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Introduction to dynamics

Dynamics are expressions specifying the loudness of a musical passage.

Basic dynamics : piano et forte

A dynamic corresponds to a certain level of sound intensity or loudness. Dynamics can be compared to the brightness of a color. Although there is an infinity of degrees between total darkness and the bright light of the sun, it is necessary for us to fix certain concepts in order to better communicate our intentions. For example, we will speak of a dark color or a light color in order to distinguish between two shades. In the same way, it is necessary to distinguish between soft and strong dynamics.

As often the case in music, it was the Italians of the Renaissance who first formalized these concepts, which is why we will use Italian terms. A soft dynamic will be named piano (meaning soft in Italian), a strong one forte (meaning strong, pronounced fortay).

On a score, the piano dynamic is noted , while the forte is written . Dynamics are always written below the staff, under the first note concerned. As long as a new dynamic is not met, the previous dynamic is still valid.

Example 1
Timpani

Two identical phrases, the first one played , the other one .

FIGURE 1 - Score of the example 1

Example 2

Cello

Two identical phrases, the first one played , the other one .

FIGURE 2 - Score of the example 2

On vocal scores, dynamics are noted above the staff, the space under staff being devolved to the lyrics.

A common mistake among beginners is to confuse the loudness and the tempo, that is the speed of execution of a work. If you find it difficult to tell the difference between these two concepts, think about the way you speak: it's possible to whisper or shout. Whisper is a soft intensity, a soft dynamic (piano in music); shouting corresponding to a strong intensity, a strong dynamic (forte in music). But it is possible to whisper slowly or quickly, as it is possible to shout at different speeds. Speed and intensity are therefore two totally independent notions.

Intermediate dynamics

The and dynamics already provide a first indication of the intensity of a passage or work. In order to expand the range of dynamics available to them, composers have extended the use of these two basic dynamic to other dynamics.

Prefix mezzo

It is possible to complete the dynamic space between piano and forte. For this, composers have introduced the term mezzo, which means in Italian moderately and have thus created two new dynamics: mezzo-piano (moderately soft), noted , and mezzo-forte (moderately loud), noted .

We thus obtain the following range of dynamics, arranged from the softest to the strongest:

Flute

The same phrase declined in 4 dynamic gradations, from to , played on the flute.

Suffix issimo

It is also possible to extend the piano dynamic to even softer ones or the strong dynamic to even stronger ones. The use of the Italian suffix -issimo (very) makes it possible to transform a dynamic term into superlative. Thus, piano becomes pianissimo (very soft), which will be noted by the symbol . It is possible to reinforce this superlative by adding -ssi-, as in pianississimo (very very soft), noted .

Dynamics from pianississimo to piano :

We can of course apply the same method to the strong dynamics, which will give fortissimo (very strong), noted and fortississimo (very very strong), noted .

Dynamics from forte to fortississimo :

In theory, it is possible to add as many or as one would like, but in practice it will rarely be encountered more than two or three. However, some composers like Rachmaninov regularly use or in their works. Ligeti goes up to eight forte!

Summary

Dynamics most commonly encountered, sorted from the softest to the strongest.

Summary table of the most common dynamics
SymbolItalian termOral alternativeMeaning in English
pianissississimoquadruple piano« very very very soft »
pianississimotriple piano« very very soft »
pianissimodouble piano« very soft »
piano-« soft »
mezzo-piano-« moderately soft »
mezzo-forte-« moderately strong »
forte-« strong »
fortissimodouble forte« very strong »
fortississimotriple forte« very very strong »
fortissississimoquadruple forte« very very very strong »

Last update on 2018/12/21

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