In the language of music theory, dynamics are changes in the volume with which a musician plays their instrument. In literature, dynamics can refer to the pace of a story. They also form a key component of music notation, where they are used in the same way as tempo markings.
This post will cover the various types of musical dynamics, and how they are used with lots of examples and explanations. Let’s define what are dynamics in music.
What are dynamics in music?
The volume of a sound or note is called dynamics. This term can also be applied to written or printed musical notation that is used to indicate dynamics. Dynamics can be used to refer to relative volume levels.
Dynamic markings were traditionally based on Italian words. However, it is acceptable to use English words in your music theory. Forte means play loudly and strongly, and piano is soft.
By the way, the instrument we commonly call the “piano” was initially called a pianoforte because it could play dynamics, unlike other keyboard instruments like the spinet and harpsichord.
History of Dynamic Notation
In the 16th century, instructions for dynamics were first published. Lute music was the first to have dynamic marking. However, it wasn’t until the 17th Century, when the Italian terms forte and piano became more prominently used, that these markings were made standard features of the music score.
It has been common for western classical tradition to use notation to express composers’ wishes regarding the volume and sound of the music elements. This practice dates back to the Baroque period. However, it is now understood that these nuances are within the scope of the performer’s responsibility to execute.
How to indicate dynamics in music notation
Dynamic markings, like many musical terms, appear on sheet music in the form of abbreviated Italian terms. They range in volume from the smallest to the loudest.
The main dynamic levels are:
- p or piano, which means “soft”
- f or forte, which means “loud”
We also use mezzo from Italy, which can be pronounced “met-so”. Mezzo can be described as moderately or half. It is placed in front the two dynamics: forte and piano so you get mezzo piano (which means moderately silent) and mezzo forte (which means moderately loud).
You can also see subtle degrees of loudness and softness by:
- mp: Abbreviation for mezzo-piano, meaning “moderately soft”.
- mf: Abbreviation for mezzo-forte, meaning a little loud forte – play medium loud
p and f are just a few of the options.
- pp means pianissimo. It stands for very soft.
- ff means fortissimo. It stands for and it means “very loud”.
It is not as common, but it is worth mentioning that we can have very loud and very quiet dynamics. To get pianissimo and fortississimo, we just need to add an additional ‘iss’.
- ppp is an abbreviation of pianississimo meaning “very, very soft”
- fff is an abbreviation of fortississimo that means “very, very loud”
Sometimes accented notes are created when music is played louder than usual. Although most composers use graphic music notation to express accents, some composers and arrangers prefer the Italian words sforzando, sforzato, forzando, or forzato-in music notation sfz, sf, or fz-all to make some more extreme dynamics.
Extreme dynamic markings imply an extreme range of loudness, or, alternative ways, imply an extremely subtle distinction between very small differences of loudness within a normal range.
Classical composers sometimes use the fp sign, which stands for fortepiano and indicates a forte accent immediately following by piano.
How to indicate dynamic changes in music notation
Certain markings and symbols that indicate gradual musical volume changes are called dynamic. It is common to see both graphic symbols and Italian terms as indicators of dynamic changes in sheet music.
Italic terms are more common in classical scores. Jazz and pop charts use graphic notation, known as “hairpins” or “alligator jaws.”
The Baroque music era used “Terraced Dynamics” for the dynamics in music. This meant that a section of music would be played at a certain volume and then the next section would be played at another volume without any subtle changes or graduations.
Composers and technology have improved over time so that piece of music can be modified to alter the dynamics.
These are the dynamic terms to understand basic dynamic changes:
- crescendo is slowly increasing volume (abbreviated cresc. on musical scores)
- decrescendo is a gradual decrease in volume (abbreviated decresc. on musical scores)
- diminuendo is essentially the same as decrescendo (abbreviated Dim). on musical scores)
These concepts are often expressed in contemporary musical scores using “hairpin” notation. These dynamic markings are displayed in the following format:
These “hairpins”, which are open and close, indicate loudness. Hairpins that open and close slowly indicate diminuendo. Crescentendo is a hairpin that opens slowly and closes at the beginning. These markings may be extended to multiple lengths if necessary.
How to use Dynamics
Sometimes, composers leave out dynamic markings in music. If that is the case, how can you decide what dynamics to use? There are many ways to add dynamic to a song.
You can experiment with different dynamics to see what you like and add your dynamic to the music, even if it is already marked. There might be a better way to add dynamic to your song. These are some great things you can do with dynamics.
The Echo: If you hear the exact phrase repeated in a song, play it louder the first and then softer the second. A reverse echo is where you play loud the first time while playing soft the second.
Soft Verse, Loud Chorus: You’ll find this in popular music as well as soft versus and loud choruses. To make the hook more engaging, play the chorus at a louder volume than the verse. Then, drop to a lower level for the next verse.
Crescendo and Decrescendo: Take a piece of music and start soft. Then, get louder towards the middle. Finally, get back to soft at the end. This is fun with Hoffman Academy’s songs “Chocolate” and “The Wild Horses.” As the notes rise, they get louder.
The notes that go lower become softer. Try different dynamics when you practice piano songs. Pay attention to how dynamics can affect the feel of a song.
You will soon be able to sense whether the music is loud or soft as you get more experience with dynamics. You can listen to this video lesson and learn more about dynamics.
Why is it important to understand dynamics in music?
Dynamic music can be used to communicate an emotion or state of mind and interest in a musical performance
Because instruments sound very different at different volumes, musicians need to be able to recognize dynamic range. This is most evident with brass instruments and woodwinds.
Still, electronic instruments like the electric guitar have their tonal qualities when they are played louder or lower due to the physics behind guitar amplifiers.
Music Production: Dynamic Range
Modern music’s dynamics are dependent on sound and studio technology rather than the orchestral techniques mentioned above. Studio technology can create and release tension, volume dynamics, and spatial effects.
They are done in a completely different way. Mixing and production are the keys to dynamic sound in studios. Compressors and dynamics processors use mathematical processes to alter the sound.
These processors, like the dynamics markings, change the volume of any sound. Their names are derived from the dynamic of the track and what they do to it. Let’s look at four processors that can affect dynamic range in modern studio settings: Compressors and Limiters, Expanders, Gates.
Compressors, it is not surprising, reduce the sound. What does this mean? They bring the louder and quieter parts closer together in the dynamic level, narrowing the dynamic range between them.
When the signal becomes too loud, downward compression reduces its force. Upward compression boosts the signal until it reaches the desired level.
The average compressor has six parameters, and these are listed below.
The compressor turns on when it reaches a threshold (measured by dB) of loudness or softness (upward compression).
Controls how much compression takes place.
This affects the way signals around and near the threshold point are compressed. An aEURhardaEUR ™ knee will activate compression when it crosses the threshold, even though it is only 0.1 dB below the limit.
An aEURsoftaEUR ™ knee, on the other side, will round the sound before it crosses over the threshold and gives it a smoother sound.
This is the time taken by the compressor to move from full compression to no compression.
Controls the time taken for full compression to end and return to zero.
Compressors reduce the volume of loud signals so that the signal is less audible than the original. This is compensated for by amplifying your output signal and restoring the volume of the loud parts to their initial levels.
Many ways can compression be used to control sound dynamics. Producers and mix engineers use compressors to reduce the sound’s dynamic and natural-sounding quality.
Limiters are a way to limit sound signals from exceeding a certain threshold. It will immediately be compressed once the threshold has been reached to ensure that it does not exceed it. A limiter is a compressor with a high ratio.
Some limiters can be set to adjust the threshold level, while others do not. Limiters are used to master tracks to make them sound better. They glue the different elements together and increase their volume. Limiters can also be used to control loud sounds in live music.
Expanders can be thought of as the opposite of compressors. Expanders are responsible for expanding the dynamic range of recorded audio. A compressor compresses dynamics, and a limiter limits it.
The louder parts will be louder than the quieter ones, and vice versa. An expander can be used to increase or widen the dynamic range and produce a more natural sound.
The thresholds are the input levels that activate the expander. The expander kicks in when a signal is sufficiently loud or soft to exceed this threshold. The same applies to the knee, attack, or release times in a compressor but in the opposite direction.
For downward expansion, makeup gain is not required because the quieter parts will be gradually softer. However, they are essential for upward growth. When a signal is expanded louder during upward expansion, distortion may occur.
The makeup gain reduces the signal’s force and returns the louder parts to their original levels.
The last dynamic processor we have is an extreme form downward expansion that has a high ratio. The Gates provide a threshold at the floor that automatically muffles certain parts of an audio signal.
Gates can be used to remove background noises and improve the sound quality of drums. They also isolate individual drum sounds from a set.
All types of music have dynamics. As important as the notes themselves, the dynamics of the sounds are part of the composition. If you want to bring out your music’s dynamics, then you must practice expressing it—practice sounding soft at different dynamic levels. The quieter you can play, the more expressive you will sound.
Although the science of dynamics is complex and nuanced, it’s impossible to describe in a brief article. However, Fidlar hopes you have gained some insight into what are all the dynamics in music.