Piano Dynamics and Mood


Originally, music notation contained only the barest of facts: pitches of notes and their duration, and later, time signatures and key signatures. Early music (from the Baroque period, 1600-1750), very rarely had an indication of speed, or of softness or loudness (dynamics).

Sometimes the speed or volume could be determined from the type of piece; however, it was left principally up to the performer to decide many of these things.

Today, however, most classical music includes fairly detailed instructions on how a piece is to be played. Pick up a piece of classical music and you will notice three things:

  1. An instruction on how a piece is to be played, often in Italian and always in italics at the top of the piece (e.g. Andante cantabile [meaning: at a walking speed, in a singing style]).
  2. A tempo: Usually a crotchet symbol = 120 (for example). This number equals the number of beats per minute. You can either use a metronome to set this speed, or work it out for yourself with some simple math. For example, there are 60 seconds to a minute, 120 is twice 60, so you are going to be playing 2 beats to a second – a very fast tempo. Once you have been playing the piano for some time, you will simply have to look at this number to realize the approximate speed, rather than working it out or using a metronome.
  3. Dynamics throughout the piece. These come in two forms: smaller or greater signs indicating a sliding volume, or, as Italian words or abbreviations. For example: mf (mezzo forte [moderately loud]).

With other forms of music, however, dynamics and mood are not so set in stone. Jazz pianists frequently change the speed or the tempo of a piece to suit their interpretation. Popular artists do a similar thing.

But I believe that these details are still very valuable to know even if you are going to be playing mainly popular music.

Why?

Well, because following instructions in classical music gives you an understanding of form and phrasing.

Phrasing means to create ‘phrases’, or small portions of the music, into a lyrical whole. This creates interest and feeling in the piece. If every line of music was played in exactly the same, it would be like someone speaking in a monotone.

It is important to know how form and phrasing works so that you can apply it appropriately to other music you play. Subtle changes to speed, volume, and the force with which individual notes are played – along with many other tiny details - all add up to creating an individual interpretation.

So even though jazz and pop often don’t have any ‘set’ instructions, it’s good to be familiar with the subtleties of a really good interpretation. You can really ruin a song by changing volume at the wrong place or too suddenly (which may sound silly, but is kind of easy to do if you are not used to really LISTENING to what you are playing).

Try this example below. The tempo of this piece is 90 beats per minute, a fairly slow tempo. Notice the direction ‘Grave’, meaning solemn and serious.

In this exercise, you will also notice the directions ff and mf – rather cryptic symbols if you don’t know what they mean! These are two of a series of Italian abbreviations used in music to designate volume.

Below is a list of the abbreviations, the original Italian words, and the definitions of performance directions commonly used in classical music.

Performance Directions

p or piano = soft

pp or pianissimo = very soft

mp or mezzo piano = moderately soft

mf or mezzo forte = moderately loud

f or forte = loud

ff or fortissimo = very loud

Note: The audio doesn’t do the dynmaics in this exercise justice: remember to play ff very forcefully and pp as softly as you possibly can with the notes still sounding!

You will also notice greater- and lesser-than angles. These are called crescendo or diminuendo, meaning respectively, gradually getting louder and gradually getting softer.

The second exercise contains an example of phrasing.

Phrasing basically has the same function as punctuation in language. The arches that you can see in the piece below each represent a musical phrase. By dividing music up into ‘thoughts’ or musical sentences, the composer can create a lyrical and structured effect similar to that an author or poet creates when writing.

Phrases are also like breathes in music; in fact, the end of each phrase is where a singer would take a breath if they were singing the piece. When a pianist is playing a phrase, they often give it subtle shape by making it slightly louder in the middle and softer at both ends. The notes within a phrase should all be played smoothly, in legato style. But the end of a phrase allows you to move your hand and break the flow a little if necessary.

This exercise is in the key of E flat major, which has 3 flats: Eb, Bb, and Ab. Because this is a new key signature, the notes are written above to help you out. It is often quite tricky to remember so many new accidentals! Watch out for the E natural at the end of the eighth bar. A natural means that you play an E (white note), instead of an E flat. Once again, the audio only gives very subtle phrasing, so feel free to accentuate it a bit more, with slight crescendos in the middle, getting softer toward the end of each phrase.

To finish this lesson, here a piece to play that includes a variety of different dynamics. The title of this piece is ‘Arabesque’, meaning ‘a fanciful, decorative piano piece’. The instruction is moderato, meaning what it sounds: to be played at a moderate tempo.

Glossary of Terms

Andante Cantabile: Moderately, in a singing style.

Arabesque: A fanciful, decorative piano piece

Baroque: Music from the period between the early 1600s to the mid 1700s.

Crescendo: Gradually getting louder.

Diminuendo: Gradually getting softer.

Form: a generic type of composition such as the symphony or concerto or the structure of a particular piece, how its parts are put together to make the whole.

Metronome: A mechanical device invented in the 19th century to help musicians keep strict time when playing. The number of "ticks" per minute can be set at anywhere between 40 and 208 ticks per minute on the most commonly used models.

Mezzo forte: Moderately loud.

Moderato: Medium tempo or speed.

Phrases: A phrase is a section of music that is relatively self contained and coherent over a medium time scale. In common practice, phrases are often four to eight bars long.