In Music, what do we mean by dynamics? Dynamics are the volume level at which music is performed. They’re the louds, and softs, and everything in between. Musicians use a variety of dynamics to add excitement and emotion to songs. Even early beginners can use dynamics in their piano playing to make it more fun to play and more fun to listen to.
Getting Started With Dynamics
The best way to learn how to play at different dynamic levels with the piano is the same way you learned how to speak or sing with different dynamic levels with your voice. Just experiment!
Let’s start with the quietest sounds you can make on the piano. Sit down at your piano and see how gently you can touch a single note and still get it to sound. If you press down on a key very slowly and gently, it might not make any sound at all. This is too quiet. You want to make at least a tiny sound. With a little practice, you can find just how to press the key to make the very softest sound possible.
Next, see how loud you can play. Use the full weight of your arm as you drop into the key with a confident motion. Keep your fingers strong and curved in the correct hand position. You should feel and hear a big difference!
Now relax and play somewhere in the middle, not too loud but not too soft either.
Ready for your next challenge? Start by playing the loudest you can possibly play. Now imagine going down a volume staircase one step at a time. Take it down a step and play very loud but not as loud as possible. Step down again to play loud, then medium-loud, then medium-soft, then soft, then very soft, then very, very soft. Did you get all the way back down to the very softest you can play? Now start from the very softest and try going one step at a time all the way back up to as loud as you possibly can.
How Loud or Soft Should I Play?
Musicians use special terms to talk about different levels of dynamics. Composers will often write them in a music score to let performers know how a song should be played. There are two kinds of dynamic changes in music. One is a sudden change from one level to another. The other is a gradual change.
To indicate dynamic level, composers use these terms and symbols:
pianissimo, or pp, means “very soft”
piano, or p, means “soft”
mezzo piano, mp, means “medium-soft”
mezzo forte, mf, means “medium-loud”
forte, f, means “loud”
fortissimo, ff, means “very loud!”
You will also sometimes see ppp for super soft, or fff for super loud, but we reserve these dynamic markings only for very special occasions! Over-the-top composers have even been known to use pppp and ffff, and, very rarely, even pushing to 5 p‘s or f‘s! But we suggest for your health, and the health of your piano, not to try playing fffff for now.
When you gradually move from one dynamic level to another, that’s called a crescendo or decrescendo. A crescendo is a gradual increase in volume. Its sign is two lines that start together at a point and then gradually get further apart, or you could see the abbreviation “cresc.” A decrescendo or diminuendo is a gradual decrease in volume. Its sign is two lines that start apart and gradually move together to reach a point, or you might see “dim.” or “decresc.” written in your music. Often a crescendo or decrescendo sign has dynamic markings at either end to tell you where your volume should be when you begin the change and where your volume should be when the change in dynamics is complete.
Without dynamics music would be dull and lifeless. Dynamics add interest, emotion, and drama to music. Imagine the dramatic opening to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, but without dynamics. Not so dramatic anymore, is it?
Composers use a sudden forte sound, or an unexpected drop to pianissimo, to grab your attention and heighten emotion. On the other hand, a slow and steady but relentless crescendo can help build to an awe-inspiring climax. Music that effectively employs a decrescendo can give a sense of peacefully coming to rest.
Getting a Feel for Dynamics and What They Do
A great way to develop your ability to use dynamics is to listen for them. Listen to recordings of your favorite music. Can you hear the dynamics? How does it make you feel when the music gets louder, or when it gets softer? Are these feelings different for different songs?
Some songs to try listening to:
Which songs started soft and gradually got louder? Which ones started loud, and then got soft? How did the different dynamics make you feel? Remember these things as you start experimenting with dynamics on your own.
How to Use Dynamics
Sometimes composers don’t put any dynamic markings in their music. So if that’s the case, how do you know what dynamics to play?
There’s no right or wrong way to add dynamics to a song. Try out different dynamics and see what you like. Even if dynamics are marked on the music you can always try it your own way. You might find another way to add dynamics to the song that you like better.
Here are some fun things to try with dynamics:
The Echo – if there is a repeated phrase in a song, try playing it louder the first time and softer the second time. You can also do a reverse echo, where you play soft the first time and loud the second time.
Soft Verse, Loud Chorus – you’ll hear this in a lot of popular music. Just play the chorus part of a song louder than the verse to make the chorus more exciting, and then drop back to a softer level for the next verse.
Crescendo, Decrescendo – Take a line of music, start out soft, gradually get louder toward the middle, and then get soft again at the end. This is fun and easy to try with the Hoffman Academy songs “Chocolate,” and also “The Wild Horses.” As the notes go up, get louder. As the notes go down, get softer.
When you practice your piano songs, try playing them with different dynamics. Listen carefully to see how dynamics can change the feeling of a song. As you gain experience using dynamics, you will start to be able to instinctively feel whether the music wants to be loud or soft.
Watch this video lesson to listen to and learn more about dynamics.