You’re likely to have seen a musician perform, or at least heard of one who performs with feeling as they play or sing. This particular musical feeling or expression is not only created using tempo, rhythm, and a melody, but conveying expression in a piece also has a lot to do with dynamics. This blog has been written for beginners who want to understand what dynamics mean when it comes to music, how this is notated by symbols and terms in a manuscript, and how to interpret these signs and symbols. So if you want to know what well known terms like ‘piano’ (p), and ‘forte’ (f) actually mean, read on!

Dynamic Notation in Sheet Music Explained!


If you’re completely new to reading music, then dynamics are maybe not the best place to start. As such, I recommend first doing a little reading about how notes are read on a stave, and how tempo, measure, and rhythm work to gain a general understanding of how everything fits together before diving into dynamics.

Dynamics in Music

Many instruments can be played loudly or softly without the need for a volume dial. Think about a piano, for example: the harder you strike a key, the louder the note will sound. Also, you can use your own voice to scream, just as easily as you can use it to whisper. In music, how quietly or loudly something is played is referred to as ‘dynamics’.

Dynamic Symbols and Terms in Sheet Music

There are many different terms, symbols, and abbreviations used in music to write down the difference between quiet and loud, or soft and hard. This allows a composer to let a musican know exactly when they need to play hard, soft, or really hard, or really soft. Like almost all musical notation, the terms used for this are abbreviations of Italian words.

pp = pianissimo = very quiet
p = piano = quiet
mp = mezzo piano = moderately quiet
mf = mezzo forte = moderately loud
f = forte = loud
ff = fortissimo = very loud

Most pieces will be written using the abbreviations of these terms to indicate the dynamics, since they make the music easier to read and take up much less space on the page. Some composers do use variations of the letter combinations included above. So, you might come across things like ‘ppppp’, or ‘ffffff’ – here, you’re likely to be able to figure out what kind of dynamic you’re expected to play.

Small Contrasts

When playing a melody, it can be essential that just one note or a small number of notes are played a little harder (therefore louder). These small contrasts are notated using the symbols for Sforzato (sFz), and Sforzando (sf) . There is a small difference between these two terms: with Sforzato, the increased dynamic is more sudden than with Sforzando. While the dynamic shift of an sFz and sf can be added to one or more notes, the term forte piano (fp) can be used to shift the dynamic within the duration of a note. When fp is indicated, the emphasis is placed on the beginning of the note, while the rest is played softly. There is also another regularly used notation for just one note: the accent. An accent is indicated by placing a ‘>’ symbol either above or below a note to indicate that it needs more emphasis.

Dynamic Variation

When a measure or passage includes a number of dynamic symbols, like the example below, you need to quickly switch from hard to soft as you play. To get this just right requires a lot of practice. How hard you need to play is not indicated by every measure, and as such, the same dynamic needs to be maintained until a new symbol appears to guide you. In the example, the transition from f to p is pretty direct, and you’ll immediately hear the difference, but sometimes the composer wants the piece to transition from soft (‘transition dynamics’) to hard, or the other way around. Here, the composer will use Crescendo and Decrescendo. Crescendo stems from the Italian word for growth, while decrescendo means precisely the opposite. The symbols used to indicate these two terms can be seen in the image below.

Dynamic Notation in Sheet Music Explained!

Left: from forte to piano. Right: Crescendo (above) and Decrescendo (below).

Interpreting Dynamics

Since composers often use a lot of dynamic symbols, a piece of music can be interpreted in a number of ways. Here, the character of the musician performing the piece, or the listener, has a lot of influence. So, two pianists can perform the same piece of music and make it sound, or feel, completely different. A lot of the time, musicians will use dynamics to add expression to their performance since the variation between soft and hard can be played in a way that feels right, or that they think sounds best. Over time, you can also develop your own playing style so that, while you’re playing Mozart, people will recognise that it’s you playing it, because of your style. This is actually something to watch out for, since the development of your own style can lead to incorrect interpretations, or you completely ignoring the dynamic instructions of a piece. Although, as a musician, you also don’t want all music to sound so similar that it becomes superficial. As such, it’s important when studying a new piece of music to pay close attention to the accents and dynamics as they are written. In a way, it’s much like reading a book. First you understand what all the grammatical symbols mean and what they do, and then use these to guide you in how the writer imagined the sentence should be read. Once you understand the flow of the sentence, and where emphasis should be placed, you have a guide within which you can start to add your own expressive tweaks.

Dynamiek-tekens in bladmuziek


You can learn how to play dynamic notation correctly in just a few steps:

  1. First make sure that you’re already familiar with the notes of the piece of music.
  2. Pay close attention to every dynamic symbol that you come across in your part, and over exaggerate them the first few times you play through. This is so that you can hear a clear difference between the effect of things like piano and mezzopiano, forte, and fortissimo.
  3. Following step 2, you should have a good idea of how the dynamic levels work with each other and as such, you should be able to bring the piece together. It’s here that you can start to add your own interpretation.
  4. Also listen to other versions played by different musicians to give you a wider sense of the piece as you study it.

See Also …

» Drum Notation 101: Tips & Tricks for Beginners
» General Music Theory Books
» All Music Books
» Manuscript Paper
» Sheet Music Accessories
» All Musical Instruments

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