Dynamics in music refers to how loud or soft is the music. It is that simple! But, because musicians and composers like to make things interesting, and sometimes difficult, there are lots of different musical terms that can be used to describe what the dynamics are in a piece of music. Usually, the music terms used to describe dynamics are called “Italian terms”.
Many, many years ago, when music in the Western European tradition started to become systematized, it was decided that all musical information written on the musical score would be in a common language – Italian.
Dynamics in Music Definitions
In the chart you can see all the basic dynamics terms commonly used in music today. Essentially, dynamics fall into two main categories – loud or soft. The dynamic music definitions will go from the softest to the loudest Italian terms.
In real life, music that is performed very, very soft or “pianississimo” would be almost at a whisper. Whereas music performed very, very loudly or “fortississimo” would be music that is deafening and as loud as possible for the instrument or ensemble as a whole.
Pianississimo – very, very soft
Pianissimo – very soft
Piano – soft
Mezzo piano – a little soft
Mezzo forte – a little loud
Forte – loud
Fortissimo – very loud
Fortisissimo – very, very loud
Changes in Dynamics
In the Baroque musical era, the dynamics performed in a piece of music used “Terraced Dynamics”. This means that in the music, a section would be played at certain volume level, then the next section at another volume, without any graduations or subtle changes in between. A great example of this is in Vivaldi’s “Spring” from the Four Seasons. Watch the video and listen to how the composer has used “Terraced Dynamics” in this piece.
Over time, composers and technology developed so that changes in dynamics were used in pieces of music.
There are two main changes in dynamics terms – crescendo and decrescendo. A crescendo is when the music becomes gradually louder. A decrescendo, or diminuendo, is the opposite and is when the music becomes gradually softer in volume.
The theme music to the movie – 2001 A Space Odyssey, composed by Strauss is a perfect example of changing dynamics used for a very dramatic effect. The music also uses another common dynamic technique called “sforzando”. A sforzando is a sudden emphasis or accent. In this music, just before when the timpani sounds like they are marching really loudly, the orchestra suddenly gets very loud at the end of a slow crescendo, this is a good example of a sforzando!
Watch the video below and to listen to the constant changes in dynamics from very, very soft to very, very loud, plus a few sforzandos thrown in for good measure.
Why are Dynamics Important?
Dynamics in music are very important because they can add a lot of emotion to a piece of music. When a piece of music performed very softly, it evokes emotions that are in stark contrast to music that is performed very loudly. Let’s face it, heavy metal music is not meant to be listened to quietly, and a lullaby that is sweetly sung to help a baby or young child sleep is not meant to be screeched as loudly as humanly possible!
The dynamics of a piece of music can help to wake you up, can help to put you to sleep, can help to motivate you to get dancing, or even help you to concentrate and study.
Next time you listen to a piece of music, try taking note of the different dynamics being used in the performance. You could even try mapping out the dynamics on a piece of paper. Even better, try changing and adding some dynamics to your next performance to help improve the experience for yourself and the audience.
Watch a video explanation of this blog post below
Until next time
Julia from Jooya