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How loud is loud?

by Matt Albert

At Music10 this past June, one of the conversations that seemed to keep going from day to day and among many different groups of people was a discussion about the meaning of dynamics. We may know what the Italian words forte and piano technically mean, but how do performers interpret them on their instruments? How can composers use them to communicate their intentions most clearly? Today a composer friend of mine asked me to recount what I said in a passing conversation at the dinner table in Switzerland, because she was interested in my interpretations of each marking. I’ve somehow come up with a fairly specific list here, based on what I’ve heard from many teachers and conductors throughout my career, and I’m curious how this resonates with other musicians.

It all starts from mf, so bear with the order here.

mf = full sound. No extra effort, let your instrument sing on its own.
f = loud. Do technically what your instrument requires to play loud — requires effort, in other words.
ff = max intensity. not just loud, make sure your line has intensity from note to note.
(fff = special dynamic on string instruments to indicate an extremely rare and powerful moment, sound quality may be sacrificed for effect.)
mp = held back. make a nice sound, but slightly more air, less focus, more personal, like conversation instead of stage speaking.
p = soft. contained, beautiful sound, intimate but warm.
pp = intensely soft, like a scream from a mile away or a locked room. more intensity to the line while keeping the volume low.
(ppp = as close to inaudible as you can produce. use a sound that’s only 75-80% consistent, dropped notes and quality is OK.)

Here’s an even briefer description:

mf = full
f = loud
ff = max
fff = in your face (some sacrifices in tone)
mp = conversational
p = soft, intimate
pp = covered scream
ppp = almost inaudible (some notes dropped)

What do you think? Seem helpful? Too fussy? Not enough coffee? Too much?

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