Written music needs to convey a lot of information.  Things like:

  • which notes to play
  • the length of time to play those notes…
  • …or length of time to play nothing
  • how fast to play
  • what sort of feeling to give to the music, and
  • how loud or quietly to play music – the technical term for this is dynamics.

Dynamics are shown by writing letters on the music like p, f, mf, pp all of which signify different levels of volume.

The letters are based on Italian words

p stands for piano and means soft or quiet

f for forte, which means strong or loud, and

m for mezzo, which means moderately/sort of/kind of

Interestingly, when the piano was invented at the beginning of the eighteenth century, it’s full name was the pianoforte.  This name made very clear what the main selling point was of this new instrument.  It could play quietly and loudly, and so they decided to call it a quietloud!  Previous keyboard instruments like the harspichord, spinet and clavichord could only play with one volume no matter how softly or hard you hit the keys.  This was because they operated by plucking the strings.  The new pianoforte hit the strings with hammers.

Composers of the time like Mozart and Beethoven were delighted with this new technology and it’s expressive potential and the “plucked” family of keyboard instruments quickly fell out of use.

The diagram of a volume control below explains the dynamic directions used in written music and their relative loudness.

It should be mentioned that this is not an exact science.  One person’s mf, may be another’s f, for example.

There is a passage in Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, where he directs the orchestra to play at ffffff, or fortissississississimo, which is probably taking it a bit far!  He obviously wanted to make it very obvious that everyone should just belt it out like they’d never belted it out before, and then give it some more oomph.  A 19th century example of turning the amp up to 11, perhaps…

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