Dynamic signs are indicators in written music that instruct the performer on how to play, sing, or conduct a piece. They often refer to the type of sound desired, based on what is appropriate to the music. Dynamic signs are often used as guidelines rather than rules; while providing suggestions as to how a piece should be performed, they leave room for creative and artistic choices.
Some dynamic signs refer to the volume of sound produced. The terms are taken from Italian words and typically are written as abbreviations above the music staff. The quietest volume indicated is typically pianissimo, often written as pp. Piano abbreviated as p, indicates a quiet tone, but not as soft as pianissimo. To indicate a loud volume, composers may write forte for loud or fortissimo for very loud. These are sometimes written fully, but often shortened to f or ff.
Dynamic signs regarding volume are often written as relative to one another, so the exact levels of loudness or softness will usually be decided by the performer or conductor. Occasionally, scores will even indicate medium-loud or medium-soft volumes, using the terms mezzo-forte or mezzo-piano. Typically, these will be written as mf or mp. You may also see dynamic signs that indicate how quickly a volume change should be accomplished. A crescendo is a slowly building increase in volume, while sforzando suggests a sudden, dramatic change.
Some dynamic signs indicate the style in which a section of a piece should be performed. Most of these also come from Italian terms and are indicated above or below the section they affect. Staccato calls for a sharp, rhythmic sound, while legato indicates a smooth and connected tone between notes. Sotto voce, which translates as “soft voice” and suggests that the performance of the section should be muted and soft.
For vocalists, dynamic signs can be useful tools in understanding the piece. Often, singers must perform in languages other than there own, and may not be able to get an accurate translation of the words they are singing. Following clues in the dynamics, singers may be able to catch the mood, emotion and feeling of a piece, even if the words are incomprehensible.
Dynamic signs are important to the performance of a piece of music. Much like light and shadow give depth to a painting, composers, performers and conductors use dynamics to give depth to a song or symphony. While they are not meant as mandatory instruction, they can be beneficial in understanding the intended sound of a piece.