Twenty lessons ago, WebRhythms presented quarter notes and eighth notes. In this WebRhythms lesson, the final exam covers just about any type of rhythmic situation you’re likely to encounter. But there are still a few aspects of reading and playing music that we haven’t yet discussed. One of these is the use of musical dynamics.
The term “dynamics” includes all of the different types of musical symbols that describe performance volume. In addition to indicating rhythms, our notational system includes several symbols that tell you how loud a certain passage should be played.
Most dynamics are written as abbreviations for Italian words and phrases. Italian composers were one of the first groups of musicians to incorporate the ideas of dynamics into written music, and their terms have become standard throughout the musical world. Here are the abbreviations and their meanings.
p – The letter p stands for “piano”. In Italian, it means “weak”. To most musicians, the concept of “soft” will work just fine.
f – The letter f stands for “forte”. In Italian, it means “strong”. In musical terms, you can think of forte as “loud”.
m – The letter m stands for “mezzo” and means “moderately” or “medium”. The m is never seen alone. Instead, it is used along with piano or forte to somewhat temper their meanings. The dynamic marking of mp means moderately soft (not quite as soft as piano), and the marking of mf would be interpreted as moderately loud (not quite as strong as forte).
In addition to these markings, their comparatives are also possible. In English, we have three different levels of softness. We can say that something is soft, softer or softest. We can also say that something is loud, louder or loudest. The Italian language is very similar in construction. One level softer than piano is “pianissimo” – abbreviated as “pp”. The softest indication is “pianississimo” and is abbreviated as “ppp”. When working with forte, the next level up is “fortissimo” or “ff”, and the loudest level is “fortississimo” or “fff”.
For those of you trying to keep all of this straight in your mind, the first example shows how the dynamic markings would progress from the softest level to the loudest. At times, you may run into dynamic markings that use four p’s or four f’s. These dynamics really don’t have a particular name – after all, if ppp tells you to play at your softest level, where can you go from there? In such cases, the composer is just trying to make a statement that the music at this point should be really soft or really loud.
Dynamics operate much like speed limit signs and time signatures. If a piano dynamic is indicated, then the soft volume is in effect until you see a different dynamic. For example, at the beginning of this WebRhythms exercise, you see a marking of forte. The first two measures (and part of the third) continue along in this dynamic. When you reach the sixth count of the third measure, you would begin playing piano.
Another common dynamic indication is an accent. The accent looks like a small arrowhead (>) and applies only to a single note. This type of dynamic is called a “dynamic accent” and indicates that this particular note should be played stronger than the non-accented notes around it. Keep in mind that an accented note that is played in the dynamic of piano will be much softer than an accent played in forte.
While we’re speaking of volume levels, just how loud is forte? Well, there is no firm answer. A harmonica played forte will be softer than a snare drum played forte. These indications are nothing more than general suggestions by the composer. The exact volume played would depend on several different yet related aspects. For a few examples: forte in a small chamber orchestra playing Mozart would be softer than forte in a Mahler symphony calling for over 100 musicians and a 200 voice choir. Likewise, a piano marking for a snare drum passage behind a few woodwinds would be softer than a cowbell playing piano with a Salsa band. For a musical interpretation of dynamics, always let your ears and your common sense be your guide.
Two last dynamic features: a crescendo is an indication to gradually get louder over a period of time. A decrescendo (also called a diminuendo) is an indication to gradually get softer over a period of time. These symbols are pretty easy to remember due to their graphic representations (see example 2). They are usually written below the notes that they will affect. For example, the crescendo under measure nine asks the performer to gradually change from mezzo-piano (the starting dynamic) to fortissimo (the ending dynamic). The decrescendo at measure 13 works in a similar fashion, except that the music will become gradually softer rather than louder. Sometimes, crescendi (plural) or diminuendi (ditto) occur over a long period of time. Instead of having a graphic symbol spread over several measures, a composer or copyist may choose to use the abbreviations of “cresc.”, “dim.”, or “decres.” to indicate the gradual rise or fall in volume.
One last point about reading and playing music: At all times, strive for a relaxed, natural, comfortable and smooth performance. Whether you’re improvising or reading music, never be afraid to express yourself through your music.