That C-chord on measure 6 of the system, from Grieg Piano Sonata, Op. 7, IV. Finale - Molto Allegro:

Grieg Piano Sonata, IV. Finale - Molto Allegro

Why couldn't they just mark that D7 chord with a p? That G chord is marked pp.

Once you press a key on a piano and hold it, you cannot modify the dynamics. It will just decay by itself after a while. Why do some engravings have a crescendo or decrescendo over the full length of a single half or whole note (usually a chord)? There are not shorter notes in different layers that you could progressively play louder or softer while you hold the long note. It is not a trill or tremolo.

I just ignore these phantom crescendos and decrescendos when I see them in piano music. I can understand if you're playing woodwind, brass, or organ because it's physically possible.


5 Answers 5


There are several situations where this notation makes sense in piano music.

  • There is one note in one part, for example the melody, but several notes in the accompaniment (written on the other staff).
  • There is a "symmetrical" arrangement of a two hairpins showing a crescendo and a decrescendo. One of the hairpins is over a single note, the other over several notes. If only one hairpin was written, there would be nothing to show that the dynamics should have returned to the original level after both hairpins.
  • Even over a single note, a crescendo hairpin shows that the following note should be played louder. You can play many more gradations of dynamics than a the small number of text markings like "f", "mf", "p". (A nice piano exercise is to repeat the same chord say 64 times, in a slow tempo, and make each chord slightly louder or softer than the one before it)

Here are examples of the second and third ones, taken from a standard edition (Breitkopf & Härtel) of Chopin's complete works:

enter image description here enter image description here

But there is also a lot of incompetent music engraving being done, and "published" on the web, by people who don't know actually much about music notation beyond how to use a computer notation program.

  • 2
    It could possibly be an accent, which looks like a short hairpin. Some older editions of music (I think I've seen this in Brahms or Chopin?) sometimes use longish hairpins as accents, which can look confusing! Commented May 31, 2016 at 21:33
  • 3
    I think your final sentence comes across needlessly resentful.
    – Stephan B
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 7:19
  • 2
    @Stephan Truth sometimes hurts! But life's to short to be "resentful" of people who probably don't want to learn anyway. I don't know of any notation software that produces professional quality results "straight out of the box" using the default options. The big commercial or open source apps like Sibelius, Finale, Lilypond, Musescore, etc certainly don't. You could argue the case for Score - though only a few professionals use it, it doesn't even run on modern computer operating systems, and its original programmer (who worked entirely on his own for more than 20 years) died 3 years ago.
    – user19146
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 15:38

There's at least one case of these "impossible" crescendi that definitely isn't a mistake: at the end of the Liszt Sonata, the fifth- to third-last chords are marked pp; crescendo; ppp. The only possible realization is through gesture, and certainly Liszt was aware of this.

  • What a great example! To me it's more about what that final chord should be (a more subito ppp) and that the previous F major chord shouldn't diminuendo(!). Most achieve this affect by cheating – crescendo early from the C major to the F major, which then naturally "sustains" the crescendo effect, and then disproportionately sudden ppp on the final resting chord in B major. Also, as you said, other gestures are often added, such as leaning in through the "crescendo," digging into the keys, and I've even seen trembling the hand.
    – Max Finis
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 14:15
  • Sorry, a minor not C major.
    – Max Finis
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 14:22
  • I usually like to listen to an audio recording and then follow the sheet music. I don't see the performer's hands or bodily expression when they hit and hold that one chord or note, so I can't buy this rationale, though I understand it. Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 1:04
  • @MickaelCaruso: The only way to hear Liszt's music in his day would have been to sit in a room and listen to (and watch) someone play it. Audio recordings were only invented shortly before his death. Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 14:10

I agree with Tab's comment — this is probably an artifact from re-arranging the piece from a wind/other instrument that could indeed alter the volume at will over the duration of a single note.

It could also be a poor way of indicating a transition from one volume to another, with the note being a single intermediary volume.

However, if the marking looks like an extremely short decrescendo on the note then it's actually an accent, indicating that the note should be accented and stand out (typically via a sharp boost in volume compared to the surroundings).



  • Given that many piano pieces are sometimes performed on other kinds of keyboard instruments, some of which do allow dynamics to be applied within a note, the dynamics could help performers on those other instruments. Alternatively, although this is maybe stretching a little, most pianos would in fact make it possible to produce crescendo during a sustained note by gradually opening the cover. I don't know of anyone actually doing such a thing in performance (it would probably require an assistant) but it might sound good if the piano had a mechanism to allow a quick but slam-free reclose.
    – supercat
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 17:10

This is obviously not an answer (can't post photos in comments), but here is an example: from Debussy's Des pas sur la neige, bar 1:

enter image description here

  • In this case, the 2nd note (first E natural) would be played louder than the other two (marginally so), and the sound of the third note in decay would naturally create the decrescendo. Perhaps helpful is the observation that Debussy is signifying the sound he wishes the audience to hear instead of the actions of the pianist him/herself. Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 21:01
  • 1
    I understand how he wants the D softer than the E in beat 1, and the E softer than the F on beat 3. 44 bpm is slow, but I don't think it's slow enough to notice the natural decay, thus, those decrescendos are phantoms! Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 0:52

I agree with Pete on this one: my German/Russian piano teacher would often talk about how composers of the 19th century wanted to treat the piano as if it were not a percussion instrument, and how one of the most difficult but most important things about piano playing is to produce the illusion that the instrument can act like a wind or string instrument, with in-note dynamic changes. Of course this is impossible, but a composer who wanted their piano music to "feel" like orchestral music would naturally think of crescendos and decrescendos in this way, and expect a pianist to compensate through gesture or "cheating".

  • Note: as far as I can tell, this is limited to Romantic era classical music. Jazz, pop, new age, etc., don't have this expectation of pianos and I would seriously question the typesetter if I saw a crescendo or decrescendo on one note in those styles of music.
    – Chandrew
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 18:24

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