A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture,
Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music




Dynamics, or volume, is one of the four parameters of sound, equal to pitch, duration, and timbre (see Chapter 1). And yet it is one of the most ignored and least understood aspects of music.

Most musicians would state that dynamics are those letters that are found in printed music which indicate how loud or how soft to perform (p and f ). While this is not untrue, it is woefully incomplete.

It is extremely important to understand that there is no such thing as an ABSOLUTE dynamic level, either soft or loud. This is easily understood if one thinks of the soft level of a string orchestra versus the soft level of a marching band, or the loud level of a guitar versus the loud level of bagpipes. They clearly are completely separate dynamics, way beyond the comparison of apples to oranges; it is more like comparing grapes to pumpkins. In spite of how MIDI assigns equal dynamic values to all instruments in modern technology, it is completely untrue that they are the same. Thus, different dynamic levels are a function of many considerations. Dynamics are always relative.

There are at least five kinds of dynamics:

  1. Notated dynamics
  2. Ambient dynamics
  3. Registral dynamics
  4. Textural dynamics
  5. Timbral dynamics


Music prior to the Baroque period did not notate dynamics with symbols. Dynamic levels, however, still existed in this music, and are created by the other four types.

Composers in the early Baroque utilized the terms piano (p) and forte (f) to indicate a specific dynamic beyond texture and tessitura. It is important to realize that these terms do not simply mean "soft" and "loud" (as commonly understood) but include the concepts of "gentle" and "strong" (the word "fortitude" after all means "strength", not "loudness"). Clearly they are an indication of attitude as much as decibels; "gentle" indicates an approach to performance that includes softness, but implies other attributes as well (such as gentler articulations), "strong" likewise includes a degree of loudness, but implies other attributes (such as stronger articulations).

Eventually, composers began to realize the potential of such a system which allows more specific indication of intensity beyond texture and tessitura, and began doubling the p and f to pianissimo (pp) and fortissimo (ff). It can safely be said that the difference in level between pp and p is roughly the same as the difference between p and f; likewise for f to ff. It should be noted, however, that these were considered to be more like embellishments rather than a required notation practice. Many works in the Baroque period simply do not include these symbols at all.

In the 18th century, composers began to refine this system of dynamics by adding the qualifier mezzo to the terms p and f. It was intended as a relative term, and always followed the main term; for example, once p was established, a composer could then use the term mp to reflect a slightly less gentle approach to the music. They were never intended to be a separate level of intensity, and the distance from p to f still remains the same. It is interesting to note that many composers of the late 18th and early 19th century used the mezzo dynamics very sparingly; for example, it is almost impossible to find them in the original manuscripts of Beethoven.

This begs the question: how does one make smaller gradations between p and pp? This is accomplished by attaching the word meno p (less soft) or meno f (less loud); a gradual increase in intensity might then read pp to meno p to p (very soft, less soft, to soft). This is a commonly misintrepreted notation; some performers read it as pp to mp to p (very soft to somewhat soft back to soft). It becomes even more problematic going the other direction: p to meno f to pp (soft, less loud, very soft).

As the Common Practice Period evolved, composers began to attach more and more letters to their notated dynamics, even to the point of the ridiculous such as pppppp and ffffff. It should be noted that the music does not really get much softer (or louder) with six letters. All that happens is that each dynamic level becomes smaller. The range of dynamics is effectively the same no matter how many letters are used.


The ambient dynamic is the volume created by unspoken consensus.

Give a piece of music to any group, a dynamic will be projected without any prompting. Good musicians will attempt to blend and compromise with the other musicians. Even if there are notated dynamics in the music, performers will assume that everyone has the same level and will continue to blend.

Here is the interesting part: even if the performers have DIFFERENT notated dynamics, they will continue to blend and compromise, still assuming that everyone has the same level.

Some composers and arrangers try to balance instruments by assigning different dynamic symbols to them. This works well with MIDI, which has the utopian "absolute" dynamic level assigned to symbols, but it does not work in acoustic performance. Musicians simply have no way of knowing that another performer has been assigned a separate dynamic level. If there is a conductor, that could be made clear, but a conductor should be able to know that without the notated dynamic. In chamber music, the practice of unequal dynamics is useless. Different dynamic levels need to be fashioned with the other types of dynamics.

There are circumstances when unequal dynamic levels can be extraordinarily effective, but these are the exception rather than the rule. For example, the opening of "Montagues and Capulets" (also known as "Dance of the Knights") from Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev, has a full brass passage immediately juxtaposed to an extremely soft string passage. In fact, the strings enter softly before the brass are finished, so when the brass stop, the soft strings are already present. Clearly, in this piece, unequal dynamics proved a valuable compositional tool.Listen to a performance


The registral dynamic is the volume (or presence) a voice or instrument projects when in different ranges. This is also known as TESSITURA.

Most voices and instruments have places in their range where they are naturally louder or naturally softer. Imagine, for example, a flute. A composer can ask for ffffff on the bottom note (middle C), but it will always come out p. Conversely, ask for pppppp on a high C (three octaves higher) and you would be lucky to get something closer to ff. It is simply impossible to attain all levels of dynamics in all octaves.

This is not a liability. Composers can use this fact to control the dynamic level without notating a single dynamic. Knowing the tessitura of any given performing medium can create a huge array of volumes.


A timbral dynamic is the volume (or presence) a voice or instrument projects by virtue of the sound wave shape created. This is a function of the engineering of the instrument (or genetics of the voice).

In other words, some instruments are louder than others. Clearly, brass instruments are louder than strings (imagine if Prokofiev had scored the opening of Romeo and Juliet (mentioned above in 5.3) in simply would not be as effective.

Imagine a guitar and bagpipe duet. Would you even know the guitar was there? Would it make a difference if the guitar were notated fff and the bagpipes ppp? Would it make a difference if the guitar part was in the optimal tessitura? The answers are obvious.

The use of timbral dynamics is, in fact, the study of orchestration and instrumentation, as is registral dynamics. Together they are all you would need to create dynamic levels in a piece of music, and would never need a single notated dynamic.


A textural dynamic is created by either the number of performers in the ensemble or the texure of the music.

Obviously, a symphonic orchestra is going to express a wider range of dynamics than a string quartet; both groups could be as soft as one player, but the orchestra is the clear winner when all performers are being utilized.

Less obvious is the dynamic created by the texture of the music:


The two most important points to be learned from the informaton above are

  1. Dynamics are relative.
  2. Dynamics are created from means beyond the symbols for piano and forte.

If you are in a position to compose or arrange, be sure that the dynamics are clear and definite. Take a page from Beethoven, who steadfastly avoided the bland, comparative dynamic symbols, and commit to whether you want it to be loud or soft. And when you do, consider the register, the timbre, and the texture of your ensemble as you plan the dynamics.

Copyright 2008-2009 by Phillip Magnuson.

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