What Are Dynamics In Music? A Complete Guide

Deciding how loud or quietly to play a piece of music can completely change how it sounds. If you play it loudly and forcefully the music might sound aggressive and attacking. But if you were to play the same piece, softly it’ll have a completely different feel. For that reason, dynamics are one of the most important parts of playing 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. But first, let’s define what are dynamics in music.

Dynamics In Music: Definition

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

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

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

  • Static dynamics
  • Changing dynamics

Now we’ll look at the differences between these two types of dynamics.

Static Dynamics

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

In other words, don’t get louder or quieter, play each note at the same volume as the last one.

We use three Italian terms to describe static dynamics:

Let’s start off by looking at 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.

Forte

Up next we have forte, which is pronounced ‘for-tay.’

It’s defined as the musical term for loud and it comes from the Italian word for ‘strong.’

Just like piano, when forte is used in a piece of music you’ll often see it indicated as a letter f.

This means you should play from this point loudly.

Mezzo

We use another Italian word, mezzo, which is pronounced ‘met-so’.

The definition of mezzo is ‘moderately‘ or ‘half.’

It’s placed in front of the two dynamics: piano and forte so you get mezzo piano (which means moderately quiet) and mezzo forte (which means moderately loud). 

Again, this will most of the time get abbreviated to the first letters of each word: mp or mf.

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 as shown below.

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.

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 fortissississimo is!

‘Mars, The Bringer of War’ from ‘The Planets’ by Gustav Holst

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 which is pianississississimo, a bit of a mouthful to say).

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

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Symphony No. 6’

Changing Dynamics

The other type of dynamic markings 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.

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.

Another word that means exactly the same as decrescendo is ‘diminuendo‘ which means ‘gradually get quieter.’

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

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 italianSymbolDefinition
pianississimovery, very quiet
pianissimovery quiet
pianoquiet
mezzo pianomoderately quiet
mezzo fortemoderately loud
forteloud
fortissimovery loud
fortississimovery, very loud
crescendogradually getting louder
decrescendogradually getting quieter
diminuendogradually getting quieter

Summing up Dynamics

I hope that helps you make a bit more sense of dynamics and how we notate volume in music.

I’ll be adding some more information on some of the other terms used to describe sudden changes in volume soon.

But, if you have any questions about anything in this post just leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer it.

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.

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