "p" or "piano", you should use the word "soft" and not "quiet"!
Furthermore, the term "soft" conveys more musical meaning than "quiet": it implies that the tone of the instrument should change, as well as the absolute volume level.
Now that we know how to ask a player to play either softly or loudly, it is useful to be able to ask them to play very softly or very loudly.
To do this, we double the "p" and write pp (for pianissimo), simply meaning "very softly", or ff (for fortissimo), meaning "very loudly".
Here is the same example as before, but this time starting very softly and ending very loudly:
Very extreme dynamics
You might sometimes see markings such as fff or ppp, which imply an even greater degree of loudness or softness. On rare occasions you might see even more than three p's or f's.
While the meaning might seem to be clear, such markings are generally a poor idea because, given ffff, how are you to know whether there is yet another degree of loudness later in the music?
Generally, fff and ppp are therefore taken to mean "as loud as possible" and "as soft as possible", or in Italian, piano pianissimo and forte fortissimo.
We might also want the performer to play neither softly, or loudly, but somewhere in between. We have two alternatives for this: mp (for mezzo-piano), meaning "moderately softly" and mf (for mezzo-forte), meaning "moderately loudly".
Note that there is no such dynamic as "m"!
Here is the same piece of music as above, now with moderate dynamics:
Getting louder and quieter
It is very useful to be able to instruct a performer to gradually get louder (or softer), as well as to suddenly change from loud to soft. To do this, we use the terms crescendo (meaning "getting louder") and diminuendo (meaning "getting softer"). You will also see these terms abbreviated to cresc. and dim.
The term decrescendo is also used, and it is identical in meaning to diminuendo.
Rather than write out these words constantly, it is much more common to use "hairpin" symbols. These are pairs of lines that (from left to right) get wider to indicate louder and get narrower to indicate softer. The lines span the notes over which the change should take place.
Here is the same example again, but this time it gets louder gradually, then gets softer gradually to end once more at p:
Use of dynamics
There are a few important things to be aware of when writing dynamics.
- Each dynamic level (f, p, and so on) "lasts" until the next dynamic indication, unless there is more than a few beats' rest.
- Dynamics must therefore be "re-set" after more than a few beats' rest.
- Dynamics must appear directly under the first note to which the new dynamic level applies.
- When writing a crescendo or diminuendo, you should be sure to write in the dynamic level at which the cresc./dim. ends. For example, a crescendo from music already at p could end with an f marking.
- Crescendo and diminuendo have no meaning when written under rests, so avoid doing this unless the phrase clearly spans a short rest.
Here is a table showing a summary of all the terms and their meanings introduced in this guide.
|Crescendo hairpin||Gradually get louder while playing the notes spanned by the hairpin|
|Diminuendo hairpin||Gradually get softer while playing the notes spanned by the hairpin|
|cresc.||crescendo||Gradually get louder|
|Gradually get softer|
|fortissimo||Play very loudly|
|pianissimo||Play very softly|
|mezzo-forte||Play moderately loudly|
|mezzo-piano||Play moderately softly|
|forte fortissimo||Play as loudly as possible|
|piano pianissimo||Play as softly as possible|
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