What Are Dynamics?

The volume of music is an important factor in how the music sounds. If you play a note really loudly, it will sound more aggressive than a softer note. Quiet music can sound timid, or even relaxing, like a lullaby. 

These are just two examples of dynamics in music. 

Dynamics help a musician express emotions through their music. So what are dynamics in music? How do we define dynamics? And what do they sound like?

In today’s post, we’re going to take a look at several different types of musical dynamics, including piano, forte, crescendo, and more. Then we’ll listen to some examples of dynamics in music. 

To start off, let’s define dynamic.

Dynamics in Music: Definition

dynamics in music, mezzo forte, crescendo, and decrescendo (image by Wikimedia Commons)

In musical terms, the dynamic is the volume of a piece of music. It tells the musician if the notes should be played quiet, medium loud, or super loud. 

Instead of using English words (like quiet or loud), we use Italian words and symbols for the music dynamics. 

There are two different categories of dynamics:

  • Static dynamics
  • Changing dynamics.

Let’s take a look at the differences between static and changing dynamics.

Static Dynamics

As you might be able to guess, static dynamics are, well, static. They don’t change until a new dynamic comes in. 

If you start playing a piece very loudly, with static dynamics, you should keep playing loudly until the sheet music tells you to stop. The music doesn’t get any softer as it goes along. The volume is static. 

In other words, all of the notes have the same volume. 

We use Italian words to describe the four types of static dynamics. The four static dynamics are:

  • Piano
  • Forte
  • Mezzo
  • -issimo

volume dynamics in sheet music examples (by Wikimedia Commons)

Piano

In this case, we’re not talking about the instrument

The word “piano” is pronounced “pi-ah-no.” In Italian, it means softly or gently. If you see “piano” or a letter p written in your music, it means to play that section of music quietly. 

If it’s just one p, the music should be quiet, but not too quiet. You should still be able to hear it. 

For music that is super quiet, we will use pianissimo. We’ll talk about that in a minute. 

Remember, when you see a letter p in your music, it means that the music should be soft and quiet.

Forte

Forte is the opposite of piano. 

In Italian, the word “forte” (pronounced for-tay) means strong. You’ll probably see it as a little f in your sheet music. 

When a piece of music is forte, it should be played loudly. 

A quick note about musical dynamics: if the music starts off forte, you should keep playing forte until the music tells you to do something else. Remember, static dynamics stay the same volume.

Mezzo

Now that we know piano (p) and forte (f), we can use mezzo and -issimo to get even more specific volumes and dynamics. 

“Mezzo,” pronounced met-zo, is an Italian word that means half-way or medium. It goes in front of the main dynamic (piano or forte). So piano becomes mezzo piano, and forte becomes mezzo forte. 

This is written as either mp (mezzo piano) or mf (mezzo forte). 

Mezzo piano means moderately quiet, and mezzo forte means moderately loud. 

If your music starts out mezzo forte and then switches to forte, it will get louder. If it starts mezzo piano and goes to piano, it will get softer. 

Again, this is written as either mp or mf.

Pianissimo and Fortissimo

The suffix “-issimo” at the end of a word means extremely. 

If we put “issimo” at the end of piano, it becomes pianissimo. Notice that we took the “o” off the end of piano. 

Pianissimo means “very quiet.” It’s written as pp. 

When you see pianissimo in your sheet music, it means to play very, very quietly.

It’s the same thing with forte. Forte becomes fortissimo, which is written as ff. Fortissimo means “very loud.” 

Sometimes a song will go from mezzo forte (mf) to fortissimo (ff). Fortissimo is louder than mezzo forte. 

And the opposite is true for piano: mezzo piano (mp) is a little louder than pianissimo (pp).

Pianississimo and Fortississimo

Even though these are a lot less common, there are dynamics that get even softer than pp and ff. 

Just add an extra “iss.” 

Pianississimo (ppp) is very very very quiet, while fortississimo (fff) is very very very loud.

fortississimo example in sheet music (by Wikimedia Commons)

Again, these are pretty rare, but it’s good to know what they mean. 

A good rule of thumb: the more p’s or f’s in your music, the softer (or louder) the music is played. So p (piano) is quiet, but ppp (pianississimo) is SUPER quiet– you can barely hear music that is pianississimo!

Pianississississ… etc.

It’s super rare to see more than three p’s or f’s (ppp / fff) in sheet music. But once in a while, some composer will use lots of p’s and f’s to create a very extreme dynamic. 

In “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, there’s a passage where Holst uses fortissississimo. That’s four f’s, ffff. In other words, the orchestra gets insanely loud in that piece!

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony no. 6.” 

About ten minutes into the first movement, Tchaikovsky uses a lot of p’s. Six of them, to be exact. 

In musical terms, that is pianississississimo. Try saying that five times fast!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyQl6qLn7a4
Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony no. 6.”

Piano, forte, mezzo, and -issimo are all terms we can use to talk about static dynamics. 

But what about the second type of dynamics, changing dynamics?

Changing Dynamics

Remember how static dynamics stay the same volume? 

Well, changing dynamics are the opposite. Changing dynamics, like crescendo and decrescendo, show us when the music changes volume. 

It could be a gradual change, where the music slowly gets louder over time. Or it could be a sudden change, where one or two notes go from piano to fortissimo. 

There are two kinds of changing dynamics: crescendo and decrescendo.

Crescendo

music crescendo picture example (by Wikimedia commons)

Crescendo (pronounced “cruh-shen-doh”) is an Italian word that means “increasing.”

In music, crescendo means to gradually get louder.

There are two ways to show a crescendo in sheet music. It might be abbreviated as cresc., or you might see a hairpin sign over your music. 

The hairpin symbol looks like a skinny “less than” sign (<). The pointy end faces the quiet part, and as the music gets louder, the lines grow farther apart. 

A crescendo connects two static dynamics. 

For example, a song starts out at piano, then the crescendo makes the music louder until it reaches the forte.

Decrescendo and Diminuendo

Decrescendo in music example picture (by Wikimedia Commons)

And last but not least, we have the opposite of crescendo– the decrescendo. 

It’s also called diminuendo, but these two terms are pretty interchangeable, since they mean the same thing. 

Decrescendo (“dee-cruh-shen-doh”) means to get quieter. It’s the opposite of crescendo, so instead of going from piano to forte, a decrescendo would go from forte to piano. 

You can abbreviate decrescendo as decresc., or you can use a hairpin symbol pointed the other way. 

Remember, the pointy end points at the quietest note. So a decrescendo faces this way: >.

You might also see the word “dim.” written on your sheet music. This is short for diminuendo, which is the same thing as decrescendo. It just means that the music gradually gets quieter.

Music Chart Dynamics

File:Music-piano.svgPianoPlay quietly
File:Music dynamic forte.svgFortePlay loudly
File:Music dynamic mezzo forte.svgMezzo forteModerately loud
File:Music dynamic mezzo piano.svgMezzo pianoModerately quiet
File:Music dynamic pianissimo.svgPianissimoVery quiet
File:Music dynamic fortissimo.svgFortissimoVery loud
File:Chambers 1908 Music Crescendo.pngCrescendoGradually get louder
File:Chambers 1908 Music Decrescendo.pngDecrescendo
(also called diminuendo)
Gradually get softer

Summing Up Dynamics in Music

Dynamics are a way for composers to control the volume of their music. 

We use static dynamics (like piano and forte) and changing dynamics (like crescendo and decrescendo) to notate volume in music. 

It’s a super important part of sheet music, because the volume changes how the music sounds and what emotion it shows. 

Do you have any questions about music dynamics? Let us know in the comments!

Jessica Roberts
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