Saturday, February 24th, 2024

Dynamics – Music Theory – Level 2 – Part 21a


Dynamics - A Tonal SystemScales in Music – A Tonal System

Music Theory Section – Level 2

Dynamics – Part 21a

Welcome to Dynamics – Part 21a in the Music Theory Section of Scales in Music – A Tonal System. This is the first article in the second level of the music theory section. It is also the first part of the mini-series about Dynamics as used in music. The mini-series is in two parts.

As we continue to move forward in these studies, you will find the concepts and ideas included within the articles more advanced in their approach and content. Since we have moved forward and beyond the very basics of music theory we have advanced now into other aspects of music which will provide an even stronger basis for understanding music creation, music notation and for gaining a stronger grasp and further insight into the total concepts within Scales in Music – A Tonal System.

Dynamics - Beach PhotoClearwater Beach, Florida – Copyright (C) 2010 Don Rath Jr


What made me think of writing this paper was, just recently, I had the pleasure of being able to take a trip to the Western Florida Coast at Clearwater Beach. Now, there is nothing all that amazing about taking a trip however this particular trip allowed me to visit the beach where I was able to sit and watch as the waves gently rolled in and then finish their journey by rolling back out again into the Gulf of Mexico, in one continuous and glorious motion.

Watching the waves moving in and then back out again was so soothing that it made me feel all content inside. It was an ebb and flow that was calming, enjoyable and intriguing as I sat in awe at the wonder of Mother Nature doing her magic.

In one particular sense, it made me think of the ebb and flow of music which is partly caused by the dynamic flow or movement of intensity stressed by a rising and falling of the volume as it progresses through the musical work, much like the pulse of a beating heart or like Mother Nature’s waves. It makes the music come alive and it raises and lowers the intensity of the experienced emotions, while listening to great music that is in sync with the intensity of the dynamic sounds within a musical work.

It is my guess that everyone has experienced something like this where the music takes your soul and causes you to journey through some long forgotten pleasant memory or to dream about some current love, so fondly being thought of. At least, that is my hope.

So it is that dynamics plays such an important part in the character and the emotional impact of a musical composition. It is indeed an essential part of  music. The rise and fall of velocity, intensity and loudness are all impacted by using the tools and symbols within this concept called musical dynamics.

By definitionDynamics is essentially the degrees of loudness as related to sound. It is a fundamental principal in music whereby a composer can influence his or her audience depending upon the various levels of intensity and its effect on the human psyche, our emotions and the nervous system of the human body.

Dynamics is a big part of how the composer and the performers communicate to express the music in such a way as it becomes beautiful to listen to. There are several methods of creating musical expressions and dynamics is certainly a part of that idea. We will include an additional article about expressions as used in music in a future document in the music theory level 2 series of the overall Scales in Music – A Tonal System article series.

Our Reaction – We react differently to louder sounds than softer sounds. For example, if a piece of paper was dropped on the floor and upon hitting the floor you heard the sound it created, it is likely you would not react to that sound very much. On the other hand, if someone threw a bowling ball at a wall, in an adjacent room, once it hit the wall you would likely respond far differently than when the paper fell to the floor. Case in point.

The Emotions – What a composer does with this concept is to consider how to use volume or loudness when writing original music to gain the affect he or she desires to produce in those who hear the music they have created. Loudness or intensity is a consideration born out of the intent of altering one’s emotional reaction to the music by varying the sound’s volume within the written and performed composition.

For example; a quiet relaxed tempo and low volume section of a composition will cause a calming or comfortable feeling within the listener. A listener may find themselves thinking about some loved one or a wonderful day spent at the park on a clear and sunny day.

On the other hand, a robust and intense crescendo will create the contrary reactions of tension or excitement within the listener where you may begin thinking about a road race or skiing down a steep mountain slope. These are two examples of the use of loudness in music and our generalized human reactions to them.

There are as many as ways to use dynamics to effect the many emotions we experience as there are degrees of human emotion. Similarly, music can cause as many emotional reactions as there are degrees of volume or intensity levels for sound.

Loudness – The actual term, loudness, is a bit ambiguous in the sense that it is relative to various factors such as the room or hall size, whether indoors or out, the make-up and size of the orchestra, the state and health of ones hearing, etc.  The spacial relationship makes a difference as to how the sound is received. In a large room or music hall, for example, the mp level of music is not as loud as when playing the mp level in a small close gathering such as when Chamber Music or a solo instrumentalists performs in a living room in a home. Although the notated marking is the same the impact of the sound is lessened by the dissipation or spreading out of the sound in a larger hall.

With this in mind, when learning about loudness and the symbols used to direct the performers through music notation, it is best to compare the loudness of notes or any sound for that matter to some reference point of intensity. Within this article we will be using the standardized intensity of mezzo-piano, mp, or approximately 60 dB level (a moderately quiet volume used in everyday conversation). In this way, determining the relative loudness is somewhat standardized for the intent implied in this article.

Prerequisite Articles

The Music Theory Section – Level 1 was designed with the intention of expanding the basic knowledge and tools used in music creation and notation.  It is in this regard that it is important to consider reviewing or studying the articles within that series as a prerequisite to Level 2. It is not our intention to provide the explanations of the music theory basics in this series of articles therefore, if you feel you do not understand any of the markings or the basic principals included here, please review any related article as presented in music theory level 1. In the least this action would support your ongoing learning by firming up you musical foundation as you progress through the music theory level 2 series of articles.

More specifically, I would like to suggest that you review the specific article titled; Scales in Music – A Tonal System Part 6, Acoustic Principals – Amplitude, as additional support for this article. Together they will provide a very good foundation for understanding dynamics or loudness levels as used in music.

Loudness has additional considerations from all viewpoints when it comes to our ears. With that said another prerequisite article we would like to suggest is  the Audible Range of Human Hearing – Acoustics of Music series – Part 2. The total dynamic range of sound has consequences and in some cases serious consequences. This document will help you to understand them and may help you in several additional ways, therefore, it is recommended to review the Audible Range of Human Hearing article.

Also, for convenience, this link will take you to the Introduction to Music Theory Level 1 – Series Introduction should you need to visit these articles. The Introduction includes an article directory to help you navigate to the topic or topics you are seeking additional information on.

Dynamics in Music – In General

As we have stated throughout the collection of articles in the Scales of Music series, music is a special type of language using a variety of markings to instruct the performers on how to play the music and to convey the composer’s message or messages as implied within the music itself. There are several collections of markings used, depending upon what impact the composer wants to convey to their audience. Whether the symbol’s instruction is to play a passage in pizzicato or to return to the beginning and play through to the end, etc., these symbols are part of the language of music.

The dynamics symbols used to increase or decrease the loudness level in music provide for that specific type of instruction for the benefit of the performers. In other parts of this article series we have provided additional examples of other symbols used in music composition and notation and together these composer’s tools make it possible to perform music in such a way as to get as close to the intended desires as possible, as expressed by the composer through notation and hopefully the end result will be to the liking of the audiences. Those trained in their symbolic meaning and those who have developed their playing skills, so as to properly complete the instructions provided for through them, become proficient in the delivery of the music and they successfully convey the intent of the composer to their audiences.

Dynamics – The Symbols

Dynamics - Loudness Terms and Meanings

The chart above demonstrates the most commonly used dynamics symbols along with some additional information including the English and Italian words used to designate them. The generally accepted decibel level is also included.

For most, the written chart is great but the sounds these symbols represent remain unknown until exposed to what they actually mean.  So let us move forward and discover through the use of sound to assist in making these comparisons.

Getting Specific

Instructions – Most people need a point of orientation to more fully understand the meaning of a musical symbol especially those who have little or no background in music. The dynamic markings listed below are the most common symbols used in music notation.

This document’s purpose is to explain music dynamics and to demonstrate that in two ways. First graphically to show the symbol and through sound clips for an auditory experience. What is less important at this juncture is the phrase or notes used in these presentations, rather and more importantly, the examples are purposely made simple so you can focus on learning about  the principals of dynamics and the associated markings as related to music notation and composition.

For each heading in bold, the Italian word used to describe the mark is written first followed by the decibel rating and finishing with the descriptive English word or phrase.

A sound clip is provided for each dynamic level as performed on the piano for the single note charts. Another sound clip is provided for each of the phrases of music for each dynamic level using the mp baseline as a comparison. The phrase is performed on the guitar.

The symbols are highlighted in bold text and are first followed by a single whole note showing the mark  as it normally appears below the staff in which the note is placed. Each dynamic marking is used in its normal way using small, bold and lower case letters rather than using capital letters.

The link for the sound clip is also provided for each symbol. It is placed below the actual dynamic symbol.

There are two charts for each dynamics mark. The first has been explained. The second chart is a three measure phrase using the mp dynamic mark first followed by the dynamic mark we are comparing and then followed again by the mp dynamic mark. The phrase is simply using a single note, the C-note, as it passes through the dynamics, as marked throughout the five measures. This was chosen to assist in comparing the intensity symbols  as you review them, rather than bore you. We felt it would be easier to distinguish the volume differences using only one note rather than listening to an actual phrase of music.  Using this second phrase allows you an opportunity to make a direct comparison between a standardized baseline, that being mp and the second test mark used in each phrase.

Let’s get started!

Please use caution when listening to loud sounds!

Pianississimo – 30dB, Very Quiet

Dynamics – Sounds – ppp

Dynamics - Music Symbol - pianississimo

Test – ppp

Dynamics - Music Symbol 2 - pianississimo - Compare

Pianissimo – 40 dB, Somewhat Quiet

Dynamics – Sounds – pp

Dynamics - Music Symbol - pp - Somewhat Quiet

Dynamics - Music Symbol - Somewhat Quiet - pp
Test – pp

Piano – 50 dB, Quiet

Dynamics – Sound – p

Dynamics - Music - Loudness Symbol for Quiet

Dynamics - Music Symbol - p for Quiet
Test – p

Mezzo-Piano – 60 dB, Moderately Quiet

Dynamics – Sounds – mp

Dynamics - mp music symbol

Dynamics - moderately quiet music symbol - mp - 2
Test – mp

Mezzo-Forte – 70 dB, Moderately Loud

Dynamics – Sounds – mf

Dynamics - Moderately Loud Mark - mf

Dynamics - Loudness Mark - mf - 2
Test – mf

Forte – 80dB, Somewhat Loud

Dynamics – Sounds – f

Dynamics - Loudness Mark - f - 1

Dynamics - Loudness Mark - f - 2
Test – f

Fortissimo – 90dB, Loud

Dynamics – Sound – ff

Dynamics - Loudness Mark - ff - Loud - 2

Dynamics - Loudness Mark - ff - 2
Test – ff

Fortississimo – 100 dB, Very Loud

Dynamics – Sound – fff

Dynamics - Loudness Mark - fff - 2

Dynamics - Loudness Mark - fff - 2

Test – fff

The F’s and P’s

As mentioned earlier, loudness is somewhat subjective. Measuring loudness objectively is a matter of using instruments which have the ability to measure the loudness of sound.  Since most people do not have a device of this nature loudness is relative to a person’s experience and personal capabilities of hearing the variations or degrees of loudness. We can only then think of loudness in terms of degrees of loudness and that is where the use of the P’s and F’ comes in handy. The above charts and sounds clearly demonstrate that point.

You should also be aware that several classical and contemporary composers have used additional markings which include increasing the number of F’s or P’s. For example; pppp – extremely quiet and ffff – extremely loud. You will also find in searching musical compositions with this focus that other composers have gone as high as using 6 F’s (ffffff) and P’s (pppppp) in their music notations. Typically, one to three of them are used most often. How many you use is a matter of choice and the intent you are seeking in your musical compositions.

Please use caution when listening to loud sounds!

Fortissississimo – Extremely Loud

Dynamics – Sound – ffff

Dynamics - Loudness Marks - fortissississimo

Pianissississimo – Extremely Quiet

Dynamics – Sound – pppp

Dynamics - pianissississimo - Loudness in Music

Comparison Charts and Sound Clips

The following two charts and mp3 examples show all of the above dynamics symbols. The first chart shows them in a consecutive order from pppp to ffff with its related mp3 clip as performed first on the guitar followed by the piano. The second mixes up the symbols so you can experience a variety of the dynamics changes and to aide in your comparison of them.

Dynamics - Chart of Progressive Sound Volumes

Dynamics – Piano – pppp to ffff

Dynamics - Sound Volumes - All Mixed Up

Dynamics – Piano – pppp to ffff – Mixed

There are some additional dynamics markings or symbols you should be aware of. Let’s take a quick look at those now.

Dynamics - Loudness Marks in Music - OtherDynamics – Additional Symbols

Additional dynamics symbols which include; fp – loud to quiet, sf – quiet to loud, sfz – sudden forceful sound, rfz – stressing a phrase, etc., are also used to direct the performer to play at a specific loudness and/or in a combination of degrees of loudness. All of these symbols are available tools for the composer to utilize when creating music.

Brief Commentary

An additional and brief comment to make about loudness is that there are limitations to the human capability of hearing that we all should consider. These were discussed in the article, Audible Range of Human Hearing – Acoustics of Music series – Part 2.

In particular, it is important to consider the threshold of pain, the level of loudness which begins destructive hearing loss. Great caution should always be used when listening to loud noise or loud music. Secondly, the lowest volume range of human hearing also plays a role in the use of dynamics when creating music. If the music is too low for the average person to hear or too high in volume that the music causes pain or hearing loss then what real value is there in using dynamic markings which go to these extremes?


The loudness of sound is measured in degrees of loudness. In order to symbolically represent the degrees of loudness a set of symbols are used to demonstrate this in music notation.

The degrees of loudness most commonly used in music are symbolically represented using these notation marking or symbols; ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff and fff.

The human limitations of hearing play a role in which levels or degrees of loudness a composer will use when creating music. The threshold of pain, the highest and lowest threshold of hearing capability of the individual and the risks of hearing loss should be considered at all times.

The use of dynamics in music helps the composer convey emotions through music to the listener. How well a composer can utilize this knowledge will improve his or her overall skills as a composer.

There is a reactionary impulse in human experience to the loudness  of sound. Depending upon the intensity of that sound the persons reactions are to a degree reactionary and directly relative to the volume or intensity of that sound.

Conclusion of Part 21a

This concludes Dynamics – Part 21a in the Music Theory Section – Level 2 of Scales in Music – A Tonal System series of articles.

Up Next

In Dynamics – Part 21b we will review more symbols and add some new words to your vocabulary of musical terms. These additional symbols and new words will add even more tools to your toolbox specifically about the use of dynamics. The complete title of Part 21b is, Dynamics – Part 21b – Music Theory Section – Level 2 – Scales in Music a Tonal System.

Please proceed to Dynamics – Part 21b.

Mini Series Links

To return to the Music Theory – Level 1 directory for the article listings within the series, please proceed to Music Theory Section – Level 1 – Series Introduction – Part 10.

To continue onto Music Theory – Level 2 directory for the article listings within the series, please proceed to Music Theory Section – Level 2 – Series Introduction – Part 20

To proceed to Acoustics of Music directory for the listings within the mini-series, please proceed to Acoustics of Music – Part 1 – Series Introduction.

Note: All graphics were created using  Sibelius Music Software by Avid Technologies. All sound samples were created using Steinberg’s Wavelab software.

Note 2 – The photograph of Clearwater Beach Florida is under copyright by Don Rath Jr.

Dynamics – Music Theory – Level 2 – Part 21A

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