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What are Dynamics in Music?

Have you ever noticed that some music is quite loud and aggressive while other pieces are soft and dreamy?

Unless you’re an experienced musician, you might not realize that the different ways that music sounds can be referred to as dynamics.

In fact, dynamics can be used by musicians to make the same piece of music either sound loud and aggressive or soft and dreamy.

Dynamics in Detail

Musicians sometimes use “dynamics” to refer to the volume of the music they play. While an ordinary person might describe these dynamics as being either loud or soft, musicians tend to use the formal Italian terms to describe dynamics. For instance, a musical score might use “forte” when a passage should be louder and “piano” when a passage should be softer.

Music notation provides helpful shorthand on sheet music to help musicians understand how a piece should sound. For instance, these are some common abbreviations:

  • pp: for pianissimo, or very soft
  • p: for piano, or soft
  • mp: for mezzo-piano, or somewhat soft
  • mf: for mezzo-forte, or somewhat loud
  • f: for forte, or loud
  • ff: for fortissimo, or very loud

Sometimes, music notation gets even more complicated when the composer wants to indicate a sudden change in dynamic from loud to soft or soft to loud. The composer may show this with the use of an accented note. Alternatively, such indications may be made with Italian terms like:

  • sforzando, or sfz;
  • sforzato, or sf;
  • forzando or fz; and
  • fortepiano, or fp.

For example, fortepiano signals to a musician that they must play a forte accent with a piano accent immediately following.

Static and Changing Dynamics

Dynamics also may be divided into two categories: Static and changing.

Static dynamics are those that do not change. This means that each note in the piece is played at the same volume rather than getting softer or louder. Static dynamics may be described with the terms piano, forte and mezzo.

While piano refers to soft, and forte refers to loud, mezzo usually is defined as half or moderate.

Some pieces have changing dynamics. In these musical pieces, the dynamics may change either suddenly or gradually.

When music is gradually getting louder, it is described as “crescendo.” Based on the Italian word for “increasing,” crescendo may be abbreviated as “cresc.”

When music is intended to gradually get quieter, it is described as decrescendo. This term comes from the Italian term for “decreasing.” An abbreviation of “decresc” frequently is used on sheet music to indicate a passage that gradually gets softer.

Similarly, musicians may encounter the “diminuendo” instruction on sheet music. It may be abbreviated as “dim,” and it means precisely the same thing as decrescendo. In fact, these terms usually are considered to be interchangeable.

Dynamics Aren’t What They Used to Be

In the era of Baroque music, which ran roughly from 1600 to 1750, European composers widely relied upon a technique called “terraced dynamics.” According to this technique, each section of music is played at one volume level. The next section may be played at another volume, whether softer or louder, without the use of subtle changes or graduations.

A prime example of terraced dynamics occurs in the “Spring” movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

After the Baroque period, composers began using different dynamic changes so that now it is not unusual for songwriters to change dynamics throughout a piece with little predictability.

Why Do Dynamics Matter?

Dynamics are critical because they add an emotional element to music that would otherwise be missing. Listen to a very soft piece of music, and reflect for a few moments on how it makes you feel.

Next, listen to a very loud piece of music, and give it some thought as well. What kind of emotions does it evoke? Are they different from what you felt when listening to the very soft piece of music?

Accordingly, one song may be appropriate to sing a baby to sleep while another is designed to get the crowd pumped up at a hockey game.

Dynamics are so crucial, that they frequently are introduced to music students at a very early stage. Still, quite a bit of experience is needed to really coax the most emotion from any piece of music.

Influential Examples of Dynamics

In the history of western music, certain pieces simply stand out from the rest when it comes to dynamics.

Consider studying any of these pieces to get a better understanding for how dynamics work.

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings was written in 1936 when the composer was still in his twenties. As famous conductor Leonard Slatkin notes, the piece begins softly with violins, gradually adding violas and cellos until it reaches a “strong climax” and then an “interminable silence.”

Barber’s piece is so evocative that it is frequently used for public mourning and in many films. The eight-minute piece has even been adapted by artists working in the electronic dance music genre.

Perhaps a more traditional example of dynamics may be found in Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony: Movement 2. Symphony No. 5 in E minor, as it is also called, was composed in 1888 and had its first performance that same year at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. The composer himself conducted the inaugural performance.

Although Tchaikovsky sometimes denied it, at other times he did hint that his fifth symphony dealt with a “confrontation with Fate.” The second movement has a slow tempo that is occasionally interrupted by sudden outbursts, making it a particularly good example of changing dynamics.

John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever is a remarkably familiar composition that features heavy dynamic emphasis. This American-style march is instantly recognized by even casual music fans, but it can be deceptively difficult to play. Perhaps this is because each theme in the piece is intended to depict a different region in America. Accordingly, each theme contrasts wildly with the others.

Sousa composed the music and wrote the lyrics for Stars and Stripes Forever in 1896. His name virtually synonymous with marches, Sousa mentioned in his autobiography that he composed the music on Christmas Day.

Generally, this piece is considered fun and rousing, but it has an interesting history in the circus and the theater. Performers in the early 20th century used to refer to Stars and Stripes Forever as “the Disaster March” as it was the piece that was played whenever a theater needed to signal a life-threatening emergency. When the house band struck up this piece, it was a notification to all personnel that an emergency was underway and that they should begin organizing the audience for a calm and orderly exit.

One particularly fun and inventive use of dynamics occurs in Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony. Otherwise known as Symphony No. 94, Haydn may have had a special motivation for experimenting with dynamics in this particular piece.

At the time the symphony was composed in 1790, Haydn was working exclusively for Nikolaus Esterhazy, an Austrian prince. Unfortunately, as the story goes, members of the audience at concerts, including the prince, had a tendency to fall asleep during the performance. Haydn’s remedy to this rudeness was to include a jolting surprise in his symphony. It’s a soft, gentle piece, played entirely piano until an abrupt fortissimo chord is thrown in. What follows is more slow, gentle music, leaving the sleepy audience to wonder if the fortissimo moment every actually happened.

Musicians also enjoy Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 when they are studying dynamics. For a piece that only lasts a little over three minutes, Dance No. 5 is remarkable for its many changes in dynamics. Published in 1869, this piece has found its way into modern popular culture in films, television and even cartoons.

Brahms found inspiration for this piece after meeting a well-known Hungarian Gypsy violinist named Eduard Remenyi. It was Remenyi who introduced Brahms to Hungarian dances, known as csardas, and Gypsy music.

Brahms was so fascinated by Remenyi that he would go on to compose 21 Hungarian Dances. Originally, each of these pieces was written for the piano, but Brahms would eventually prepare them for full orchestras.

Explore Dynamics and More with Prodigies Music

Dynamics are just one of the many components that make music so fascinating and infectious. If you would like your children or students to learn more about music but aren’t certain where to start, then you’ve come to the right place.

At Prodigies, our specialty is introducing kids to music in a fun and inclusive manner. We believe that no one is ever too young to develop a greater appreciation for music, and that’s why we have created a series of video lessons, sheet music, instruments and other materials that are designed to help kids discover all that the world of music can offer.

Browse through our programs today to find the perfect starting place for you kids.

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