I realize a form of this question has been addressed in the past, but ... I am very new to music theory and need a clarification. I was shocked to discover today that in music notation, there is no Articulation mark to tell the player to play one or a few notes more softly than the rest of the score ... nothing to serve as a opposite to the > sign. Soft isolated notes are played in music all the time, and I cannot believe there is no such mark invented by the folks who invented music notation. However, I have read posts about it on this and other forums, and encountered one knowledgeable person stating that if I want someone to play even one note softer than usual, I can simply use a dynamics mark above it, then use another dynamics mark on the next note(s). His suggestion would look like this (in measure 35, corrected in measure 37):

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Is this acceptable? If not, what can possibly be used to tell the player to soften the note in measure 35?

  • Dynamic specifications addressing only one system are rare. Fortunately nothing is missed here, since the right hand is clearly only accompaniment and every decent player will soften it anyway. Given that there is a full chord in bar 33/34, its also somewhat self-explaining, that bar 35 is softer.
    – guidot
    Feb 12 '21 at 20:20
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    You can use ghost note notation (putting regular brackets around a notehead) to signify it's played quieter than the others.
    – Pyromonk
    Feb 12 '21 at 21:52
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    Personally I would put in hairpins instead. They’re more readable to me. Plus they are more relative, like an accent. With accents, you can change the dynamic mark at the beginning of a passage and the whole passage changes and the accents are still accented. Same with hairpins. With explicit dynamic marks you have to update all of them if you want to make a whole passage louder or softer. Feb 12 '21 at 22:04
  • @Pyromonk Ghost notation is almost inexistent on "standard" piano scoring, and, unless a specific introduction is put for the piece, that would be just confusing for common players who might not be used to modern notation. Being a drummer as well, I do know ghost notes, and I'd still be really skeptic about its usage and how to play it (or if?!). While I see your point, there's no need for "extra" notation like that, and I also believe that a ghost note is a quite different thing, more close to an ornament, which is not this case): using a dynamic notes at the right position is clear enough. Feb 13 '21 at 2:18
  • Wow! I am a bit as confused as ever. We seem to have opinions to just hope the player softens the note, use ghost notes, dynamics marks, parentheses, or hairpins. One other guy suggested even making the note smaller if you want it to play softer. Another suggested to use a backward < symbol to soften the note. I don't want to violate good music conduct here, but in a piano score, is there an actual STRONG preference for a particular approach, if I want to mark a few notes to play softer? If so, could someone please post a short sketch so I can see what to do? Really appreciate it.
    – fsgregs
    Feb 13 '21 at 3:08

While it's common knowledge[citation needed] that until classic-age there were rare cases of dynamics differences between parts, that doesn't mean that they were not considered: they were just more simple and generic, usually based on the selection of the [orchestra] instrumentation for the specific section of the composition.

In fact, those differences are actually less uncommon (and less modern) than we might think of: consider that clavichords and organs had many keyboards and registrations in order to provide different dynamics also. While the preference of registration/keyboard was up to the player, the difference was still important, not only for the timbre.

Since [post] romantic music onwards, also due to the technical and composition evolution of what had become the most common keyboard instrument, differences in dynamics of voices became much more common.

Consider this excerpt from Debussy's Golliwogg's Cake-walk (circa 1908):

Golliwogg's excerpt

So, no, there's nothing wrong in specifying dynamics for a specific system (or voice), as long as it's clear what it's referred to.

In your case I would avoid putting those indications too above, otherwise they might be a bit confusing about their reference: try to put them as close (but not too much) as possible to their part.
For instance, the mp of the second system should better be a bit below and on the left than it is now; while it's probably clear that it is referred to bar 37, notation should always be as clear as possible, without allowing any possibility of doubt: the player shouldn't lose even a fraction of a second thinking about "is it above or below?".

  • Sorry. Confused. I assume the MF dynamic addresses all of the notes in that measure, but what does the pp and decrescendo address? It looks like it asks the player to soften all of the 8 notes in measure 3. What if I wanted to just soften the first E/B notes in the measure? What would I put there?
    – fsgregs
    Feb 17 '21 at 14:27
  • In a single instrument system, dynamics that are common for all parts are normally put between the two staffs, so the pp and decrescendo address everything (both hands, all voices). When dynamics are above the top staff, they refer to that staff or the top voice if more voices are on the same staff, as much as having dynamics on bottom of the lower staff are only referred to the left hand (or bottom voice). In any case, it all depends on the relative position to staff and voice. To soften e/b notes at the bottom of the 2nd bar, and not the f/a, they must be in different voices. Feb 17 '21 at 14:44

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