Learn How to Read Sheet Music: Dynamics, Articulations and Tempo

So you may be thinking to yourself, “I know how to read and play notes and rhythms, but how do I make it sound more interesting?” That’s where dynamics, articulations and tempo come in. Dynamics tell you how soft or loud the music should be played; articulations tell you how short, long or strong a note should be played, and tempo tells you how slow or fast to play the music. Most sheet music will have more than just the notes and rhythms; it will have symbols and terms for dynamics, articulations and tempo as well. It is like learning a whole new language. We’ve outlined the basics to help get you started.

Dynamics

In music, dynamics indicate the varying levels of volume of sound that are heard throughout a piece. In sheet music, musical symbols tell the performer how soft or loud a passage is to be played. The symbols below are listed in order from softest to loudest. Dynamic symbols will most often be located beneath the staff, meaning that the music above is to be played at the indicated dynamic.

 

Pianissimo

pianissimoPianissimo is an Italian word for very soft. When a musical passage is to be played very softly, it will be indicated by pp as shown on the left.

Piano

pianoPiano is an Italian word for soft. When p appears in a musical passage, it indicates that the music should be played softly.

Mezzo-Piano

mezzo pianoMezzo is an Italian term meaning medium or moderate. In music, mezzo-piano is indicated by mp, which tells the performer to play moderately-soft.

Mezzo-Forte

mezzo forteForte is an Italian word for loud. Therefore, mezzo-forte (mf) in a musical passage means that it should be played moderately-loud.

Forte

forteWhen you see f, the musical passage is to be played forte, or loudly.

Fortissimo

fortissimoFortissimo is an Italian word for very loud. When you see ff in a musical passage, it is to be played very loudly.

Crescendo

crescendo Crescendo, abbreviated cresc., is an Italian term that translates as “growing”. In music, this means the music should gradually get louder. A crescendo will either be indicated in a musical passage as cresc. or by the symbol to the left. The crescendo symbol will be the entire length of the musical passage that is to gradually get louder.

Decrescendo/Diminuendo

crescendo Decrescendo, abbreviated decresc., or diminuendo, abbreviated dim., are both Italian terms for “gradually getting softer”. This will be indicated in a musical passage as decresc., dim., or by the symbol to the left. The decrescendo symbol will be the entire length of the musical passage that is to gradually get softer.

Articulations

Articulation markings help add character to a piece of music. They indicate the length or emphasis a note should have. Here are the most common ones.

Staccato

Staccato Staccato is the Italian word for detached. In musical notation, it signifies a note of shortened duration. When performed, a staccato note will be separated from the following note by a brief space of silence.

Accent

Accent There are many different types of accent marks in music. The one shown to the left is the most common. It indicates that the note should be played with a moderately sharp attack, creating a greater emphasis on the beginning of the note than the notes without the accent mark would have. Don’t confuse this with playing loudly. An accented note should still be played within the indicated dynamic, just with a sharper beginning.

Tenuto

TenutoThe line above the note indicates that it should be played tenuto. The most common definition of tenuto is to hold the note for its full value. It is the opposite of a staccato; there should be no space between the tenuto note and the note that follows.

Fermata

FermataA fermata is a symbol that indicates the note should be prolonged beyond its normal duration. They can occur throughout a piece of music, but are most commonly seen at the end. In the example to the right, the whole note may be played for the equivalent of eight beats instead of four.

Tempo

How do you know how slow or fast a piece of music should be? That is what the tempo marking tells you! Tempo is the rate of speed at which a musical passage is to be played, which is defined by one of several terms, like those listed below. For this beginner’s manual, we are simply providing the most common tempo terms, which come from Italian. However, there are a plethora of other musical terms from different languages. As you advance in your musical study, you may come across terms in French, German and even English. It is always a good idea to have a pocket music dictionary on hand to reference any unfamiliar terms that you find.

Tempo may also be measured in beats per minute (BPM). In order to make sure you are practicing and playing the piece at the correct tempo, it is important to have a metronome, a device which marks time by giving a regular tick at the selected BPM. The following tempo terms have a rough BPM approximation.

Adagio – slowly (66-76 BPM)
Andante – at a walking pace (76-108 BPM)
Moderato – moderately (108-120 BPM)
Allegro – fast, quickly (120-160 BPM)
Presto – extremely fast (160-200 BPM)

For a more complete list of the Italian terms for tempo, see here.

Check out the other articles in the “Learn to Read Sheet Music” Series:

Learn to Read Sheet Music: Notes
Learn to Read Sheet Music: Rhythms
Learn to Read Sheet Music: List of Basic Musical Symbols

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