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When I'm playing on a piano I can read which keys I should press and when. But there seems to be no indication how loud each sound should be in relation to another. Why?

It seems to me that this important information is lost and it's open to interpretation. As a result the music played can be very different from what the author intended because loudness is a whole dimension of expression. There would me much less interpretation if loudness was indicated at least relatively. I do so for my own purposes, I draw a rising and falling line over notes. Am I missing something?

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    There's lots. Dynamic marks (p, mp, mf, f, etc), cresc./dim., hairpins, accents...
    – MattPutnam
    Apr 23, 2018 at 14:17
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    Just curious. Where are you seeing piano music which doesn’t include markings relating to volume?
    – AJFaraday
    Apr 23, 2018 at 15:47
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    @GeneralNuisance That's because most of the instruments used in Bach's time had little capability of dynamic expression; recorders were the main woodwind instrument, and the harpsichord had not yet been replaced by the piano.
    – Chromatix
    Apr 24, 2018 at 2:45
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    Sometimes it depends on the source of the sheet musics. For officially published classical piano books, I don't think I've ever seen a sheet without dynamics at all. But fan made sheet musics usually only care about notes, ignoring many things... including the dynamics.
    – Andrew T.
    Apr 24, 2018 at 4:51
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    Would downvote if I could, this question shows to me a clear lack of research effort. Apr 24, 2018 at 7:55

4 Answers 4

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There are actually many markings in music notation that have to do with dynamics. Whether it is setting the overall level, such as Piano (p = quiet) or fortissimo(ff = loud), or a crescendo (<) or decrescendo (>).

Maybe you just haven't come across these yet. If there are no markings on a piece of music it is up to the performer to interpret the music accordingly.

A more complete list of dynamic markings can be found on Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamics_(music)

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There are lots of indications -

  • explicit loudness markings (from ppp, pianississimo - very very soft - to fff - fortississimo - very very loud).
  • crescendo and diminuendo marks (which can be textual - 'cresc', 'dim' - or be in the form of the 'hairpin' symbols)
  • dynamic accents, showing that a particular note should be louder in volume - which can be marked with symbols, or textually (e.g. sfz)
  • The time signature, which gives an indication as to which beats of the bar should be stressed more (answers here and here, as well as elsewhere, have further details)
  • textual directions as to the general feel with which the music can be played ('con brio') or applying more specifically to the level of vigor ('smorzando', 'incalzando')

However, when you say...

Seems to me that this important information is ...open to interpretation

You're right! Almost everything on a standard score - rhythm, pitch, timbre, volume - is somewhat open to interpretation. That's part of the beauty of it -it opens the door to the artistry of the performer.

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    fff does not always mean “very very loud”. When written in e.g. a flute part, it's an instruction for the conductor to tell the trumpets that the f they have at that spot should maybe be only mf after all... Apr 23, 2018 at 16:33
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    @leftaroundabout Sure, but it might be a matter of available players. Some composers wrote with orchestras of specific compositions, skill levels, and instrumentation in mind. If a composer may say something like "Ignore the written fff play mf at most" to a brass section, for example, it might be because the brass section is too numerous for the original design of the piece. It at the very least is influenced by the characteristic of the sections and also whether there is a soloist, and how loud their instrument is.
    – psosuna
    Apr 23, 2018 at 18:51
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    Any trumpet player will tell you mf stands for megaforte.
    – RedSonja
    Apr 24, 2018 at 10:32
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    @RedSonja brass players are a bunch of mfs in general... Apr 24, 2018 at 10:34
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Since you are a relative newcomer to written music I assume, here are some thing you should note.

First, for graphical crescendo and diminuendo marks, use hairpins, as described in the already linked Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamics_(music)#Changes

Second, much of the keyboard music we know and love was originally written for the harpsichord and the organ, which were incapable of any dynamic variations. Modern organs may have a global "volume knob" (expression pedal) and loudness settings for each register, but historical organs were on and off, and harpsichords still are, by design. The piano (originally called fortepiano) was invented much later and as you can guess from its name, dynamic variation capability was its primary "selling point". Therefore, any dynamic markings in keyboard music written before some mid 1700's is an invention of the arranger.

Which brings are to the third point: exact intentions of a composer cannot be known unless you can just go and ask the composer, and even then composers may be delighted by interpretations radically different from their own.

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  • Nitpick: the fortepiano was a less advanced precursor to the modern pianoforte.
    – Chromatix
    Apr 24, 2018 at 2:47
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    even then composers may be delighted by interpretations radically different from their own: or not. Paul Hindemith once asked a conductor who invited him to the premiere of one of his works: “Do you think you could possibly play it any better than I hear it in my own head?”
    – aeismail
    Apr 24, 2018 at 7:38
  • @Chromatix that modern terminological distinction does not mean that it is incorrect to say that the "piano" was originally called the "fortepiano." (The term "pianoforte," furthermore, dates back at least as far as 1765, when it was used, for example, in an edition of J. C. Bach's sonatas.) Dmbaturin: the swell box was invented in the 18th century (but apparently slow to catch on).
    – phoog
    May 13 at 6:42
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TL;DR

It's simply impractical to unambiguously denote the music in such detail. Because even with the indication that one note should be louder and another quieter, it immediately begs the question of "how much?".

It's worth noting that many of the world's music traditions are passed along orally/aurally, which allows for a much more exacting reproduction of "how a piece should be performed" than leaving it to written instructions alone.


More...

This is an insightful observation about the limitations of written music: there is a huge amount of information left out and therefore open to interpretation. Not only can loudness/softness change from note-to-note, but so can tempo or articulation.

Even when indications are given, they are ambiguous. A passage is marked forte, but exactly how loud is that? Should that forte be a specific decibel level? Should the note decay after the initial attack? At what pace should the decay happen? And what if the room acoustics change? And is forte in one part of a piece the same as forte in another part? How much louder than forte is fortissimo?

Sheet music, ultimately, is only a guide to what to play, which is why many musicians research pieces to get indications of how the composer performed them, or how people with direct contact with the composer (e.g., students) played it.

This "problem" of leaving so much open to interpretation has been a preoccupation for many composers. Early music was often understood as just a sketch, with musicians expected to improvise around it. By the time of Bach, composers were beginning to notate exactly what they wanted to be played.

Beethoven is credited with being the first composer to greatly emphasize the placement of specific expressive markings, with the idea that they were to be performed "exactly".

In the 20th century, composers of the "total serialism" school made an attempt at absolute control over every aspect of the music. On of the approaches most prominent composers, Pierre Boulez, would later acknowledge that the music didn't work, though going through the experiments was necessary — if only to discover that it didn't work.

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  • "Not only can loudness/softness change from note to note": indeed, it can change within a single note.
    – phoog
    May 13 at 8:29

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