Different dynamics in music and how to create better contrasts

What are the different dynamics in music and how do you make a clear difference between loud and soft sounds? Where should crescendos, diminuendos start and end, and should you only play the exact markings on the score?  Keep reading to learn more, as dynamics play a big role in music.

There are 5 categories of performance directions, performance directions are markings on the score that a composer uses to indicate how they want the notes to be played, and dynamics is one of those categories.  

They are often seen as an afterthought by learners, in other words, something you think about once you’ve learnt how to play the notes in time and making clear contrasts is something that many find challenging.  

Understanding the different dynamics in music and learning how to create clear distinctions between loud and soft sounds are essential skills for musicians. In this blog post, we will explore the five categories of performance directions and delve into practical tips on incorporating dynamics into your daily practice.

Get ready to embark on a journey that will elevate your musical expression to new heights.

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Image of music with dynamics highlighted

What are dynamics in music?

Dynamics, is a collective term for performance directions related to volume. They dictate how loud or softly a musician should play.  You can see the dynamic markings on this piece of music have been highlighted.

Dynamic markings explained.

There are two main dynamic markings P which is an abbreviation for piano and means to play softly.

The second is f which is short for forte. Forte in music means to play loudly.

In between these two dynamic markings, you also have mp and mf.

The m stands for mezzo, which is an Italian word meaning moderately. So mp is mezzo piano or moderately soft, and mf is mezzo forte or moderately loud.

Each dynamic marking gets slightly louder. So mp is slightly louder than piano (p).  Mezzo forte is a little louder than mezzo piano etc.

We can also extend the range by adding pianissimo and fortissimo. The suffix issimo means very, so when you see pp in music it means to play very softly and ff very loudly.

Below is a summary of the dynamics mentioned so far, starting at the top with the loudest.

ffFortissimoVery Loud
mfMezzo ForteModerately Loud
mpMezzo PianoModerately Soft
ppPianissimoVery Soft

More Extreme Dynamics

You may also see more extreme dynamics in your music.  Technically any number of repeated letters is possible. As you can see here Tchaikovsky uses 4 and 5 letter p’s in this piece. So you might be thinking is that actually possible?

image of sheet music showing extreme dynamics music

Grasping the Relative Nature of Dynamic Markings

Understanding that dynamic markings are relative to each other is crucial. There isn’t an absolute standard for what a specific number of p’s or f’s represents. Instead, the goal is to create contrasting shades of volume within the context of the composition. 

So in the Tchaikovsky example above, the loudest dynamic marking is piano, so you would probably need to make this louder than you would normally so that you can achieve all the different shades of soft that Tchaikovsky wrote.  

The best way to practice a piece such as the one above is to start with the softest bar and ascertain how soft you can play without compromising the quality of the sound or tone that you are making.  You would then grade the rest of the dynamics accordingly.

Gradual Changes in Dynamics

Image of crescendo sign in music
Crescendo Sign
Image of a decrescendo sign in music
Diminuendo Sign

There are also signs and words that indicate that you should change between dynamics. Crescendo which is sometimes abbreviated to cresc or indicated by a sign that has two lines that open outwards.

This dynamic marking means to gradually get louder, and I want to emphasise the word gradual.  You need to give careful thought to the musical context when you see this dynamic marking.  It doesn’t necessary mean that you should get that that much louder, it can mean a subtle change within the phrase.

It’s the same when you see a decrescendo sign or a diminuendo as it’s sometimes called.  If the music is to get gradually softer you’ll usually see this sign or the word dim.

In most circumstances, Decrescendo and Dimunendo mean the same.  However, there is some discussion amongst musical historians that believe Schubert used the term diminuendo to indicate that the music should gradually get softer and slow down. 

An image of pink paint pots and colour shade charts

Dynamics are like the equivalent of an artist’s paint palette. By mixing paints, you can have almost an infinite amount of shades.   Think of dynamics like choosing a new shade of paint.  You may already have a colour in mind when you go to the DIY store, but it’s never that straightforward.

There are so many shades of the colour that you had in mind, all similar but yet different.

Dyanmics in music chart.  Different shades of red with all dynamic Italian terms.

How do you Improve Dynamics in Music?

Creating clear distinctions between different shades of volume requires understanding and mastering the appropriate techniques for your instrument. It’s not simply a matter of striking keys harder or blowing faster on wind instruments.

For example, tension in the body when playing softly can compromise the sound quality. Pianists may unintentionally alter hand position or fail to fully depress keys when playing softly, affecting tone production.

By experimenting with various techniques, recording and analysing your practice sessions, and making incremental adjustments, you can refine your control over dynamics.

Techniques for Achieving Clear Contrasts

Start by playing a note so that no sound is produced, and write down what you notice and share with others in the comments below this post. 

Now think about what you need to do to produce a very soft sound.  Don’t be afraid to experiment here and try different things.  

A quick tip, change only one thing at a time, and make sure you write down, what you changed and what was the effect.  So maybe on a wind instrument you tried slowing the airstream down, the result, the sound was soft, but the tone was rather breathy.  Next, you might try firming the embouchure a little more or increasing the diaphragm pressure slightly.  

See this as a journey of exploration rather than searching for a specific result.  If you do this for a couple of minutes at the start of each practice session, you’ll soon start to notice what things work and what things don’t.  

You can then progress to incorporating dynamics in your warm-up exercises and scales practice. I also recommend that you think about the dynamics in your music right from the get-go.  They should never be an afterthought.

TipTake care that you don’t slow down when playing softer. The tempo in music is not related to the dynamics unless another performance direction is given to indicate this.

Integrate Dynamics when you begin learning a piece

Dynamics should never be an afterthought. Incorporate dynamic markings into your warm-up exercises, scales practice, and every stage of learning a new piece. Instead of viewing the markings on your score as rigid instructions, consider them as a starting point or framework upon which you can build.

Many dynamic markings on sheet music are editorial and not directly from the composer. 

Composers in the Baroque period would rarely indicate the dynamics on their music, it was instead left to the player.  It was common practice to vary the dynamics constantly, and terraced dynamics were often used by performers.  Terraced dynamics are where you play a motif loudly and then softly when it’s repeated.

You can learn more about the Characteristics of Baroque music here.

In the classical period, composers such as Mozart did write some dynamics on their music, but more detailed instructions didn’t become the norm until the romantic period.

Using Dynamic Levels to Shape Musical Phrases

Musical phrases need shape to communicate the character or mood and we can use subtle changes in the dynamics to achieve this.

As a general rule, more volume intensifies the emotional power of the music. Melodies that ascend often grow in intensity while descending phrases often offer repose. 

The harmony also drives the intensity of the music. The power increases significantly as the music travels away from the tonic and primary chords (I, IV and V). So again, you can adjust your volume accordingly, getting louder as you move away from the tonic and softer as the music returns.

Learn more about phrases in music here.

As I said, don’t be afraid to experiment and try different things. So often, there is a tendency with learners to do ‘only’ what it says on the music – and no more.

The score markings are a guideline, just as a tin of tomatoes is the base of a bolognese sauce. However, to elevate that bolognese sauce into something memorable, you have to add additional ingredients. It’s the same with music.

Exercises to improve your understanding and execution of dynamics

Exercise 1

Play a piece that you know well, but use the opposite dynamics to what the music says. So, if the music begins forte, start piano. It’s great fun and often results in a much wider array of tonal shades. 

Exercise 2

Record yourself playing your piece, and be sure to communicate all the dynamic markings. Now before you listen back to your recording, Make a copy of your music and erase all the dynamic markings.

Once you’ve done that, listen back and as you do so write the dynamics that you can hear on your music copy.

Then do a comparison – did you miss any out?  Most people do, because whilst we think we clearly distinguish the contrasts when we play, the reality is that they’re not as clear as we intended.

Dynamics are easily lost both in live and recorded performances.  You often have to make a much bigger contrast than you think.

Exercise 3

Acoustics can make a massive difference to how different dynamics in music sound.  If you play a portable instrument play your piece in different parts of your home.  Ideally, find spaces that have completely different surfaces, such as your entrance porch, which may be tiled, or a room that has a wooden floor.

I appreciate that this is more of a challenge if you play the piano, but you could look for different venues to practice in.  Many churches have pianos, and you’ll often see them at train stations in major cities.  Failing that, you could put a rug under your piano or lift the lid.

You can watch a video presentation of this post below. 

If you would like further practice tips to elevate your playing, please download my free practice tips guides.

Images taken from my Free music tips guide

Every one of these tips is helpful regardless of your level because, so often, it’s the way you practice and what you do when practising that makes a difference. 

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please share, and let me know about your experience with dynamic contrasts in music in the comments below.

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