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When a performer sees a dynamics notation, such as pp for pianissimo, (or p, or f or ff, or any of its siblings), in a written score, which notes are to be played softly?

[1] I take it the symbol means "Start playing softly now, and continue playing softly until you are instructed otherwise." How long does this instruction last? To the end of the measure? The end of the line? The end of the song?

[2] If the composer wants to end the pianissimo, what symbol would be used to indicate "That's enough playing softly. Go back to playing normally now."

[3] How would the composer indicate that a single note be played softly?

[4] And specifically, how would the composer indicate that a single note within a chord should be played softly?

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(1) Exactly, "until instructed otherwise" - the instruction lasts until the end of the piece if there are no more dynamic markings.

(2) There is no such thing as 'playing normally' - a piece should have a dynamic marking on the very first note. If it doesn't I would probably assume mezzo-forte but this is speculation only, there is no convention. Pieces written before modern dynamics are left entirely up to the individual performer or conductor.

(3) There are a variety of methods to indicate a softer note, such as placing the note in parentheses or making it physically smaller (depending on whether it also has a strike-through, and its placement, the rhythmic interpretation of this differs).

(4) There is no specific formal notation for this that I know of, but I've seen parentheses used for this purpose.

  • 1
    Hmmm... Most of the times that that I've seen parentheses, it has been in keyboard music, where it is used to indicate that a note in a voice in one hand is in unison with a note in a voice in the other hand - in other words, it's good to know that the note is part of the voice, but you don't actually have to play it because your other hand has got it covered. – user16935 Jan 24 '15 at 19:36
  • That's a fair point, I am not well-versed in anything as complex as reading keyboard music beyond a beginner level but I think in general a composer is very likely to be specific if they really want a particular note to be soft in a melodic line and put a bunch of dynamic markings in sequence. In chords I can't really think of any good way of doing it though :\ – Darren Ringer Jan 24 '15 at 19:38
  • Separate the note out as its own voice with its own stem within the chord, and use a smaller note head, perhaps, although I'd probably add a footnote to the score to clarify my intentions if I were doing that. – user16935 Jan 24 '15 at 19:43
  • Schoenberg uses an articulation like a circumflex for a weak note, and I have a handbook that recommends this. Of course, the note has to be put in a different voice to the rest of the chord for this. However I think a note with a distinct dynamic/articulation should not be in the same voice as other notes with other dynamics. – Natalie S Jan 24 '15 at 22:30
  • Do you know where, @Natalie? I've seen him use ˊ and ˘, but that has more to do with specifying downbeats and upbeats that run against the meter. I've also seen him use the marcato caret quite conventionally. – user16935 Jan 25 '15 at 7:14

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