Dynamics are used to show how loudly to play a piece of music.

Articulation is used to show how a note should be played or sung - eg staccato or slur.

Look at the music below for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

Sheet music for Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

What dynamics and articulations can you see?

pp (meaning very quiet) at the start of the piece and in bar 5. There are slurs to indicate groups of triplets and how they should be played. The term “sostenuto” is also used, meaning sustained.

If there were no dynamics and articulation, or if there were different articulations, then the music would sound completely different. Dynamics and articulations bring the notes on the page to life.

Dynamics are alterations in the volume of a piece of music.

Dynamic marking and meaning

Dynamic markingMeaning
<Crescendo: getting louder
>Diminuendo: getting quieter
ppPianissimo: very quiet
pPiano: quiet
ffFortissimo: very loud
fForte: loud
mfMezzo forte: fairly loud
mpMezzo piano: fairly quiet
sfSforzando: sudden accent
> (marked near note head)Accent: emphasis on a particular note

Dynamics and Italian terms

Dynamics were rarely used in the Baroque and Classical periods. In the Romantic period and beyond, dynamics were used to create dramatic effects.

Dynamics beyond pp and ff are used occasionally. Tchaikovsky uses ppp and fff to emphasise important moments - he even uses pppppp for a bassoon solo in his sixth symphony, The Pathétique. Holst uses ffff in “Mars” from The Planets.