Dynamics: Loud and Soft in Music

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Dynamics are one of the most important parts of music. You can express so much emotion with them.

In this post, we’re going to cover all the different types of musical dynamics and how we use them with lots of examples and explanations.

Or head over here to keep reading about other topics in our learn music theory online series.

What are dynamics in music?

In music, we use the word dynamics to describe the volume of music.

But, rather than using words like loud and quiet, we use different Italian terms and symbols to describe the dynamics of the piece.

We group the musical terms for dynamics into two different categories:

Let’s start off with the static ones.

Static dynamics

Static dynamics are musical instructions that tell us to play the music at a certain volume that doesn’t change.

We use three Italian terms to describe static dynamics:

Let’s start off by looking at the piano (not the instrument).

Piano

The first dynamic we’ll look at is piano, which is pronounced ‘pi-ah-no.

Piano is the word we use to describe quiet or soft in music.

When reading music you’ll typically see a letter p which is telling the musician to play this part of the piece quietly.

Piano

Forte

Up next we have forte, which is pronounced ‘for-tay.’ It’s defined as loud and it comes from the Italian word for ‘strong.’

Just like piano, when you see it in a piece of music you’ll see it indicated as a letter f. This means you should play from this point loudly.

Forte

Mezzo

We use another Italian word, mezzo, which means ‘moderately‘ or ‘half.’

It’s placed in front of piano and forte to get mezzo piano (moderately quiet) and mezzo forte (moderately loud). 

This will most of the time get abbreviated to mp or mf.

Mezzo piano
Mezzo forte

Pianissimo and fortissimo

We can also add the suffix ‘issimo’ which essentially means ‘very’ on to the end of piano and forte. We just take off the last letter o from piano and e from forte.

This then gives us pianissimo which means ‘very quiet‘ and fortissimo which means ‘very loud‘.

Pianissimo will get abbreviated to double letter ps and fortissimo will get abbreviated to double letter fs.

Pianissimo
Fortissimo

Pianississimo and fortississimo

Not as common but still worth mentioning is that we can have very, very loud and very, very quiet dynamics.

We just add an extra ‘iss’ to get pianississimo and fortississimo.

Pianississimo
Fortississimo

Even more Ps and Fs

You’re unlikely to see static dynamics other than these but there have been some composers who’ve used even more ps and fs to make some more extreme dynamics.

Holst uses fortissississimo (ffff) in Mars, The Bringer of War from The Planets.

In the video below skip to around 7 minutes in and 7:30 minutes and you’ll hear how loud that is!

Gustav Holst – The Planets – Mars

Hearing a whole orchestra play pretty much as loud as they can is quite a thing to experience, definitely worth going to see it next time it’s on at the proms.

Another example of some extreme dynamics is from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6.

In the first movement at around 10 minutes in he writes a lot of ps, (six ps at one point pianississississimo).

You might want to turn your volume up to hear it though…

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6

Changing Dynamics

The other type of dynamic marking that you’ll see is to do with changing dynamics.

This is where the music isn’t staying at one volume but gradually (or suddenly) increasing or decreasing in volume.

Crescendo

We use the Italian word crescendo (pronounced ‘kruh-shen-doh.’) which means to ‘gradually get louder’.

It comes from the Italian word for increasing.

It is often abbreviated to ‘cresc’ in a piece of music but you can also draw a hairpin sign. This is just two lines starting together and gradually getting further apart as shown below.

Crescendo
Crescendo hairpin

Decrescendo and diminuendo

The opposite of crescendo is decrescendo which means to ‘gradually get quieter’.

It comes from the Italian word for decreasing.

It gets abbreviated to ‘decresc‘ but we can also use a hairpin symbol pointing the other way. The two lines start apart and gradually get closer together until they meet.

Decrescendo
Decrescendo hairpin

We can also use the word diminuendo which means exactly the same as decrescendo – ‘gradually get quieter.’

Diminuendo gets abbreviated to dim. but you can use the decrescendo hairpin or either of these words interchangeably.

Diminuendo

Music Dynamics Chart

Below is a list of all the different dynamic markings that you’re likely to come across in a piece of music along with the symbol and the definition.

Dynamics Chart
In italian Symbol Definition
pianississimo very, very quiet
pianissimo very quiet
piano quiet
mezzo piano moderately quiet
mezzo forte moderately loud
forte loud
fortissimo very loud
fortississimo very, very loud
crescendo gradually getting louder
decrescendo gradually getting quieter
diminuendo gradually getting quieter

I hope that helps you make a bit more sense of dynamics. I’ll be adding some more information on some of the other terms used to describe sudden changes in volume soon.

If you have any questions though just leave a comment below!

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