When I started learning how to play the drums, there were two volumes: Loud and louder. My parents couldn’t stand it, and it turned out that they were right. The best songs wouldn’t move anyone the way that they do if musicians just played at one volume.
This is just one of several reasons why dynamics in music are so important. But what are dynamics in music? In this guide, we’ll cover what dynamics in music refers to, show you what dynamics mean to a song, and explain the basics of the different types of dynamics you’ll find in a piece of music.
For those of you who are feeling more ambitious in your quest to understand dynamics in music, examples will be included in each section of this guide.
What Are Dynamics in Music?
Musicians use the word “dynamics” to indicate variations in volume between notes or passages in a piece. Whether you’re working with a full orchestra or a five-piece rock band, conductors usually can’t shout at their musicians to play louder or softer—so they rely on music notation to do the job for them.
I dusted off some of my old music theory notebooks to help you digest some of the more common dynamics in music. It’s important to keep in mind that while these have very simple definitions, the application of each type of dynamic will vary drastically across different types of music—and will often be tweaked by conductors throughout the rehearsal process.
Oh, two quick notes before we dive into our exploration of what are dynamics in music. With the exceptions of crescendos and diminuendos, the terms you’ll see below are also referred to as terraced dynamics. Terraced dynamics indicate that there’s a sudden volume change. Additionally, you’ll see dynamic markings throughout the guide in parentheses. These dynamic markings are what you’ll find in most (if not all) music scores.
Ready? Me too. Let’s get started.
The Different Types of Dynamics, Explained
Here’s a very fancy way of telling a musician to play a piece or a passage very quietly. In the example below, you’ll see that Beethoven has included the notation (pp) underneath the first note, which indicates that he wants pianists to start this passage softly.
When you see the (p) notation, the composer is indicating that he or she wants you to play the passage quietly, but slightly louder than you would play a section marked as pianissimo.
You might be seeing a trend here, but when you see the (mp) notation for mezzo-piano, the composer is instructing you to play moderately softly, compared to very softly.
We’re starting to get a little spicier here. And by “spicy,” I mean louder. In the case of mezzo-forte (mf), we’re only getting moderately loud, much to the chagrin of the drummer in me.
You probably know where this is headed, but forte music (f) is slightly louder than mezzo-forte. The official definition is that musicians should play “loud,” but again—the definition of “loud” when it comes to forte music depends on the conductor and the demands of the piece.
Here’s where the 15-year old drummer in me gets excited. Fortissimo (ff) is a fancy way of telling a musician to play “very loud.”
The term “crescendo” is used in a lot of applications. But when we’re looking for a crescendo music definition in music, all you need to know is that the orchestra or band needs to play the beginning of a passage or a note softly and gradually get louder.
A diminuendo (dim) is the opposite of a crescendo. Musicians are instructed to play a note or passage loudly and gradually get softer.
In fact, you’ll see examples of this in the image we included previously. We’ll show you again, but this time, take note of the markings that look like a “greater-than” sign on the brass line.
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