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Sometimes, scores contain notations like "fff", which presumably indicates that the section in question should be one dynamic level louder than "ff", or "fortissimo".

In my limited musical performance experience, I've heard "3 effs" and "fortissi-issimo" used for "fff", but these sound a little bit informal to me (plus the latter one is obviously faux-Italian).

How are these notations (with more than 2 "f"s or "p"s) pronounced when spoken?

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Please, don't use "issi-issimo" for superlatives! That's what Italian children say when they are 3 years old or so and sounds really childish to any Italian speaker. –  Bakuriu Aug 20 '13 at 7:09

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Some people use "fortississimo" for fff and the equivalent for ppp, but, as you note, that doesn't have any basis in "proper" Italian. American Luke's answer of "fortissimo possibile" is sometimes used for "fff" but only if further gradations, such as "ffff" aren't used. "Triple forte" is the most commonly used expression I've heard in English (with the further gradation "Quadruple forte" used on occasion). But "3 f's" is commonly said and is definitely the primary way I've heard dynamics such as the pppppp ("6 p's") in Tchaikovsky said. I've never heard "sextuple piano" used.

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I've never heard triple forte. Beyond three it's really only the emphasis that is needed, not the exact number of f's or p's. –  American Luke Aug 20 '13 at 2:36
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It is used often during rehearsals: "clarinets: begin at the triple forte" -- saying "begin at ''forte possibile'' " will not have everyone begin at the same place. Certain composers (Xenakis for instance; band composer Alfred Reed also) definitely make a distinction between fff and ffff. Look at ismir2011.ismir.net/papers/PS3-1.pdf for a count of usage of ppp vs. pppp vs. ppppp vs. pppppp. –  Michael Scott Cuthbert Aug 20 '13 at 2:42
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@American Luke- if I had never heard triple forte, I'd be worried I was going deaf !! Sorry, someone else would have said it if I didn't ! Surely it's all relative, as no decibels have ever been allocated to any mark, so it depends how loudly/quietly the music starts,and the volume will vary during the performance due to number of instruments played, emptiness of auditorium, etc. –  Tim Aug 20 '13 at 7:45
  • fff is pronounced fortissimo possibile or forte fortissimo
  • ff is pronounced fortissimo
  • f is pronounced forte
  • mf is pronounced mezzo-forte
  • mp is pronounced mezzo-piano
  • p is pronounced piano
  • pp is pronounced pianissimo
  • ppp is pronounced pianissimo possibile or piano pianissimo

More than three p's or f's are rarely rarely used. Their only purpose is to note extremely quiet or loud passages, simply for dramatic emphasis. You can simply regard them as fff's or ppp's (respectively). If necessary, add a little emphasis. Very pianissimo possibile. Extremely fortissimo possibile. There's no correct way to pronounce four or more f's or p's because they are not really standard. As long as you convey the extreme emphasis on playing softly or loudly, you'll be fine.

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Not really an answer, but something that came up last year. We weren't able to build or locate a Mahler hammer and hammer box, so IIRC a second concert bass drum was appropriated and pressed into service. Both drums survived intact.

We pronounced it "fortiss-iss-iss-imo" or just "four fs". The brass, just in front of us, pronounced it "Dear Lord! My ears! My ears!"

Bryant, S. "Ecstatic Waters", 2008

Bryant, S. "Ecstatic Waters", 2008

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Interesting ! I'd love to find out how one would 'play' the last bar - 4 beats of silence, plus a pause ? –  Tim Aug 20 '13 at 10:29
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If I remember correctly, this is a general pause for the whole ensemble, and it was not beaten at all - the pause was given on the 1st beat. The only movement occurring in that final bar was a crescendo from the synths (the piece is for concert band plus various electronics and sequencer) which was allowed to build, then die away for 18 seconds. As soon as that's done, it's attacca into the next movement. Interesting piece. Perusal score here: stevenbryant.com/pdf/Ecstatic_Waters_Perusal_Score_Sept2010.pdf –  Faelkle Aug 20 '13 at 10:56

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