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Let's say I'm singing and there's no dynamic mark at the start. I'll sing at my default "normal" volume. Then there's an mp so i get a bit quieter. If there had been an mf I would have got a bit louder.

If, after the mp, I was supposed to go back to "normal", how would that be marked? From music I've seen, it would go from mp to mf for "a small increase in volume", and that's borne out by this Wikipedia page: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamics_(music)

But there must be something between mp and mf right? After all, that's the volume I would sing at unless told otherwise.

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    No matter how many degrees of dynamic marks there are, people could still wonder what mark expresses the volume between the middle ones, so the question begs itself. Six degrees is simply a number considered enough for most purposes. – Kilian Foth Jun 30 '16 at 13:31
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    If there were an odd number of degrees of dynamic marks then one of them would be the middle one. If there's an even number, there isn't a middle one. – nekomatic Jun 30 '16 at 14:28
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Related: How does one describe the level of playing that is neither piano nor forte?

As I see it, you're assuming that all mp are the same, and that an mp written in a Wagnerian music drama is the same as the mp written in a Britten opera, which is the same as an mp written in a Chopin polonaise, which is the same as the mp written in a transcription to a Beatles song.

In other words, dynamics are relative. If you begin a performance of something without a dynamic marking, your knowledge of musical history and of that particular style will determine exactly what this "normal" dynamic volume (what the linked post calls "canonical") should be. Your own analysis and interpretation of the piece could also very well (indeed: should!) affect this decision.

If, after the mp, I was supposed to go back to "normal", how would that be marked?

This could be done in several ways. The composer could tell you literally; in German one notation would be the statement "Wie am Anfang" ("like at the beginning"). But again, your own musical smarts (and very basic music analysis!) can come into play here: if the music returns to the opening material, I think you would instinctively return to how you played it at the opening, unless you were told otherwise.

  • Thanks Richard. If the conductor/composer did want me to go back to my starting volume, it does seem like there's a missing symbol: yes, of course they could tell me, or I could assume that was what was required, but the whole point of the symbols is to save the conductor having to tell the musicians everything isn't it? If the conductor has to tell them something that could have been communicated with a symbol then it seems like there should be a symbol. – Max Williams Jun 30 '16 at 11:40
  • This is why they are called dynamics ;D – MCMastery Jun 30 '16 at 19:39
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There is a possibility of addressing this question historically... My understanding (which is possibly apocryphal) is that mf came before mp, and originally meant "normal volume". To explain, "forte" has two meanings, in the same way that the English word "loud" can both

  1. Mean "high volume" — as in "play it loud" — and
  2. Refer to the concept of loudness more generally — as in "how loud is this note?", to which an acceptable answer could be "not very", "quiet", "moderately loud", etc.

And so mf was originally taken to mean "with medium loudness"; and mp came about later on, as a sort of reinterpretation of what mf meant. Do I have any proof for this? Nothing but sketchy recollections from a music history class.

Overall, I'd lean towards mf being closer to "medium volume" than mp, although of course what that means is subjective and will vary based on the piece, as others have indicated. I wouldn't think this usage is entirely set in stone, though. For example, Boulez used twelve dynamic markings for serialising dynamics (pppp, ppp, pp, p, quasi p, mp, mf, quasi f, f, ff, fff, ffff), while Mozart used six (pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff); as far as these and similar practices indicate, it doesn't seem like there's a reliable symbol for "exactly medium volume". Even MIDI velocity can't encode something exactly between 0 (minimum) and 127 (maximum), which would be 63.5.

But, this shouldn't worry us too much. If a composer wants to notate dynamics that precisely, they will probably make that clear in the score. Otherwise, it is open to interpretation...

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    And even the MIDI velocity scale can not be understood as an absolute linear scale representing loudness. Different MIDI instruments may respond very differently to note events with identical velocity, hence most keyboards allow you to select various velo curves. – leftaroundabout Jun 30 '16 at 14:38
  • @leftaroundabout - I wonder even, if human hearing actually receives volume on a linear scale, if that makes sense. – Tim Jun 30 '16 at 16:10
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    @leftaroundabout Even the same MIDI instrument responds differently to the same velocity numbers based on the patch/sample being played and of course any secondary volume controls, VCA settings, other CC data, etc., etc. – Todd Wilcox Jun 30 '16 at 16:49
  • @Tim, it definitely doesn't. I mean, the question does make sense, and the answer is that human hearing is very far from linear. Imagine a range of sounds whose waveforms (measuring, say, fluctuations in air pressure near the listener's ear) have the same shape but different amplitude. Then perceived loudness is more like the logarithm of the amplitude than like the amplitude itself. – Gareth McCaughan Jun 30 '16 at 16:51
  • Human hearing is definitely logarithmic. You can see this on stereo systems which have a volume knob with "notches" (ie meaning it can be turned up only be discrete increments) which works in a linear way: if it goes from 1 to 20, say, the experiential difference between, eg 2 and 3 is huge compared to the difference between, eg 18 and 19. This is also why with the decibel scale is logarithmic: if you double the amplitude, you only get an increase of 3 decibels (rather than doubling it). – Max Williams Jan 29 '18 at 8:48
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There isn't one. The composer must specify a dynamic at the outset. Neither mf or mp mean a great deal out of context. I guess mf is a bit nearer to "ordinary" than mp.

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    Hi Laurence, just to clarify: do you mean that the composer must always specify a dynamic at the outset, or just if they're trying to prevent the confusion specified in the original question? – Richard Jun 30 '16 at 11:21
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    Just spent half an hour trawling through a very varied lot of music, from classical through to pop buskers. Seems about half specify, at the outset, only! I'm surprised. However, the OP does specify 'when there's no dynamic mark at the start'. – Tim Jun 30 '16 at 12:03
  • That was my thought as well; in my experience, it's very common for a composer not to specify a dynamic at the outset. – Richard Jun 30 '16 at 12:27
  • If a composer neglects to provide a dynamic I don't think we should over-think this as being anything MORE than neglect. – Laurence Payne Jul 1 '16 at 13:08
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    We aren't told. But that's the composer's fault, not the system's. – Laurence Payne Jan 29 '18 at 10:33
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Seems to me that this could be simply solved if someone invented 'm' to sit happily between mp and mf. It could be short for 'mezzo' meaning half or middle in Italian.

In fact, I have just decided - I am going to use 'm' in my new piece. Of course, being the first time it is being used, I will have to explain on the music what it means, but it does make a lot of sense to me. As a composer, this issue has annoyed me for years.

  • Seems sensible to me, but I'm not an expert on music notation. – Max Williams Jan 29 '18 at 8:44

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