The future of music

What Are Dynamics in Music? Comprehensive Guide

August 4, 2023
dynamics in music

Today, we are going to talk all about volume, so grab your earplugs and come along for the ride.

If you don’t know a speck of Italian, that’s all about to change because when it comes to music theory and notation, we describe volume in lush, opulent Italian words.

You’ll feel like you are getting a dose of the Renaissance and a healthy helping of musical history when you get to know about dynamics.

We probably don’t need to overstate how vital volume is for a piece of music.

Dial the notch down, and a piece can feel ethereal, romantic, or even spectral.

Dial it up, and it can feel jarring, confrontational, and audacious.

Volume is the final flourish, the aspect which emphasizes, highlights, or obscures the other qualities of the song.

Imagine a world of monotone volume – most of our favorite pieces would sound flat and uninspired.

For instance, a popular mode in pop and rock music is to have a softer verse and a louder, more authoritative chorus.

In this instance, dynamics truly are the magic ingredient.

An Introduction to Dynamics

Dynamics inform a musician of what volume to play a given piece and describe how the volume changes as the song progresses.

Dynamics can be consistent throughout a piece of music, or they can fluctuate wildly and unpredictably throughout.

There are two ways to describe dynamics – as static or changing.

Dynamics markings, which are either letters or words, are written underneath the section that the dynamic pertains to on the staff.

When it comes to changing dynamics, the most common method is to write a new dynamic marking at the point where the change comes into effect.

Be advised that there is no hard and fast decibel level for the given dynamics.

Forte can be much louder in one context than another, for instance, and is open to interpretation depending on the composer’s discretion and vision. 

Static Dynamics

The three main descriptions of dynamics are piano, mezze, and forte.

And no, not piano like the instrument.

musical dynamics

Piano 

Piano is the word we use to describe quiet, soft, and delicate music.

When you see the letter p, it indicates that you must play this portion of the piece quietly.

Forte

This word may be familiar to you.

It means strong or loud and is the opposite of piano.

It is brash, unapologetic, and high volume.

When you see the letter f, it indicates that you must play this portion of the piece loudly.

Mezzo

Mezzo is a middle ground between piano and forte and means both moderately and half. 

It is placed in front of either the piano or forte symbol to amend their qualities.

So mezzo piano means moderately quiet but not as quiet as piano.

Mezzo forte means moderately loud, but not as loud as plain old forte.

You will typically see it in abbreviated form as m.

Issimo

But that is not all.

Things get even fancier when we want to emphasize a given dynamic.

We will add the suffix “-issimo” to the base word to indicate that something is exaggerated.

The suffix means “very” for all extents and purposes.

The outcome is two grand words indeed: pianissimo, which means “very quiet,” and fortissimo, which means “very loud.”

This is when things get wild.

We can essentially keep appending the letters “-iss” to the word to indicate very, very loud or very, very quiet dynamics.

The words look a bit ridiculous when typed out and are not exactly common, but all music theory novices will learn them at one time or another.

This addition gives us words like pianississimo and fortississimo.

If you think that is a tongue twister, it gets better.

Try saying pianissississimo or fortissississimo three times fast.

Essentially, the sky is theoretically the limit here, but most composers limit themselves to just a few “-iss” inclusions.

issimo

Changing Dynamics

Dynamics are not always static throughout a given piece or section of music.

They can also evolve throughout, intriguing the listener and adding texture and urgency to a piece of music.

Indeed, you may be familiar with some of these words already. 

Crescendo 

This fancy little word means to get louder or to increase in volume gradually.

This is designed to be a gradual evolution, not an abrupt change.  

You will see it either as a hairpin look-alike symbol with two conjoining lines or simply abbreviated as ‘cresc’ in musical notation.

Decrescendo / Diminuendo

Shocker – decrescendo means to get quieter gradually.

Diminuendo means exactly the same thing, and it is at the discretion of the composer which term is used.

As above, these markings denote a gradual evolution, not an abrupt one.

Decrescendo is written as either a hairpin in the opposite direction of crescendo or via its abbreviation “descresc” in musical notation.

Diminuendo is symbolized by the abbreviation “dim.”

Decrescendo

Individual Dynamics

You can also choose to accent individual notes.

We place the symbols for these three individual dynamics right above the note in question.

The three individual dynamics, better known as articulations, are accents, tenutos, and sforzandos.

An accent informs the musician that they need to place sudden emphasis on a note.

This adds a creative, eye-catching flourish to a piece of music.  

accent note

Tenuto indicates that the musician must lean on a note.

In layman’s terms, this means that the musician must hold or sustain the note for its full length, and draw the note out for full effect.

sustain note

Sforzando indicates that a note should be played with sudden force and emphasis.

Sforzando is big, bold, and unapologetic and captures the listener’s attention. 

Sforzando

Dynamic Sounds

Now that you know the fundamentals of dynamics you have creative license to construct a whole array of impactful, evocative sounds.

Go dreamy and light or provocative and loud – we give you permission.

You may also like: What Is an Interval in Music?

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

view profile

musical rests
Previous Story

Guide to Musical Rests: 8 Types of Rests in Sheet Music

melody in music
Next Story

What Is Melody in Music? Comprehensive Guide

Latest from Music Advice & Knowledge

best cheap drum sets

10 Best Cheap Drum Sets

Are you a drummer who wants the best quality drums without breaking the bank? Modern innovation has allowed the functions and features
best drum sets

10 Best Drum Sets

Are you a drummer looking for a new set, but don’t know where to look? No matter your skill level, we’ve got