This is a follow-up to this question:

To which notes do dynamics notation apply? (eg. pp)

I asked, when a composer has indicated in the score that the performer play softly (eg. pp), how does the composer then indicate the performer should go back playing "normally".

The answer kindly given by darren-ringer is that there is no such thing as "normal".

This doesn't sit right with me. If "mp" means "slightly softer", and "mf" means slightly louder, then there must be a "canonical" level, a level that is neither soft nor loud. The level that mp is slightly softer than, and that mf is slightly louder than.

I am by no means an expert musician. I've just always assumed there is a "zero" level.

Is Darren right? Is there no such thing as "normal"? If there is, what is this zero-level called, and how would a composer denote it in a score?

  • You are absolutely right, there is no 'zero' level, as unsatisfactory as this may seem. But you have to realize that composers have been able to live without it for many centuries. I have seen 'mezzo-forte' being used in that way, but you're of course right to point out that there's also 'mezzo-piano', and 'normal' should be in between those two.
    – Matt L.
    Jan 25, 2015 at 16:26

4 Answers 4


It's all relative. It will depend on the venue, the size of orchestra, the whim of the conductor. When a 'middle' level is established, then the proper markings come into their own, as in mp will be a little quieter, while mf is a little louder. As far as 'is ff twice as loud as f?' is concerned, please don't ask! Haven't met a conductor with a decibel meter yet...

Upon reflection, this may not answer the question(s). There are no markings unless the composer puts them, so an absolute starting volume cannot actually exist, so back to my 1st para.


In the same way that verbal tempo indications (andante, largo etc.) indicate more than just BPM measured with a clock, verbal dynamics indications mean more than just volume as measured by a decibel meter. "mp" means to approach the music as though it were "quiet music" even if the overall volume is not dissimilar from "mf" -- though the latter could be articulated differently.

Another way to say this: forte doesn't just indicate loud, it indicates forceful and piano doesn't just mean quiet, it means soft or subdued.


There exists a "normal" dynamic. This "normal", however, is not a generic dynamic marking, but a specific marking that fits each piece. For example, a normal dynamic for a Chopin nocturne might be p, but a normal dynamic for a Liszt etude might be f. Basically, the "zero level" for each song is different. If you want to implement a "normal" dynamic, don't just simply use mf or mp, put a dynamic marking based on the song (or on context). If the song doesn't specify a marking, then the "normal" dynamic should work.

If you do think of it as "the middle of mf and mp", then you might get confused. This leads to a thinking of dynamics as a set sound level, just like what Tim and Dave are saying. However, dynamics are not simply just measured in decibels, or else why would musicians use dynamic markings instead of "decibel markings"? Get the point?

Still not happy? Go listen to some beginners play, especially the ones who haven't implemented the concept of "dynamics" in their playings. To some, that can be considered "normal".

Note: There are many ways to say "return to original tempo", but there aren't many ways to say "return to original playing style". I found one German word, "Gewöhnlich", that means "return to previous playing style."

  • I did not mean to suggest that the "zero-level" be a specific decibel level. I am referring to the manner in which the piece would be played if there were no dynamics markings, which of course is different every time it is played. I'm thinking a composer might begin with no dynamics marking to mean "play it however you feel is reasonable". Then there's a section that's marked forte, meaning play this part forcefully. Then after that section, he might want to say "Remember the way you were playing before the forte section? Go back to playing like that". I guess there's no such thing. Jan 25, 2015 at 18:55
  • I suppose I'm thinking there should be an equivalent to a closing tag in HTML. If I write in HTML: "unlimited <bold>human</bold> potential" I'm not specifying the font to be used after </bold>, it just means, go back to the way things were before I said <bold>. I suppose I feel like there should be some way in musical notation to say "A B C <forte>D E F</forte> E C A". Jan 25, 2015 at 19:06

It's up to preference, as noted in other answers.

In my own music, to indicate a "normal" dynamic I would either notate as mf or mp, depending on the nature of the music and whether the piece were to sound more on the emphatic or subdued side.

It's really just another of many situations in music where the conventional notation is imperfect and approximates, so the performer or conductor has to decide. Check out some of the recorded piano rolls of Debussy, then compare to a modern interpretation, and you'll see how much is left to the interpretation.

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