Learning to play the piano at different intensities adds a whole new level of expression to your music. Dynamics are one of the features that can bring out the artistic concept of a piece. For beginners in particular, it may be difficult to create great distinctions between different dynamics, but before you even start trying to make these distinctions, you’ll need to be able to recognize the written dynamics on a score.
How Are Dynamics Expressed on Sheet Music?
Dynamics are volume markings written as symbols or abbreviations of words in Italian. They frequently appear in music written for the piano as well as for orchestral instruments. While dynamics can be expressed in many ways, there are a few very common forms to note. The most common are:
- pp – pianissimo – very soft
- p – piano - soft
- mp – mezzo piano – quite soft
- mf – mezzo forte – quite loud
- f – forte – loud
- ff – fortissimo – very loud
- fp – fortepiano – loud and then soft
- sfz – sforzando – sudden accent
Crescendo (gradually getting louder) and diminuendo (gradually getting softer) can be expressed as an elongated “<” symbol or cresc., or an elongated “>” symbol or dim., respectively.
Piano Dynamics Playing Tips
It is essential to pay close attention to what you are playing; if you don’t, it becomes impossible to play a wide range of dynamics. This may seem obvious, but often the attention of the pianist is focused on what his or her hands are doing and not the sound being created by the piano.
Beginners are particularly susceptible to two major mistakes: first, exerting random pressure on the keys and hoping for the best; second, imagining they are playing dynamics correctly when they actually aren’t. To avoid these problems, it’s important to train your ears to really listen to what you’re playing.
A Simple Exercise to Practice Piano Dynamics
Begin playing simple scales or chromatic runs with one hand, aiming for a forte sound. When you are able to play forte comfortably, try to reach the same volume using just the weight of your fingers, while ensuring your wrist does not fall out of position. Repeat with your other hand and continue practicing until you have mastered the dynamic consistently with both hands.
Next, repeat the same exercise, but this time try to play softer. This can be achieved by sinking your fingers into the piano key instead of dropping onto it quickly. Remember that the piano dynamics should still be loud enough that listeners can hear easily. A little quieter than this should create pianissimo, while a little louder allows you to play mezzo-piano. As you progress, you should be able to recognize and play with distinct differences between all the dynamics.
Using the Pedals to Enhance Piano Dynamics
Unlike other musicians, you have the huge advantage of built-in piano dynamics by using the pedals. Most pianos have two pedals: the sustain or damper pedal on the right, and the soft pedal on the left. Some pianos may also have a third pedal in the middle called the sostenuto pedal, also played with the left foot. The pedals are played by pressing down with the ball of the foot and the toe while the heel remains on the floor at all times.
For dynamic purposes, the soft pedal is the most important, as it makes creating softer dynamics much easier while giving the sound a more distant feel. While principal use of the sustain pedal is to continue sound after a key is released, this pedal also helps to make a sound warmer and more intense, and is useful for louder dynamics. On sheet music, the word “ped.” appears when the sustain pedal should be depressed and “*” when it should be released. The middle pedal is less important and appears infrequently on sheet music.
Incorporating piano dynamics into your playing will add texture to your music. The first stage to mastering this is the ability to recognize symbols and words, to ensure you are using the piano dynamics as the composer intended. Then, you can practice the technique by paying close attention to the sound you create. Once you have this down, your music will have that added emotion every player hopes to evoke!
Photo by brady.macdonald