Volume is perhaps the most easily recognized and executed technique in bringing your piano playing to life. Varying degrees of volume give your piano music a different dynamic. And that’s exactly what volume levels are called in music: dynamics.

As with TVs, car stereos, and crying babies, the world of volume has a wide range: from very soft to very loud. Composers are quick to realize this and tell performers exactly where to play in the volume spectrum. Of course, to make things a bit fancier, all dynamics in music are Italian words.

Starting with basic volume changes

When you talk about volume, you say something is loud or soft. From there you can explain how loud or how soft. Music uses the same principle: You start with two little Italian words, piano (soft) and forte (loud), to describe the volume of notes. Abbreviations for these words are now the norm. You see soft and loud marked simply as p and f, written in fancy, stylized fonts.

When you see a dynamic marking, whatever the requested volume may be, you continue to play at this volume level until you see a new dynamic marking.

Widening the range

If soft and loud were the only volume levels available, home stereos would just have two volume buttons, not a turning knob. But, in real life, you have a variety of volume levels. Rather than keep track of some more highly descriptive but multi-syllable Italian words, you need only remember one abbreviation for the in-between volumes: m, which stands for mezzo (medium). Place this word before piano or forte, and you get two more shades of volume.

For extreme volumes like “very soft” and “insanely loud,” just throw a few more p’s or f’s together. The more you have, the more you play. That is, pp means “very soft” (no jokes, please). The written word isn’t piano-piano, however. Instead, you use the Italian suffix -issimo, loosely translated as “very,” and you end up with pianissimo. The symbol ff would be “very loud,” or fortissimo.

The whole range of volume abbreviations is shown here:


Making gradual shifts in volume

Two dynamic symbols that you encounter quite often are those that tell you to gradually play louder — a crescendo (cresc.) — or to gradually play softer — a diminuendo (dim.). Thinking of the symbols as bird beaks can help you remember which is which: A bird gets louder as it opens its beak; softer as it closes its beak:

Gradual volume chances with crescendo and diminuendo.
Gradual volume chances with crescendo and diminuendo.

You can also think of crescendo and diminuendo as the opposite of the math symbols: The arrow points to the softer, smaller sound.

Whether they appear as words, abbreviations, or symbols, these instructions are almost always preceded and followed by dynamic markings that tell you to play from volume A gradually to volume B. Maybe the composer wants you to gradually go from very soft (pp) to very loud (ff), or perhaps the music indicates a subtle change from mezzo piano (mp) to mezzo forte (mf). Whatever the case, it’s up to you to decide exactly how to play these volume changes.