Dynamics

graph of sound waves

Dynamics refer to the volume at which music is played. Just as pitch is linked with the frequency of sound waves, volume is linked with their amplitude. However, just as pitch differs from frequency because it depends on perception, volume varies from amplitude in the same way. Amplitude is a physical property of sound that can be measured, but perceived volume is not directly linked with amplitude. Low pitches, for example, are perceived as being much more quiet than high pitches of the same amplitude.

Like so many things in music, dynamics are usually indicated in Italian. Often abbreviations for the Italian names are used, as in the chart below.

Italian Name: pianissimo piano mezzo piano mezzo forte forte fortissimo
Abbreviation: pp p mp mf f ff
Meaning: very quiet quiet somewhat quiet somewhat loud loud very loud

Any dynamic can be modified by additional adjectives:

Changing Dynamics

A composer may change the dynamic of a piece at any time by simply placing a dynamic name (mezzo piano) or abbreviation (mp) in the score. However, sometimes the composer will also want to indicate how the performer should transition to that dynamic.

When a composer wants to indicate a sudden and dramatic change in dynamics, he may prefix any dynamic with the term subito (literally 'suddenly') as in subito piano or subito fortissimo.

piano dynamic followed by a crescendo to forte and decrescendo back to piano

For slow transitions between dynamics, a composer must use a crescendo or a decrescendo (diminuendo). A crescendo is used for gradually getting louder, and a decrescendo or diminuendo is used for gradually getting softer. These may be indicated with the terms themselves, by abbreviations (cresc., decresc., dim.), or graphically. The graphic representation of crescendos and decrescendos are < and > signs (sometimes called 'hairpins') which are placed below the staff lines and are stretched out underneath the notes that should be included in the dynamic change. Intuitively, < is used for a crescendo and > is used for a decrescendo.

Changes in dynamics can also be modified by additional adjectives:

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." - Aldous Huxley

"Music in the soul can be heard by the universe." - Lao Tzu

"Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." - Ludwig van Beethoven

"Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue." - Plato

"Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." - Victor Hugo

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

Copyright © Sienna M. Wood, 2015-2016

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