Music Notation and Terminology



120. The word dynamics (cf. dynamic—the opposite of static) as used in the nomenclature of music has to do with the various degrees of power (i.e., the comparative loudness and softness) of tones.

As in the case of words referring to tempo, the expressions referring to dynamics are always relative, never absolute; it is possible to indicate that one measure is to be louder than another, but it is not possible (nor desirable) to indicate exactly how loud either is to be. Thus dynamics, perhaps even more than tempo, will be seen to depend on the taste of the performer or conductor.

The following words referring to dynamics are in common use:

Pianisissimo (ppp)—as softly as possible. (It will be noted that this is a sort of hyper-superlative of piano.)

Pianissimo (pp)—very softly. (The superlative of piano.)

Piano (p)—softly.

Mezzo piano (mp)—medium softly.

Mezzo forte (mf)—medium loudly.

Forte (f)—loudly (lit. strong).

Fortissimo (ff)—very loudly. (The superlative of forte.)

Fortisissimo (fff)—as loudly as possible.

The lack of a one-word comparative degree in the case of both piano and forte seems to necessitate the hyper-superlative degree as given above, but the practice of using four, or even five p's or f's is not desirable.

121. The terms defined in Sec. 120 are often combined with others, as e.g.,

Pianissimo possibile—as softly as possible.

Piano assai—very softly.

Fortissimo possibile—as loudly as possible.

Forte piano (fp)—loud, followed at once by soft.

As in the case of terms relating to tempo, the meaning of many other expressions relating to dynamics may easily be arrived at by recalling the list of auxiliary terms quoted under Sec. 96.

122. The terms sforzando, forzando, sforzato and forzato all indicate a strong accent on a single tone or chord. These words are abbreviated as follows:—sf,fz, and sfz, the abbreviation being placed directly above (sometimes below) the note or chord affected. The signs and are also commonly used to indicate such an accent.

In interpreting these accent marks the student must bear in mind again the fact that they have a relative rather than an absolute meaning: the mark sf occurring in the midst of a piano passage will indicate a much milder form of accent than would the same mark occurring in the midst of a forte passage.

123. The words rinforzando and rinforzato (abb.—rinf. and rfz.) mean literally reinforced, and are used to indicate a sudden increase in power usually extending over an entire phrase or passage instead of applying only to a single tone or chord as in the case of sforzando, etc.

124. Crescendo (abb.—cresc. or ) means a gradual increase in power. It will be noted that this word does not mean loud, nor does it mean a sudden increase in power unless accompanied by some auxiliary term such as subito, or molto.

Broadly speaking there are two varieties of crescendo: (1) that in which the same tone increases in power while being prolonged; (2) that in which succeeding tones are each sounded more strongly than the preceding one. The first variety is possible only on instruments giving forth a tone which can be varied after it begins. Thus e.g., the human voice, the violin, the organ enclosed in a swell box, and certain wind instruments, are all capable of sounding a tone softly at first and gradually increasing the volume until the maximal point of power has been reached. But on the piano, organ not enclosed in a swell-box, kettle drum, etc., the power of the tone cannot be varied after the tone has once been sounded, and a crescendo effect is therefore possible only in a passage, in rendering which each succeeding tone is struck more forcibly than its immediate predecessor. This second variety of crescendo offers a means of dramatic effect which may be employed most strikingly, as e.g., when a long passage begins very softly and increases in power little by little until the utmost resources of the instrument or orchestra have been reached. A notable example of such an effect is found in the transition from the third to the fourth movements of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony.

The difference between sforzando, rinforzando, and crescendo should now be noted: sforzando indicates that a single tone or chord is to be louder; rinforzando, that an entire passage is to be louder, beginning with its first tone; but crescendo indicates that there is to be a gradual increase in power, this increase sometimes occurring during the sounding of a single tone, but more often in a passage.

125. Certain combinations of the word crescendo with other words are so common that they should be especially noted. Among these are:

Crescendo al fortissimo—keep on gradually increasing in power until the fortissimo (or very loud) point has been reached.

Crescendo subito—increase in power suddenly (or rapidly).

Crescendo poco a poco—increase in power very, very gradually.

Crescendo poi diminuendo—first increase, then diminish the tone.

Crescendo e diminuendo—same as cresc. poi dim.

Crescendo molto—increase in power very greatly.

Crescendo ed animando poco a poco—growing gradually louder in tone and quicker in tempo.

Crescendo ed affrettando—gradually louder and faster.

Crescendo poco a poco sin al fine—crescendo gradually even up to the very end.

126. Decrescendo (decresc. or ) means a gradual diminishing of the tone. It is the opposite of crescendo. The word diminuendo is synonymous with decrescendo.

Decrescendo (or diminuendo) al pianissimo means—decrease gradually in power until the pianissimo (or very soft) point is reached.

127. A number of terms referring to both softer tone and slower tempo are in use. The most common of these are:—mancando, moriente,[30] morendo, perdendo (from perdere—to lose), perdendosi, calando, and smorzando.[31] Such expressions are usually translated—"gradually dying away."

128. In piano music the abbreviation Ped. indicates that the damper pedal (the one at the right) is to be depressed, while the sign shows that it is to be released. In many modern editions this depression and release of the damper pedal are more accurately indicated by the sign .

The term senza sordini is also occasionally found in old editions, indicating that the damper pedal is to be depressed, while con sordini shows that it is to be released. These expressions are taken from a usage in music for stringed instruments, in which the term con sordini means that the mute (a small clamp of metal, ivory or hardwood) is to be affixed to the bridge, this causing a modification in both power and quality of the tone. The damper on the piano does not in any way correspond to the mute thus used on stringed instruments, and the terms above explained as sometimes occurring in piano music are not to be recommended, even though Beethoven used them in this sense in all his earlier sonatas.

129. The words una corda (lit.—one string) indicate that the "soft pedal" (the one at the left) is to be depressed, while the words tre corde (lit. three strings) or tutte le corde (all the strings) show that the same pedal is to be released. These expressions refer to the fact that on grand pianos the "soft pedal" when depressed moves the hammers to one side so that instead of striking three strings they strike only two (in the older pianos only one, hence una corda), all three strings (tre corde) being struck again after the release of the pedal.

130. Other terms relating either directly or indirectly to the subject of dynamics are:

Con alcuna licenza—with some degree of license.

Con amore—with tenderness.

Con bravura—with boldness.

Con celerita—with rapidity.

Con delicato—with delicacy.

Con energico—with energy.

Con espressione—with expression.

Con forza—with force.

Con fuoco—with fire and passion.

Con grand' espressione—with great expression.

Con grazia—with grace.

Con melinconia—with melancholy.

Con passione—with passion.

Con spirito—with spirit.

Con tenerezza—with tenderness.


Dolce—sweetly, gently.

Dolcissimo—most sweetly.

Dolce e cantabile—gently and with singing tone.

Dolente   }
Doloroso } plaintively or sorrowfully.


Grandioso—grandly, pompously.


Giocoso—humorously, (cf. jocose).

Giojoso—joyfully, (cf. joyous).

Lacrimando, lacrimoso—sorrowfully.



Leggierissimo—most lightly; almost a staccato.

Lusingando—caressingly, coaxingly, tenderly.

Maesta, maestoso—majestically.

Martellando, martellato—strongly accented, (lit.—hammered).



Mezzo voce—with half voice.


Parlando—well accented or enunciated; applied to melody playing. (The word parlando means literally-speaking.)

Pastorale—in simple and unaffected style, (lit.—pastoral, rural).



Recitativo—well enunciated. (This meaning applies only in instrumental music in which a melody is to stand out above the accompaniment. For def. of recitative in vocal music, see .)

Risoluto—firmly, resolutely.

Scherzando, scherzoso, etc.—jokingly. These terms are derived from the word scherzo meaning a musical joke.


Sempre marcatissimo—always well marked, i.e., strongly accented.

Sentimento—with sentiment.


Sotto voce—in subdued voice.

Spiritoso—with spirit.




131. Many other terms are encountered which on their face sometimes seem to be quite formidable, but which yield readily to analysis. Thus e.g., crescendo poco a poco al forte ed un pochettino accelerando, is seen to mean merely—"increase gradually to forte and accelerate a very little bit." A liberal application of common sense will aid greatly in the interpretation of such expressions.

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