In musical notation, dynamic markings instruct performers to play a passage loudly or quietly. Dynamics provided are relative – that is, there is not a specified volume level associated with a particular marking. There are two fundamental indications: f, or forte, and p, or piano. The forte marking means “loud,” and the piano marking means “soft.”
Very rarely will a performer be instructed to play a piece entirely at one dynamic level. By concatenating forte or piano markings, a composer imparts the level of loudness or softness. The marking ff (“fortissimo”) is louder than f, and pp (“pianissimo”) is softer than p. Continuing to link together the marking indicates more intense levels – fff is louder than ff, which is louder than f; ppp is quieter than pp, which is quieter than p. In the middle are mf, or mezzo-forte, and mp, or mezzo-piano, which indicate a moderate level of loudness and softness, respectively.
Other instructions let the performer know whether to employ a dynamic marking suddenly or gradually. “Crescendo” instructs the performer to gradually increase the volume, and “diminuendo” means gradually become softer. “Sforzando,” abbreviated sfz, tells the performer to accent a note or play a note louder. The fortepiano indication, fp, means play loudly initially, then immediately play softly.
Dynamics are very important and help provide color and interest to music. A passage ordinarily played quietly can impart a very different experience to an audience if played loudly and forcefully. It is crucial to understand dynamics to properly interpret the intentions of a composer, but it can also help a performer develop their own unique approach to interpretation when dynamics are not provided.