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In an orchestra, various instruments have different "perceived output volume" capabilities and these change across registers. For example, flutes get louder in their higher register, bassoons are louder in their lowest register, while french horns are softer somewhere in the middle of their sound range.

Of course, it is a good practice to write playable pieces :-) However, assuming the piece is playable (together with an appropriate instrument doubling, tripling, etc. if more volume is needed), how should dynamics be marked and understood?

There are (at least) three people involved here:

  • a musician, who is an expert in their instrument,
  • a conductor, who hears the balance of this particular orchestra,
  • a composer, who had an idea for what balance would sound good or achieve a particular effect.

In one extreme dynamic markings could be absolute, as in "how it should sound like from audience perspective". In another extreme I can imagine making the markings being very detailed including changes when the instrument enters its quiet register, as in "how it should be played".

How should dynamics be marked and understood?

  • Is this really an orchestration question, rather than a composition question? Or may it’s both? Or even a bit of interpretation thrown in as well? – Dean Ransevycz Dec 11 '18 at 9:31
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Since dynamic markings do not have an absolute meaning (historically) it's hard to give a simple answer to your question.

Your use of the term absolute is "relative"! Relative to the audience which is not an absolute measure but an opinion (group consensus?). Different people in the audience may perceive the music too loud while other too soft.

Having worked in orchestras I can say that the conductor would often go into the audience seats and come back to adjust our volumes. When an entire section of horns would all play mezzo-piano (in their own mind) the sum of the sound would produce a mezzo-forte or mezzo at the conductor's seat and we would be instructed to play piano or softer to create mp. So, clearly the intent is to produce the effect for an audience. In that type of setting the audience is the most important participant. I would guess that composers are creating form a listener's perspective (i.e. "I want the audience to hear it like this..."). When playing solo the situation is different from a personal physical perspective but the intent is likely the same (to produce a certain sound for the listener).

When I say that dynamics are not absolute what I mean is that piano is simply softer than mezzo and forte, but that does not translate to a fixed decibel level from the point of view of scientific measurement. So if the loudest section of a piece is forte a player may play as loud as possible, but if the loudest section is ff they would need to play the f sections softer than their personal max volume. It is all relative which gives the performer some leeway in interpretation. Again, in an orchestra setting you might hear the conductor say "don't push too hard on the forte section, we have fff forzando at the end".

I think the intent is to produce a sound that is interpreted by the audience. To this end we are trained to try our best to control the instruments so that we can create a constant volume across frequency ranges. So if volume increases with frequency one might be instructed to soften up in the upper register of the instrument and not "overdrive" it. The contra bass is a particular issue as in the lowest register of the instrument it gets quite quiet.

So, your two examples actually feed the same goal, i.e. to produce a consistent volume at the listener's ear.

  • 'Piano is softer than mezzo and forte' is a little confusing! – Tim Dec 9 '18 at 16:47
  • I'm using softer as a synonym for quieter. piano is quieter than mezzo, and quieter than forte, louder than pp, and ppp. – ggcg Dec 9 '18 at 17:39
  • You are spot-on : it doesn't matter how loud you think you are or are supposed to be, the conductor will tell you to adjust until he is happy with the ensemble sound. – Carl Witthoft Dec 10 '18 at 13:42
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Of course it's about what the audience hears. But the composer doesn't have to micro-manage. Tell the player what result you want, leave it to him to work out how to deliver it. (And make sure you've written something he CAN deliver.)

Some say that 'ff' in the strings should be matched with 'f' in the brass. I disagree. To me, 'f' means 'solid', 'ff' means 'exciting'. They aren't decibel levels. The players have ears, and there's a conductor.

For the 95% of 'orchestral' music written today that will never be performed by anything but a computer different rules apply. You may NEED to micro-manage - hairpins every time a phrase rises, carefully graded dynamics between sections etc. Or your software may attempt to do this for you (e.g. the 'expressive' features of NotePerformer). The only rule is to know your tools and use your ears.

Then there's the situation where live performers combine with technology. Henry Mancini would match a group of bass flutes with a 'big band' rhythm section. Impossible without amplification, but perfectly valid with it. And it isn't 'wrong' to score a song with the assumption that the vocalist will have a mic and 'right' to score like an opera.

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