How far can pianissimo/fortissimo go? I have heard both the limit is 4 and 2 of each. Meaning pppp/ffff or pp/ff. What is the actual limit?
Giovanni Gabrielli started it all with just two: piano and forte.
Before long, there were also pp (pianissimo, "softest") and ff (fortissimo, "loudest").
Beethoven used fff if I recall correctly, but few composers used more than 2 of each.
I know that Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony has ffffff and ppppppp. (Most conductors substitute a bass clarinet for the bassoon where it is supposed to play ppppppp.)
And yet, Berlioz' Requiem op. 5 never goes beyond ff and gets even louder than Tchaikovsky's 6th.
I would actually expect that having more levels simply means that you're expected to recognize the relative differences between different segments of the piece being played, thus allowing you to play the song more closely to how the original composer intended.
Example: if you had pp, mp, ff and fffff you would probably play those parts somewhat differently than if the markings were ppp, p, f, ff. The relative differences between them all would make for substantially different dynamics. This is basically giving you varying resolutions in dynamics suitable to the unique requirements of each musical score, and also a reasonably accurate way to give musicians a relative relationship to use that is meaningful within the context of each individual piece, allowing faithful rendition while also allowing for personal interpretation.
This interpretation clearly requires being familiar with the piece before playing. I can't say this is 'correct' but it certainly makes a lot of sense to me.
There are no consistent technical specifications attached to the various numbers of letters. Thus, any number of letters can theoretically be used by the composer.
However, it is important to remember that any more than three or possibly four starts to get extremely difficult to read at all quickly. Also, they are not set to a concrete Db level, but the performer's discretion, so you shouldn't need more than the standard three each way plus the mezzo piano and mezzo forte. Context quite often decides the volume and force as much as the actual markings. The same principle applies to the number of F's in the sforzando marking.
There is no limit, but for any normal performance pp to ff would be all you need. A p itself means quiet and an f itself means loud. When you add another p or f to each it technically adds "very" in front of each.
- pp - very soft
- ff - very loud
- ppp - very, very soft
- fff - very, very loud
- pppp - very, very, very soft
- ffff - very, very, very loud
I know in Finale the dynamics go up to ffff (at velocty 127) and pppp (at velocity 10). There are pieces out there that use more (see this Wikipedia article for examples).
Think of it this way: you can always add another "very" in front of loud and soft and there may be times it makes sense to put a pppppppp or an fffffff if you want to express extreme dynamics. Like I said in most situations "very loud" and "very soft" are good enough, but there is not a notional limit.
Needs to be noted that it's all relative. Each instrument will have its own dynamic spectrum, so a piccolo won't have the same 'p' or 'f' as say, a trumpet. Also the auditorium must play a part in this. A small hall will surely give 'f' a different no. of decibels from a large one. And there seems to be no actual figures for 'p', 'f' etc. Once some instruments get to fff, they've run out of steam, so ffff would be unattainable.
The only limit to how many p or f is the technical proficiency of the musicians.
It must be made clear that dynamics in themselves do not mean anything. They are references to each other. A piano is a piano only in reference to dynamics in their very piece.
Better ensembles and musicians will be able to actually make differences between a ff and a fff, or a pppp and a ppppp for that matters.
Younger ensembles will often play ff and fff pretty much the same way.
It is also worthy to note that the acoustics of the room will influence how instruments have to play to actually sound f or p in reference to each other.
I know it as usual that
- fff means as loud as possible
- ppp is as quiet as possible
Those two are the maximum in every direction i know as usual.
For the most cases this should be enough. For listeners 8 volumelevels
(ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff) is hard to differentiate, but for the players it can also be hard to play it the same every time. More levels won't make it easier.