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Dynamics in Music

Dynamics (soft and loud)

DYNAMICS (soft, loud, etc.) are included in a category of musical terms called EXPRESSIONS. Here is a definition of "expression" :

vivid indication or depiction of mood or sentiment, for example a facial expression as an indication of FEELING (from Webster's Collegiate Dictionary)

The keyword here is, FEELING. Dynamics as much as anything in music is a way to express FEELING or EMOTION. Any vehicle or act of expression (such as smiling) is a METAPHOR or SYMBOL for a specific "feeling" or emotion. Some emotions include:

Imagine what facial expression you would use to indicate these emotions.

Dynamics in music is a way to cause the listener (as well as the performer) to potentially experience an emotion. There is no guarantee that the emotion will be experienced (just like there is no guarantee that someone will laugh when you tell a joke). But, the POTENTIAL is there.

Individual dynamics (soft, loud, etc.) are not concrete (objective) expressions of a specific emotion. For example, soft music does not automatically make one FEEL fearful, happy, etc. But, the dynamic combined with the CHARACTER of the music has the potential to affect a specific emotion. In other words, the CONTEXT of the dynamic will determine what emotion is intended or experienced.

Classical music has a broader range of expression (particularly dynamically) than most popular music. In classical music, the performer is expected to span the FULL RANGE of dynamic expression. In popular music performance (particularly amplified performances) there is often only ONE or TWO dynamics.

OK, enough theory... If you would like more information about these weighty philosophical concepts, please explore these topics: metaphor, symbolism, linguistics, psychology of music.

Creating specific dynamics such as SOFT, LOUD, etc.

A specific dynamic such as SOFT is perceived as being soft in two ways:

1. in relationship to another dynamic (is one sound SOFTER than another sound)

2. a REAL physical AMPLITUDE.

Hopefully, point #1 is self explanatory. Point #2 may need some explanation. It is beyond the scope of this discussion to go deeply into the physics of sound (acoustics). However, it would be helpful for you to peruse some websites to become familiar with a few terms which describe SOUND. Check out:

What is sound?

Any sound has physical properties which can be measured in terms of its "loudness" or "volume." Scientists use the term, AMPLITUDE to describe loudness or volume. There are a couple ways to measure amplitude:

1. an amplitude scale (such as the VU or amplitude meter on a tape recorder

2. DECIBELS (in relationship to the softest sound a human ear can hear). Decibel measurement can also be thought of as "sound pressure." See decibel.

OK, let's cut to the chase... how can you perform music with accurate dynamics? One big difference between professional musicians and amateurs and students is the ability to perform with a FULL RANGE OF DYNAMIC EXPRESSION. Students often have a very limited dynamic PALATE somewhere between mezzo forte and forte.

Here are some suggestions on how to produce consistent dynamics in your performances:

Here is the range of dynamic expression in classical music:


There are also indications of pppp and ffff but these are generally thought to be "theoretical" and not actual.

If you assigned numbers to these dynamics on a 100% scale, they might have these values where ppp is the softest sound you can hear from a performer while you are in the audience and the performer is on stage, fff is the loudest sound you can possibly tolerate before the threshold of pain.


Let's start with mf (mezzo forte). mf is "medium loud" and can be thought of as a dynamic that would match comfortable speaking without having to project with energy. For example normal conversation with someone standing right next to you.

Anything RIGHT of mf will be louder than "comfortable speaking." Anything LEFT of mf will be softer than "comfortable speaking."

Dynamic How to produce it
ppp Whispering as softly as possible
PP A normal whisper (no vocalization -- the vocal chords are not buzzing)
p Speaking as softly as you can and still "vocalizing" (not a whisper)
mp Speaking in a slightly "subdued" tone -- soto voce
mf Comfortable speaking
f Projecting your voice, but not shouting
ff Shouting
fff Screaming to the top of your lungs

This chart is simplistic but hopefully will be a starting point for students. There are certainly dynamic levels BETWEEN each of the above indications and some teachers go to great pains to teach this. I once heard of a teacher who advocated 27 different levels of dynamics and expected his students to produce them. As a teacher of piano, I am very happy when students can consistently produce these 8 level.

Dedicated Fundamentals of Music Sites:

Theory on the WEB (Southern Methodist University)
Online Music Instruction Page (Illinois State University)

P.O. Box 140446 Nashville, TN 37214

Site last updated: January 10, 2013